At the Crossroads of Europe
Despite its neutral image, Switzerland has a fascinating history of external and internal conflicts. Its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe made it an irresistible object to empires since Roman times. There's even evidence that prehistoric tribes struggled to hold tiny settlements along the great Rhône and Rhine rivers.
The first identifiable occupants were the Celts, who entered the alpine regions from the west. The Helvetii, a Celtic tribe, inhabited a portion of the country that became known as Helvetia. The tribe was defeated by Julius Caesar when it tried to move into southern France in 58 B.C. The Romans conquered the resident tribes in 15 B.C., and peaceful colonization continued until A.D. 455 when the barbarians invaded, followed later by the Christians. Charlemagne (742-814) conquered the small states, or cantons, that occupied the area now known as Switzerland and incorporated them into his realm, which later became the Holy Roman Empire. In later years, Switzerland became a battleground for some of the major ruling families of Europe, especially the Houses of Savoy, the Habsburgs, and the Zähringen.
Birth of the Confederation
The Swiss have always guarded their territory jealously. In 1291, an association of three cantons formed the Perpetual Alliance -- the nucleus of today's Swiss Confederation. To be rid of the grasping Habsburgs, the Confederation broke free of the Holy Roman Empire in 1439. It later signed a treaty with France, a rival power, agreeing to provide France with mercenary troops. This led to Swiss fighting Swiss in the early 16th century. The agreement was ended around 1515, and in 1516, the confederates declared their complete neutrality.
The Protestant Reformation created bitter conflicts in Switzerland between those cantons defending papal Catholicism and those embracing the new creed of Protestantism. Ulrich Zwingli, who like Martin Luther had converted from the Catholic faith, led the Swiss Reformation, beginning in 1519. He translated the Bible into Swiss-German and reorganized church rituals. The Protestant movement was spurred by the 1536 arrival in Geneva of John Calvin, who was fleeing Catholic reprisals in France.
Geneva became one of the most rigidly puritanical strongholds of Protestantism in Europe, fervently committed to its self-perceived role as the New Jerusalem. The spread of Calvinism led to the coining of the French term "Huguenot," a corruption of the Swiss word Eidgenosse (confederate).
After Zwingli died in a religiously motivated battle in 1531, the Swiss spirit of compromise came into play and a peace treaty was signed, allowing each region the right to practice its own faith. Today, 55% of the Swiss define themselves as Protestant, 43% as Roman Catholic, and 2% as members of other faiths.
Despite the deep divisions within the confederation created by the Reformation, the confederates managed to stay together by adopting a pragmatic approach to their religious and political differences. Such an approach to national issues, based on compromise, remains one of the cornerstones of the Swiss political system. Later, during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), the Swiss remained neutral while civil wars flared around them.
Industrialization & Political Crises
Turning to economic development, 18th-century Switzerland became the most industrialized nation in Europe. But rapid population growth created social problems, widening the division between the new class of wealth and the rest of the population. Uprisings occurred, but it was only after the French Revolution that they had an effect, causing the Swiss Confederation to collapse in 1798.
Under French guardianship, progressives moved to centralize the constitution of the Swiss Republic. This pull toward centralization clashed with the federalist traditions of the semi-independent cantons. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte established a confederation with 19 cantons, but when he fell from power, Swiss conservatives revived the old order. Much of the social progress resulting from the Napoleonic period was reversed and the aristocrats had their former privileges restored to them.
Current Swiss boundaries were fixed at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. In 1848, a federal constitution was adopted and Bern established as the capital.
The federal state, by centralizing responsibility for such matters as Customs and the minting of coins, created conditions favorable to economic progress. The construction of a railway network and the establishment of a banking system also contributed to Switzerland's development. Both facilitated the country's export industry, consisting chiefly of textiles, pharmaceuticals, and machinery.
Neutrality through Two World Wars
During World War I (1914-18), Switzerland maintained its neutrality from the general European conflict but experienced serious social problems at home. As purchasing power fell and unemployment rose dramatically, civil unrest grew. One cause of bitterness was that Swiss men conscripted into the army automatically lost their jobs. In 1918, workers, dissatisfied with their conditions, called a general strike, the first and only one in Switzerland's history. The strike led to the introduction of proportional representation in elections. In the 1920s, a 48-hour workweek was introduced and unemployment insurance was improved.
In 1920, Switzerland joined the League of Nations and provided space for the organization's headquarters at Geneva. As a neutral member, however, it exempted itself from any military action that the League might take.
In August 1939, on the eve of World War II (1939-45), Switzerland, fearing an invasion, ordered a mobilization of its defense forces. But an invasion never came, even though Switzerland was surrounded by Germany and its allies. It proved convenient to all the belligerents to have, in the middle of a continent in conflict, a neutral nation through which they could deal with each other. It also indicated to Hitler that it was determined to defend itself, and convinced Nazi Germany that any invader would pay in blood for every foot of ground gained in Switzerland.
The sense of neutrality remains so strong that even as recently as 1986, the Swiss voted, in a national referendum, against membership in the United Nations. Switzerland, however, did join the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO), contributing to its Third World development funds.
Switzerland's political isolationism of the postwar years coincided with a period of unprecedented financial and industrial growth. Many social-welfare programs were introduced, unemployment was virtually wiped out, and the country moved into an enviable position of wealth and prosperity.
Into the Future
In 1992, the Swiss rejected the opportunities offered by the economic integration of Europe, preferring their traditional isolation and neutrality. A referendum in December 1992 vetoed the government's attempt to seek full membership in the E.U. But the vote was close: 50.3% against and 49.7% in favor.
All six French-speaking cantons backed the plan, while all but one of the German-speaking cantons opposed it. This revealed a rather dangerous split in a multicultural country's aspirations and political hopes. The plan for European integration was favored not only by the government but also by bankers, labor leaders, intellectuals, and most industrialists. However, it was overwhelmingly rejected by the small rural communities that form much of the Swiss landscape.
In 1996 and 1997, headlines proclaimed Switzerland a banker for Nazi gold. In July 1997, teams from three major U.S. accounting firms moved into 10 Swiss banks to begin an independent inquiry into funds that may have belonged to Holocaust victims.
The Clinton administration accused Switzerland of prolonging World War II by acting as banker to Nazi Germany. But authorities in Bern quickly rejected the accusation as "unsupported" and termed Washington's assessment "one-sided." Reeling from these charges, Switzerland faced new accusations that its wartime weapons industry profited from -- and favored -- Hitler's Germany in arms trading worth millions of dollars.
The Swiss government ordered its banks to preserve any remaining records of their dealings with Nazi Germany. But in January 1997, a Swiss security guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland halted the destruction of documents from the wartime era, including some that appeared to deal with the forced auctions of property in Berlin during the 1930s.
In 1998, three Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors, hoping to settle the claims of thousands of survivors whose families lost assets in World War II.
In May 2000 Swiss voters, by a 67% majority, broke with their long-held isolationism and approved agreements with the E.U. that will link this tiny alpine nation more closely with its neighbors. The government hoped that the accords will be a first step toward eventual Swiss membership in the union.
In March 2002, by a slender margin, neutral Switzerland agreed in a countrywide vote to leave behind decades of isolationism and become a member of the United Nations. The referendum passed by a ratio of 54.6% for it and 45.4% against it. The government lobbied hard for Switzerland to shed its go-it-alone stance and become the 190th member of the global body.
Neutral, peace-loving Switzerland a base for Al Qaeda? Impossible, you say. In 2004, the attorney general of Switzerland, Valentin Roschacher, announced that his country has been used as a financial and logistical base by associates of Al Qaeda for plotting terror against the West. Thirteen suspects were arrested, each involved in Islamic "charity" work.
Switzerland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first voting rights for women in 2007. To show how far women have come since they got the vote, for the first time in Swiss history the country elected a female president, Micheline Calmy-Rey, and a woman speaker of Parliament, Christine Egerszegi-Obrist.
In 2010, women made even greater strides. For the first time, Swiss women captured most of the seats in the country's seven-member executive branch. The tilt in the balance of power came when the parliament in Bern voted Social Democrat Cabinet member lawmaker Simonette Sommaruga into the cabinet. This female majority made Switzerland the fifth country in the world that year (2010) to have more women than men in the cabinet. These percentages challenged to some degree that traditional notion of a staid and conservative Switzerland being for the most part "governed by committee," especially since women in Switzerland have recently been polled as generally more liberal than their male counterparts.
New elections in late 2011 will probably focus on economic issues and fiscal policies as Switzerland reacts to the financial crises affecting the banking systems of the U.S. and the rest of Europe.