How Switzerland Came to Be The story of a special nation

Ten historic events that played a crucial role in making Switzerland the country it is today. (No, they don't include the founding of the confederation in 1291.)

The Swiss Confederation developed over time from a network of city alliances, which were common during the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century. What was unusual was that it grew into a unified confederation of adjacent territories not only through partnerships, but also through subjugation. It became a sovereign entity under international law in the 17th century, achieving the status of a nation-state in the 19th century. During the period of revolution from 1798 to 1848, the ruling German-speaking alliance of 13 cantons ("Dreizehn Orte") developed into a multilingual federation, in which equal rights were afforded to French- and Italian-speaking subjects. The pre-modern sovereignty of the cantons was reflected in a federalist constitution that provided for both a national council and a council of states; to prevent centralist control at the national level, in 1874 Switzerland's direct democracy was introduced with its "Ständemehr" feature, which required the support of a majority of the cantons.

Bridging the Gap between Urban and Rural, and Between East and West

Berne formed an alliance with Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, which had allied themselves with Zurich two years earlier. Such temporary agreements between free cities and wealthy farmers and mercenary leaders were not expected to endure, just as now-forgotten alliances of the past (such as the one concluded in 1291) had not. However, a loose network gradually became a group of neighbors, as Zurich, Lucerne and particularly Berne acquired large territories through purchases and naturalizations, and largely without resorting to violence.

Reinterpreting the Past

In 1415, the "Eight Old Cantons" (including Zug and Glarus) conquered the Habsburg district of Aargau. An assembly known as the "Tagsatzung," the only collective institution that existed prior to 1798, was formed to administer the "Gemeine Herrschaft," a territory under the administration of several cantons. During the so-called "Old Zurich War" (1440–1450), however, Zurich invoked its alliance-free status and sought help from the Habsburgs. When the people of central Switzerland prevailed in 1450, they viewed that step as a betrayal. They soon created a legend about Swiss liberation that featured William Tell, an oath of allegiance and the so-called "Burgenbruch," the destruction of the local bailiff's' castles. The legend sought to create the impression that hostility to the Habsburgs was rooted in a distant past.

Inability to Act in Foreign Affairs

During the Burgundian Wars (1476) and the Swabian War (1499), the Swiss employed a tactic akin to the Roman phalanx to defeat armies of nobles on horseback. This tactic made infantry troops a powerful factor in their own right until 1515, when French artillery, a costly new weapon of war, defeated the fragmented Swiss in what is now Melegnano. From then on, the Swiss fought only as mercenaries In the service of foreigners. A joint foreign policy became impossible, as Zwingli's 1523 reformation pitted Catholics and Protestants against each other.

Entering the World of Nations

The rift between Protestants and Catholics paralyzed the confederation and prevented it from taking sides in the Thirty Years' War. In 1648, as the war came to an end, the confederation was granted privileges by the emperor, almost by accident, which gradually came to take on the character of sovereignty in the decades that followed. Then, in 1674, the Tagsatzung declared itself to be a neutral state – evidence that Switzerland had (finally) become an entity under international law that was not bound to the emperor or the empire.

The Experiment of a Nation-State

With the Swiss revolution came popular sovereignty and a separation of powers, Switzerland's first government and a national parliament, as well as equality under the law for those who had previously lacked equal rights in the territories. Switzerland's elites had been both unwilling and unable to carry out such reforms. At the same time, this period of Swiss history, up to the end of the Helvetic Republic in 1803, left a legacy of unpleasant memories: the centralized state, the "French period," the "terror of Stans" and the country as a stage on which the European powers carried out their wars.

Napoleon Establishes Cantons

With the Act of Mediation, Napoleon ended the civil wars between the reformers of the Enlightenment and conservatives, effectively establishing modern Swiss federalism. The country now included the new cantons of St. Gallen, Aargau, Thurgau, Graubünden, Ticino and Vaud, largely formed out of "subject lands" that had previously been controlled by other cantons. In 1814, Berne and central Switzerland sought to reestablish the inequality that had existed in the past, but Russia's Czar Alexander I offered protection to the new cantons and was able to prevent civil war.

A Federal State, Thanks to the Revolution

Radical liberals and Catholic conservatives escalated their disputes in the 1840s, with both sides overstepping the law. This led to the dissolution of the monasteries, the recalling of the Jesuits, the armed radicals and the Swiss civil war of 1847, known as the Sonderbund War. General Dufour's swift victory did not mark the end of a religious war; it was a political decision in favor of a liberal constitution that established a nation-state. The constitution provided for federal institutions under the bicameral system (modeled after that of the US); a national army; freedom of the press, association, trade and establishment; and uniform currency, customs duties, measures and weights.

A Divided Country

During World War I, divided loyalties drove a wedge between the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Laborer families bore the burden of active service, with no income compensation, no rationing and dramatic inflation. A nationwide general strike was called in November 1918, but was suppressed when General Wille called out the troops. From then on, there was profound mistrust between the left wing and the centrist coalition, made up of liberals, Catholic conservatives (represented in the Federal Council since 1891) and now also the farmers' party (later the Swiss People's Party).

United in Achievements and Guilt

The war had many sides. Switzerland's primary goals were to maintain its independence and secure the country's basic needs. There was a focus on defense readiness through the "National Redoubt" strategy and economic integration into German-dominated Europe, which also included purchasing Nazi gold. Other factors included profit-focused thinking and efforts to prevent a repeat of the social crisis of 1918. There was anti-Nazism as well as anti-Communism and anti-Semitism. Private individuals provided humanitarian aid. At the same time the country's borders were closed to Jewish refugees.

A Rude Awakening

The fall of the Berlin Wall shook the fundamental consensus that had existed during the Cold War, based on neutrality and anti-Communism, as well as the so-called "magic formula" for allocating seats on the Federal Council among the ruling parties. The resignation of Elisabeth Kopp, the first woman on the Federal Council, reflected the decline of the Liberals (FDP). The secret-files scandal known as the "Fichenskandal," along with an unexpectedly high level of support for an initiative to abolish the army, clearly showed that a new era had dawned – and Switzerland has chosen to maintain its special status following its rejection of the European Economic Area. Globalization has produced losers as well as winners: structural unemployment, Swissair, the bank crisis, migration.

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Source: Credit Suisse Bulletin No. 6 / 2012

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