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History

Switzerland - History


Small and landlocked, Switzerland has nonetheless been successful in preserving a political identity that spans seven centuries. The official name of the country, dating from 1803, translates from the national languages as 'Swiss Confederation', a title that reflects Switzerland's origin as a confederation of cantons formed in 1291 with the 'Everlasting League' or 'League of the Three Forest Cantons'. This birth of Switzerland is celebrated on Swiss National Day. Confoederatio Helvetica is the Latin name of Switzerland and is the origin of the modern-day country abbreviation of CH.

Long before the birth of the Confederation, Celtic tribes populated areas of the modern territory of Switzerland. These included the Helvetti, a name meaning 'Sun People', who settled in and around the location of modern-day Zurich. It was from their name that the Latin 'Helvetia' was derived under the Romans, becoming the name of a province that extended across west and north Switzerland into what is today southern Germany.

The various alliances that arose during the Middle Ages between local powers became collectively known as the Confederation (Eidgenossenschaft) from the mid fourteenth century, following a victory of a member state against one of the mighty Habsburg dukes of Austria at the Battle of Morgarten. William Tell is a key figure in the history of Switzerland whose legend places him in the events leading up to this battle. Tell was also said to have been one of the Swiss warriors who took part in the battle itself.

The Battle of Morgarten resulted from a rebellion against the Austrians, in which the Swiss were victorious against an army of knights at least double their own number despite being unmounted and fighting in many cases with logs and rocks. The incident for which Tell has become known beyond Switzerland is of course that in which he fired an arrow through an apple on the head of his own son. This was a punishment dealt to him by the local Austrian overlord for a previous show of disrespect. When subsequently lashed to a boat as a prisoner, Tell made a daring escape, returning to assassinate the overlord. This escapade and his role in the continuing rebellion against the Austrians earned Tell his place in Swiss folklore as a founding father of the Confederation.

From this early beginning, the Confederation grew and adapted according to political pressures, taking on various names according to the language referring to it, including the French 'Suisse' that is the name used today by the French for Switzerland. In 1798, Switzerland was occupied by the troops of Revolutionary France, and the Confederation was renamed the Helvetic Republic (République helvétique), with a constitution that left the cantons and communes with few powers of their own. The Republic was enforced until 1803, when the Act of Mediation was passed in order to settle ongoing disputes, with Napoleon Bonaparte taking the role of Mediator. In this Act, Napoleon replaced the Republic with a Swiss Confederation formed of 19 cantons, which included the 13 existing and 6 new cantons.

In 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, the Act of Mediation was replaced by the Federal Pact. This was a constitution imposed on Switzerland by Napoleon's victors, which did not have the interests of the Swiss people as a chief concern. A number of cantons subsequently sought stronger rights for their citizens. The more conservative Catholic cantons responded to this by forming an alliance known as the Sonderbund, but were forced to give up their opposition and fall into line with other cantons following the brief Sonderbund War of 1847.

Switzerland's own constitution dates from 1848 and marked the creation of a federal state, an unusual political situation in a nation largely surrounded by European monarchies (France removed its final king from power in the same year). The federal state held unified responsibility for law, currency and defence. Altered over the intervening years as need arose, the Swiss Constitution was finally rewritten to bring it in line with modern-day requirements in 1999.

Tourism has played an important role in Switzerland's development since the mid 1800s, creating an economy that reached even the most remote high-altitude hamlets and driving the construction of railways that were the highest in Europe. Its origins lay in a principally British obsession with conquering the Alpine peaks that developed over the course of the 19th century. One of the highest and most elusive of all Swiss mountains, the Matterhorn, was finally scaled by a party lead by Englishman Edward Whymper in 1865. The expedition ended in disaster when a rope snapped during the descent, sending a number of the party to their deaths. In 1863, another Englishman by the name of Thomas Cook led the first tour of British tourists to Geneva. The infamous north face of the Eiger, near Grindelwald, was seen as the last great conquest of the Swiss Alps, achieved in 1938 by a pair of Austrian climbers, Harrer and Kasparek.


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