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A Brief Survey of Swiss History

From the Foundation of the Swiss Confederation to the Apex of Military Might
Religious Division and Absolutism
The Crisis of Government 1798 - 1848
The Development of the New Federal State
The Industrialised State in the 20th Century
From the Foundation of the Swiss Confederation to the Apex of Military Might

1291: Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden conclude an alliance to ensure their common interests. The German king Adolf recognises their right to self-government within the empire.

1315: The three original cantons repel an Austrian attack at the Battle of Morgarten and over the Brünig.

1332-1353: The Confederation expands to eight members, known as the eight places. The new ones are Lucerne, Zurich, Glarus, Zug and Bern.

1386-1388: The Confederates successfully resist Austrian attacks in the battles of Sempach (1386) and Näfels (1388).

1474-1477: Bern destroys the powerful Duchy of Burgundy in the Burgundian war. The Confederation becomes a great military power and also a source of mercenaries for foreign armies.

1499: In the wake of the Swabian War, the Confederates are able to affirm their independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

1481-1513: The Confederation expands to 13 places. The new members are Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell. Valais and the Three Leagues (now Graubünden) became allied to the Confederation.

1510-1515: The Confederates seek to conquer more areas to the south. But their policy of expansion is brought to a brutal end with their defeat by French forces at the Battle of Marignano (in Lombardy, Italy)

Religious Division and Absolutism

1527-1531: The new ideas of the Reformation spread rapidly throughout the territory of the Confederation owing, in particular, to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich and Jean Calvin in Geneva. Switzerland splits along religious lines into two bitterly antagonistic camps. In the two Kappel wars, the Catholics defeat the Protestant members of the Confederation.

1653: The disastrous economic situation reigning at the end of the Thirty Years’ War leads to rural uprisings, which are put down by the authorities with draconian severity.

1712: The Protestant areas emerge victorious in the second Villmergen war, shattering the hegemony of the Catholic territories.

1700-1798: Within the once agricultural structures, industrialization makes rapid strides, especially in the Protestant areas. At the beginning of the 19th century, Switzerland is one of the most highly industrialised countries in Europe.
As in the surrounding countries, the rulers in the different members of the Confederation endeavor to preserve their absolute rule over their subjects.

Enlightenment ideas arrive in Switzerland from Geneva and are passed on by way of Neuchâtel, Basel and Zürich.

The Crisis of Government 1798 - 1848

1798-1803: With the arrival of the French troops, a radical upheaval takes place in Switzerland’s political organization. The Helvetic Republic is a centralised republican state, closely controlled by France. Switzerland subsequently becomes a theatre of war, with fighting between the great European powers: France, Russia and Austria.

1803: After internal unrest and several coups d’état, Napoleon promulgates a new Constitution, known as the “Act of Mediation”, whereby the cantons recover some of their autonomy. New cantons replace the former subject territories and some of the allies: Vaud, Ticino, Thurgau, St. Gallen, Aargau and Graubünden.

1815: After the defeat of France by the European monarchies, three new cantons are added to the Swiss Confederation: Geneva, Valais and Neuchâtel. The privileges of the ancien régime are restored.

At the Congress of Vienna the European powers recognise Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality.

1815-1830: The ancien régime is restored politically, but Switzerland experiences rapid economic development. The expansion of liberal entrepreneurship is seriously hampered by cantonal fragmentation (customs tariffs, different weights, measures and currencies).

1830-1847: Under the pressure of economic development, about half the cantons adopt liberal constitutions guaranteeing citizens both economic and political rights. The liberal cantons, proponents of a modern centralised national state, stand at loggerheads with the conservative cantons.

1847: The growing tensions come to a head in the “Sonderbund War”. At the end of a brief campaign, the conservative cantons capitulate.

1848: Switzerland becomes a liberal federal state. This automatically creates a single economic space with the free movement of people and goods. All males are granted the right to vote.

The Development of the New Federal State

1848-1874: The liberals dominate the political scene in the new Federal state. The conservatives form the opposition. After 26 years, the Federal Constitution is totally revised: the right of referendum is introduced.

1874-1914: Rapid industrial expansion leads to the construction of the railway network and to the boring of the Gotthard and the Simplon Tunnels, two masterpieces of engineering. The boom in tourism begins.

1891: The right of initiative in its present form (power to change a part of the Constitution) is set down in the Constitution.

1891: The Catholic-conservative opposition gets its first seat in the government (Federal Council).

1898: The railways are nationalised. The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) comes into being.

The Industrialised State in the 20th Century

1914-1918: Notwithstanding Switzerland’s neutrality during the First World War, a rift sets in between the German-speaking population who sympathise with Germany, and the French-speakers, who sympathise with France.

1918: The dire economic situation and the political tensions pave the way to a country-wide general strike calling for proportional representation in the National Council, women’s suffrage, a 48-hour working week, and social security insurance. The Federal Council responds by calling up troops.

1919: Elections to the National Council are held for the first time based on the principle of proportional representation, leading to a situation in which the liberals lose their traditional predominance.

1920: By a slim majority, the Swiss people vote in favour of the country’s accession to the League of Nations.

1929: The world economic depression leaves its mark on Switzerland.

1939-1945: Switzerland remains outside the Second World War with a policy blending resistance and accommodation.

1943: The social democrats get their first seat in the Federal Council (government).

1945-1970: Switzerland experiences an unparalleled era of economic growth thanks, in particular, to a durable social contract between capital and labour.

1947: The law concerning old-age and surviving dependents’ insurance is adopted.

1959: For the first time, the composition of the Federal Council is established according to the “magic formula” consisting of two seats each going to representatives of the Radical Free Democratic Party (FDP), Christian Democratic People’s Party, (CVP), and Social Democratic Party (SP), with the remaining (7th) seat going to a representative of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).

1963: Switzerland becomes a member of the Council of Europe.

1971: Women get the vote at Federal level.

1978: Switzerland’s 23rd canton, Canton Jura, is created out of part of Canton Bern.

1984: Elisabeth Kopp (FDP) becomes the first woman to hold a seat in the Federal Council.

1986: A popular vote rejects Swiss membership of the UN.

1992: A popular vote turns down Swiss participation in the European Economic Area (EEA).

1998: Bilateral accords concluded between Switzerland and the European Union (EU).

1999: A popular vote accepts the revision of the Federal Constitution. It comes into force on January 1st, 2000.

2000: A popular vote approves the bilateral accords between Switzerland and the European Union.

2002: Swiss membership of the UN is accepted by popular vote. Switzerland becomes the 190th member on September 10th.

2003: Following the election of a second member of the Swiss People’s Party to the Federal Council the magic formula is composed as follows: 2 members of the Swiss People’s Party, 2 Social-Democrats, 2 Radical Free Democrats and one Christian Democrat.

2005: The people vote to accept the Schengen and Dublin accords as part of the bilateral agreements with the EU.