Despite its neutral image, Switzerland has a fascinating history of external and internal conflicts. Its strategic location 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. That 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 Austrian Habsburgs, and the Zähringen.

A Nation of Four Languages

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About 65 percent of Swiss residents speak German, but if you think you’ll be able to understand them because you took a few semesters of the language in college, think again. Even native speakers from Germany and Austria need subtitles to understand the throaty Swiss-German language, aka Schwyzerdütsch. And it gets worse: Swiss-German dialects vary from canton to canton, so even if you understand people in Zurich, you might encounter difficulties in Basel. Thankfully, most German-speaking Swiss are also fluent in the “standard” form of the language, Hochdeutsch, as well as a fair amount of English.

Twenty-two percent of the population speaks Swiss French, which only differs from normal French in terms of a few minor vocab changes (the word for “breakfast” in Switzerland means “lunch” in France, for example). It’s a similar situation with the 9 percent of Swiss who speak Italian, most of whom live in the southern Ticino region.

A tiny minority of Swiss—about 60,000 inhabitants of the southeastern Engadine and Surselva valleys—speak Romansh, a “vulgar Latin” dialect that has its origins in the Roman takeover of Rhaetia (the modern-day Grisons). In an effort to keep the fading language alive, schools in those valleys teach young children exclusively in Romansh, adding in German as they get older. But beyond a stray “Allegra” or “bun di” (both forms of “hello”), visitors are unlikely to hear much of it.

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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 rid itself 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 the French 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 Reformation

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The Protestant Reformation created bitter conflicts in Switzerland between the 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 pragmatism and compromise came into play and a peace treaty was signed, allowing each region the right to practice its own faith. Today, 38 percent of the Swiss define themselves as Roman Catholic, while 27 percent identify as Protestant. (Twenty-one percent, meanwhile, are self-professed nonbelievers.)

Industrialization & Political Crises

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By the 18th century, Switzerland had become the most industrialized nation in Europe. But rapid population growth widened the division between the new wealthy upper class and the rest of the population, creating social strife. 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 attempted to centralize the constitution of the Swiss Republic, a move that 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, and much of the social progress resulting from the Napoleonic period was reversed.

Current Swiss boundaries were fixed at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and in 1848, all cantons were united under a federal constitution, which established the concept of Swiss nationhood for the first time. Bern was named the new capital, and neutrality was enshrined into national law.

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With its identity issues resolved, Switzerland’s economy grew by leaps and bounds. The construction of a railway network and the establishment of a federal banking system led to a booming export industry, chiefly of textiles, pharmaceuticals, and machinery. And the first English tourists began vacationing in the Alps, to take in the restorative air and indulge in a fashionable new pastime that involved sliding downhill on wooden planks.

Neutrality through Two World Wars

Switzerland maintained its state of armed neutrality throughout World War I (1914–18), drawing in intellectual exiles like Lenin, who attempted to foment revolution in Zurich and Bern before returning to his native Russia in 1917. Dadaism was born around this time, fuelled by the German and French expat artists who coalesced around Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire. But while creativity and thought thrived, 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.

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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. It proved convenient to all the belligerents to have a neutral nation in the middle of a continent in conflict. And so the country became an important base for espionage and communications during the war, while making a pretty penny off both the Nazis, who sold Switzerland 1.3 billion francs' worth of gold, and the Jews who’d stashed their assets in Swiss banks prior to the Holocaust.

Emerging from the war unscathed, Switzerland spent the ensuing years in a blissful honeymoon 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.

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Neutral but Armed

“Aggressively neutral” sounds like a contradiction, but that’s Switzerland’s policy in a nutshell: Since the Swiss Armed Forces were established in 1848, the country has been prepared to send its army into action at a moment’s notice. Today, all able-bodied men over age 18 must serve at least 260 days in the armed forces, including 18 weeks of boot camp. Women aren’t obligated to serve, but can volunteer.

Each conscript is given a gun, which they’re allowed to keep at home after their training. With approximately one firearm for every four people, Switzerland’s gun ownership rate is among the highest in western Europe (though still far lower than that of the United States), but its rate of gun-related crime is relatively low. Still, at time of writing, the country had just voted to accept stricter gun controls in line with E.U. regulations—much to the dismay of its far-right Swiss People’s Party, which had campaigned passionately against “disarming Swiss households.” 

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Into the Future

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Switzerland had to reckon with its wartime dealings. At the end of 1996, following U.S. investigations, the country acknowledged for the first time that it had made a profit from gold trading with the Nazi regime. 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; a year later, three Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust survivors, hoping to settle the claims of thousands whose families lost assets in World War II.

Switzerland’s entry into the European Union was shot down in 1992 by a slim majority of 50.3 percent of voters, but in 2000 the country approved new agreements that linked it more closely with the E.U. And in 2002, by a slender margin, neutral Switzerland agreed in a countrywide vote to leave behind decades of isolationism and become the 190th member of the United Nations.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.