The earliest known tribes of the area were members of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. The La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age from around 450 BC, possibly under some influence from the Greek and Etruscan civilizations. One of the most important tribal groups in the Swiss region was the Helvetii. In 15 BC, Tiberius I, who was destined to be the second Roman emperor, and his brother, Drusus, conquered the Alps, integrating them into the Roman Empire. The area occupied by the Helvetii – the namesakes of the later Confoederatio Helvetica – first became part of Rome’s Gallia Belgica province and then of its Germania Superior province, while the eastern portion of modern Switzerland was integrated into the Roman province of Raetia.
In the Early Middle Ages, from the fourth century AD, the western extent of modern-day Switzerland was part of the territory of the Kings of the Burgundians. The Alemanni settled the Swiss plateau in the fifth century AD and the valleys of the Alps in the eighth century AD, forming Alemannia. Modern-day Switzerland was therefore then divided between the kingdoms of Alemannia and Burgundy. The entire region became part of the expanding Frankish Empire in the sixth century, following Clovis I’s victory over the Alemanni at Tolbiac in 504 AD, and later Frankish domination of the Burgundians.
By 561 AD, the Merovingian king Guntram, Clovis I’s grandson, had inherited the Frankish kingdom of Burgundy, which stretched east nearly as far as the Rhine. East of this, the Alemanni were ruled under a nominal dukedom within Frankia, as the Franks filled the vacuum caused by the declining western reach of Roman Byzantium. By this time Frankia was beginning to form the tripartite character that would characterise the rest of its history. The territories were subdivided into Neustria in the west (referred to simply as Frankia at the time; the name Neustria did not appear in writing until some 80 years later), Austrasia in the northeast and Burgundy.
Throughout the rest of the sixth and early seventh centuries AD the Swiss regions continued under Frankish hegemony, with the Franks largely occupied with infighting about issues of succession amongst the Frankish sub-kingdoms (whose kings were close blood relatives). In 632 AD, following the death of Chlothar II, the entire Frankish realm was briefly united under Dagobert, who is described as the last Merovingian king able to exercise real power. Under Dagobert, the Austrasians agitated for self-governance as a means of countering the influence of the Neustrians, who dominated the royal court. Dagobert was forced by the strong Austrasian aristocracy to appoint his infant son, Sigebert III, as sub-king of Austrasia in 633 AD. The weakness of the realm became clear, and this led to consideration of the risks and benefits of rebellion by those subject to the Franks. After Sigebert III suffered a military defeat at the hands of Radulf, King of Thuringia, in 640 AD, the Alemanni also revolted against Frankish rule. The ensuing period of Alemanni independence lasted more or less continuously until the middle of the eighth century AD.
Mayors of the Palace had been appointed by the Frankish kings as court officials since the early seventh century AD to act as mediators between the king and the people. However, following Dagobert’s death in 639 AD, with infants on the throne in both Neustria (Clovis II—a babe in arms in 639 AD) and Austrasia (Sigebert III—about four years old in 639 AD), these court appointees assumed greater power, eventually to such an extent that they ended the rule of the Merovingian monarchs and took over the Frankish throne themselves. The first step was taken by the Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia, Grimoald I, who persuaded the childless Sigebert III to adopt his own son, Childebert, as heir to the throne.
Meanwhile in the Neustrian palace, the Mayors of the Palace, Erchinoald and his successor Ebroin, were likewise increasing their hold on power behind Clovis II and his successor Chlothar III. Ebroin reunited the Frankish kingdom by defeating and removing Childebert (and Grimoald) from Austrasia in 661 AD.
Chlothar III’s younger brother, Childeric II, was then installed as king of the Austrasians, and together they ruled the empire. When Chlothar III died in 673 AD, Childeric II became king of the entire realm, ruling from Austrasia, until he was assassinated two years later by members of the Neustrian elite. After his death, Theuderic III, son of Clovis II, ascended to the throne, ruling from Neustria. He and his Mayor of the Palace, Berthar, declared war on Austrasia, which was ruled by Dagobert II, son of Sigebert III, and Pepin of Herstal (Pepin II), the Arnulfing Mayor of Austrasia. Theuderic and Berthar were defeated by Pepin at the Battle of Tertry in 687 AD, after which Pepin was appointed the sole mayor of all Frankia, nominating himself as duke and prince of all the Franks. Pepin was the product of the marriage of two very powerful houses—that of the Pippinids and that of the Arnulfings. His success at Tertry was to mark the end of Merovingian power.
Pepin again tasted military success in his campaign to bring the Frisians, of Europe’s north coast, back under Frankish control. Between 709 AD and 712 AD he fought a similar campaign against the Alemanni, including those within the borders of present-day Switzerland, and succeeded in reimposing Frankish rule, for the first time since the Alemannic revolt of 640 AD. However Frankish control of this and other outlying areas was again lost when a Frankish civil war of succession followed Pepin’s death in 714 AD.
The war was a continuation of the ageless Neustrian–Austrasian rivalry. Pepin’s illegitimate son, Charles Martel (who was the son of Pepin’s mistress Alpaida), had been proclaimed mayor of Austrasia by the Austrasian nobility in defiance of Pepin’s widow, Plectrude, who preferred that her 8-year-old grandson, Theudoald, be appointed. Neustria invaded Austrasia under Chilperic II, who had been appointed by the Neustrians without the agreement of the rest of the Frankish peoples. The turning point of the war came at the Battle of Ambleve, when Charles Martel, using brilliant and unconventional tactics, defeated combined Neustrian and Frisian forces under Chilperic II and Mayor Ragenfrid. Charles struck when the Neustrians were marching home after triumphing at Cologne over Plectrude and the child Theudoald.
By 717 AD, Charles had confirmed his supremacy, with victory over the Neustrians at the Battle of Vincy, thereby marking the beginning of Carolingian rule over the Frankish empire.
After 718 AD, Charles, who was a brilliant commander, embarked upon a series of wars to strengthen Frankish dominion over Western Europe. This included bringing the Alemanni back under Frankish hegemony, and even, in the 720s AD, forcing some Alemannic elements to participate in his wars against their eastern neighbours, the Bavarians.
Alemannia, however, remained restless, with Duke Lantfrid in the late 720s AD expressing independence by issuing revisions of the laws of the Alemans. Charles invaded again in 730 AD and subjugated the Alemanni by force.
Charles is perhaps best known for stopping the Arab advance into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, in a military stand that arguably halted Islamic expansionism into the European homeland.
When Charles died in 741 AD, the dominion over Frankia was divided between his two sons from his first marriage, namely Pepin the Short and Carloman. Carloman was given Austrasia, Alemannia and Thuringia, while Pepin took control of Neustria, Provence and Burgundy (including present-day western Switzerland).
By 743 AD, Carloman was vowing to impose a greater degree of control over Alemannia. This resulted ultimately in the arrest, trial and execution of several thousand Alemannic noblemen at the blood court at Cannstatt in 746 AD.
Carloman retired to a monastery in 747 AD, leaving Pepin to assume the Frankish crown (after a vote of nobles) in 751 AD. Pepin further strengthened his position by forming an alliance, in 754 AD, with Pope Stephen II, who then came all the way to Paris to anoint him king in a ceremony at St Denis’s Basilica. In return Pepin subdued the Lombards and donated the Exarchate of Ravenna as well as captured territory around Rome to the church. This was a turning point in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and Western Europe, as it foreshadowed later events under Charlemagne that led to formation of the Holy Roman Empire. It is claimed that Pope Stephen II tabled the forged Donation of Constantine during his negotiations with Pepin. The Donation is a falsified imperial order purported to have been issued by Constantine to give to Pope Sylvester I and all his successors dominion over not only the Western Roman Empire but also all of Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace and Rome.
Upon Pepin’s death in 768 AD, the Frankish empire was passed to his sons Charles and Carloman I. Carloman withdrew to a monastery and died shortly afterwards, leaving Charles, later known as the legendary Charlemagne, the sole ruler of the Franks. Charles expanded Frankish sovereignty to include the Saxons, Bavarians, and the Lombards in northern Italy, and he expanded the empire into today’s Austria and parts of Croatia. He offered the papacy the promise of enduring Frankish protection, and he patronized monastic centers of learning.
Charles therefore emerged as the leader of Western Christendom.
By 1200 AD, the Swiss plateau comprised the dominions of the houses of Savoy, Zähringer, Habsburg and Kyburg. When the Kyburg dynasty fell in 1264 AD, the Habsburgs under King Rudolph I (emperor in 1273) extended its territory to the eastern Swiss plateau.
Old Swiss Confederacy
The Old Swiss Confederacy was an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps. The Confederacy facilitated management of common interests (free trade) and ensured peace on the important mountain trade routes. The Federal Charter of 1291 agreed between the rural communes of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden is considered the confederacy’s founding document; even though similar alliances are likely to have existed decades earlier.
By 1353 the three original cantons had joined with the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the Lucerne, Zürich and Berne city states to form the “Old Confederacy” of eight states that existed until the end of the fifteenth century. The expansion led to increased power and wealth for the federation. By 1460, the confederates controlled most of the territory south and west of the Rhine to the Alps and the Jura mountains. particularly after victories against the Habsburgs (Battle of Sempach, Battle of Näfels), over Charles the Bold of Burgundy during the 1470s, and the success of the Swiss mercenaries. The Swiss victory in the Swabian War against the Swabian League of Emperor Maximilian I in 1499 amounted to de facto independence within the Holy Roman Empire.
The Old Swiss Confederacy had acquired a reputation of invincibility during these earlier wars, but expansion of the federation suffered a setback in 1515 with the Swiss defeat in the Battle of Marignano. This ended the so-called “heroic” epoch of Swiss history. The success of Zwingli’s Reformation in some cantons led to inter-cantonal wars in 1529 and 1531 (Kappeler Kriege). It wasn’t until more than one hundred years after these internal wars that, in 1648, under the Treaty of Westphalia, European countries recognised Switzerland’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality (ancien régime).
During the Early Modern period of Swiss history, the growing authoritarianism of the patriciate families combined with a financial crisis in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War led to the Swiss peasant war of 1653. In the background to this struggle, the conflict between Catholic and Protestant cantons persisted, erupting in further violence at the battles of Villmergen in 1656 and 1712.
In 1798 the armies of the French Revolution conquered Switzerland and imposed a new unified constitution. This centralised the government of the country and effectively abolished the cantons. The new regime, known as the Helvetic Republic, was highly unpopular. It had been imposed by a foreign invading army and destroyed centuries of tradition, making Switzerland nothing more than a French satellite state. The fierce French suppression of the Nidwalden Revolt in September of 1798 is an example of the suppressing presence of the French army and the local population’s resistance to the occupation.
When war broke out between France and its rivals, Russian and Austrian forces invaded Switzerland. In 1803 Napoleon organised a meeting of the leading Swiss politicians from both sides in Paris. The result was the Act of Mediation which largely restored Swiss autonomy and introduced a Confederation of 19 cantons. Henceforth much of Swiss politics would concern balancing the cantons’ tradition of self-rule with the need for a central government.
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality. The treaty marked the last time that Switzerland fought in an international conflict. The treaty also allowed Switzerland to increase its territory, with the admission of the cantons of Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva – this was also the last time Switzerland’s territory expanded.
The restoration of the power to the patriciate was only temporary. After a period of unrest with repeated violent clashes such as the Züriputsch of 1839, civil war broke out between some of the Catholic and most of the other cantons in 1847 (the Sonderbundskrieg). The war lasted for less than a month, causing fewer than 100 casualties; most of which were through friendly fire. However minor the Sonderbundskrieg seems to be when compared with other European riots and wars in the 19th century, it nevertheless had a major impact on both the psychology and the society of the Swiss and of Switzerland. The war made all Swiss understand the need for unity and strength towards its European neighbours. Swiss people from all strata of society, whether Catholic, Protestant, or from the liberal or conservative current, realised that the cantons would profit more if their economic and religious interest were merged. Credit to those who favored the power of the cantons (the Sonderbund Kantone), the national assembly was divided among an upper house (the Swiss Council of States) and a lower house (the National Council of Switzerland). Thus, the interests of the Federationalists were accounted for. Switzerland adopted a federal constitution and the use of referenda (mandatory for any amendment of this constitution) in 1848. This constitution provided for a central authority while leaving the cantons the right to self-government on local issues. In 1850 the Swiss franc became the Swiss single currency. The constitution was amended extensively in 1874 in order to take into account the rise in population and the Industrial Revolution. It introduced the facultative referendum for laws at the federal level. It also established federal responsibility for defence, trade, and legal matters.
In 1891, the constitution was revised with unusually strong elements of direct democracy, which remain unique even today. Since then, continued political, economic, and social improvement has characterised Swiss history.
Switzerland was not invaded during either of the World Wars. During World War I, Switzerland was home to Vladimir Illych Ulyanov (Lenin) and he remained there until 1917. Swiss neutrality was seriously questioned by the Grimm-Hoffmann Affair in 1917, but it was short-lived. In 1920, Switzerland joined the League of Nations, and in 1963 the Council of Europe.
During World War II, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the Germans, but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was able to remain independent through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany, and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion. Attempts by Switzerland’s small Nazi party to cause annexation by Germany failed miserably. The Swiss press vigorously criticised the Third Reich, often infuriating its leadership. Under General Henri Guisan, a massive mobilisation of militia forces was ordered. The Swiss military strategy was changed from one of static defence at the borders to protect the economic heartland, to a strategy of organised long-term attrition and withdrawal to strong, well-stockpiled positions high in the Alps known as the Réduit. Switzerland was an important base for espionage by both sides in the conflict and often mediated communications between the Axis and Allied powers.
Switzerland’s trade was blockaded by both the Allies and by the Axis. Economic cooperation and extension of credit to the Third Reich varied according to the perceived likelihood of invasion, and the availability of other trading partners. Concessions reached a peak after a crucial rail link through Vichy France was severed in 1942, leaving Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis. Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned over 300,000 refugees, 104,000 of which were foreign troops, interned according to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers outlined in the Hague Conventions. 60,000 of the refugees were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these, 26,000 to 27,000 were Jews. However, strict immigration and asylum policies as well as the financial relationships with Nazi Germany raised controversy. During the war, the Swiss Air Force engaged aircraft of both sides, shooting down 11 intruding Luftwaffe planes in May and June 1940, then forcing down other intruders after a change of policy following threats from Germany; over 100 Allied bombers and their crews were interned during the war. During 1944-45, Allied bombers mistakenly bombed the Swiss towns of Schaffhausen (killing 40 people), Stein am Rhein, Vals, Rafz (18 killed), and notoriously on 4 March 1945 both Basel and Zürich were bombed.
Women were granted the right to vote in the first Swiss cantons in 1959, at the federal level in 1971, and after resistance, in the last canton Appenzell Innerrhoden in 1990. After suffrage at the federal level women quickly rose in political significance, with the first woman on the seven member high council being Elisabeth Kopp from 1984–1989. The first female president was Ruth Dreifuss, elected in 1998 to become president during 1999. (The Swiss president is elected every year from those among the seven member high council). The second female president is Micheline Calmy-Rey who held the 2007 Swiss high office. She is originally from the French-speaking western area of canton Valais (Wallis in German). She is presently joined on the seven member cabinet/high council by two other women, Doris Leuthard, from the canton of Aargau and Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, from the canton of Graubünden.
In 1979 areas from inside the previous borders in the canton of Bern attained independence from the Bernese, forming the new canton of Jura. On 18 April 1999 the Swiss population and the cantons voted in favour of a completely revised federal constitution.
In 2002 Switzerland became a full member of the United Nations, leaving the Vatican as the last widely recognized state without full UN membership. Switzerland is a founding member of the EFTA, but is not a member of the European Economic Area. An application for membership in the European Union was sent in May 1992, but not advanced since the EEA was rejected in December 1992 when Switzerland was the only country to launch a referendum on the EEA. There have since been several referenda on the EU issue, with a mixed reaction to these from the population, the membership application has been frozen. Nonetheless, Swiss law is gradually being adjusted to conform with that of the EU and the government has signed a number of bilateral agreements with the European Union. Switzerland, together with Liechtenstein, has been completely surrounded by the EU since Austria’s membership in 1995. On 5 June 2005, Swiss voters agreed by a 55% majority to join the Schengen treaty, a result that was regarded by EU commentators as a sign of support by Switzerland, a country that is traditionally perceived as independent, neutral, or isolationist.