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Switzerland TravelSwitzerland guide / Switzerland history

Switzerland history

Stone Age hunters lived in Switzerland before the last Ice Age, but the majority of Switzerland's early population settled during the "Migration of Nations" that coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire
Stone Age hunters lived in Switzerland before the last Ice Age, but the majority of Switzerland's early population settled during the "Migration of Nations" that coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire. The old Swiss Confederacy was founded on 1 August, 1291, and Switzerland was accepted as an independent country in the European peace treaty of 1648. Switzerland's neutrality and borders were established at the 1815 Vienna Congress that ended the Napoleonic wars. Switzerland's modern Federal Constitution dates from 1848. Switzerland changed dramatically in many ways between 1291 and the modern era.

The document attesting to the establishment of the Old Swiss Confederation in 1291 has been carbon dated at more than 700 years old. The building of a transalpine trade route made the region much more interesting to European kings. From the 1000s to the 1200s, many cities, like Berne, Fribourg, and Lucerne were founded. Meanwhile, people from the Rhone valley developed suspended water pipes and catwalks in steep rocks, opening up the Schollenen canyon as a new trade route. The legend of William Tell is said to take place during this period in Swiss history. There is a chapel near Sisikon where William Tell was said to have escaped, and the walls of the chapel contain four frescos showing scenes of the legend.

The 1500s to 1800s in Switzerland were years of great advancement in economics, philosophy, and the arts. Famous Swiss mathematicians John Bernoulli, daniel Bernoulli, and Leonhard Euler were well known outside Switzerland. But feudalism persisted in the form of absolute monarchy, despite the fact that Switzerland was a confederacy of city and valley republics at the time. A few families had political control in the major cities, including Geneva and Bern. Political philosophy, particularly in France, was changing, and works like Swiss-born philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau's Contrat Social had plenty of influence.

During the French Revolution, a detachment of 800 mercenaries from Switzerland tried to defend the French king against the revolutionary parties attacking the Tuileries castle in 1792. All of them were killed. A monument of a lion in Lucerne was made in remembrance of the end of the once-feared Swiss military force. A few years later, Swiss revolutionaries called on the help of French General Napoleon Bonaparte to wrest control of cities - particularly Berne - that dominated the Swiss political system at the time. Bernese troops were defeated in battles at Grauholz and Fraubrunnen in 1798.

Napoleon formed the Cisalpine Republic in 1797 in northern Italy that also took in the Swiss canton Grisons. Seizing French power in a coup in 1799, Napoleon's Coalition War of France that fought Great Britain, Russia, Austria, Germany, and northern Italy took place largely in Switzerland, a country that was in the middle of all France's enemies. The French, along with the Helvetic Republics won the second Coailtion War in 1799, but France became a dictatorship, and the Swiss Helvetic Republic underwent several coups in the next few years until the Helvetic Republic collapsed.

During the World War I (1914-1918) Switzerland remained neutral, but the war definitely had an impact on Switzerland's politics and economy. Swiss men were put on duty to defend Switzerland's borders, but they were very poorly paid and many returned home only find they had lost their jobs. World War I also aggravated the existing differences between German-speaking and French-speaking Swiss, who supported different sides in the war. Also causing rancor among Swiss citizens was the government's decision to issue currency to finance defense efforts, an act that led to high inflation. After the war, tensions ran high, and a national strike originated in Zurich. It coincided with the 1918 flu epidemic, and bitter feelings remained between Swiss troops and the working class strikers for many years.

During the years leading up to World War II the Swiss practiced widespread defense of Switzerland's independence against the Nazis, a goal that managed to unite entrepreneurs and socialists - groups that faced almost constant conflict during the 1920s. But the Swiss were also very concerned about the possibility of a Soviet style government if the Social Democrats or Communists in Switzerland took power. In some ways, the war united disparate groups of Swiss against common dual enemies of Russia and Germany, and the Swiss media were the only German-speaking platforms that practiced public criticism of Nazi ideology.

After World War II, imports and exports increased sharply. In the 1970s, the service sector of the economy gradually took over from the industry sector, and it still dominates today. There were plenty of Italians who went to Switzerland after the war to find work, and there was a fair amount of internal migration in Switzerland, too.

Today, 20% of resident Swiss are foreigners, and many say that they do not speak one of the four official Swiss languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansh). Yet in schools, businesses, government, and recreation, people do use one of the four languages. The parts of Switzerland that speak the various languages are clearly defined: northern and central Switzerland speaks mostly German, western Switzerland speaks French, Southern Switzerland speaks Italian, and southeastern Switzerland speaks Romansh. The regions overlap, and there are several bilingual cities.

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