Originally inhabited by the Helvetians, or Helvetic Celts, the territory
comprising modern Switzerland came under Roman rule during the Gallic wars
in the 1st century BC and remained a Roman province until the 4th century
AD. Under Roman influence, the population reached a high level of civilization
and enjoyed a flourishing commerce. Important cities, such as Geneva, Basel,
and Zurich, were linked by military roads that also served as trade arteries
between Rome and the northern tribes.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, Switzerland was invaded by Germanic
tribes from the north and west. Some tribes, such as the Alemanni in central
and northeastern Switzerland, and the Burgundians, who ruled western Switzerland,
settled there. In 800, the country became part of Charlemagne's empire.
It later passed under the dominion of the Holy Roman emperors in the form
of small ecclesiastic and temporal holdings subject to imperial sovereignty.
With the opening of a new important north-south trade route across the
Alps in the early 13th century, the Empire's rulers began to attach more
importance to the remote Swiss mountain valleys, which were granted some
degree of autonomy under direct imperial rule. Fearful of the popular disturbances
flaring up following the death of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1291, the ruling
families from Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed a charter to keep public
peace and pledging mutual support in upholding autonomous administrative
and judicial rule. The anniversary of the charter's signature (August 1,
1291) today is celebrated as Switzerland's National Day.
Between 1315 and 1388 the Swiss Confederates inflicted three crushing
defeats on the Habsburgs, whose aspiration to regional dominion clashed
with Swiss self-determination. During that period, five other localities
(cantons in modern-day parlance) joined the original three in the Swiss
Confederation. Buoyed by their feats, the Swiss Confederates continuously
expanded their borders by military means and gained formal independence
from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499. Routed by the French and Venetians
near Milan in 1515, they renounced expansionist policies. By then the Swiss
Confederation had become a union of 13 localities with a regularly convening
diet administering the subject territories. Swiss mercenaries continued
for centuries to serve in other armies; the Swiss Guard of the Pope is
a vestige of this tradition.
The Reformation led to a division between the Protestant followers of
Zwingli and Calvin in the German and French parts of the country respectively,
and the Catholics. Despite two centuries of civil strife, the common interest
in the joint subject territories kept the Swiss Confederation from falling
apart. The traffic in mercenaries as well as the alienation between the
predominantly Protestant Swiss and their Catholic neighbors kept the Swiss
Confederation out of the wars of the European powers, which formally recognized
Swiss neutrality in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Swiss remained
neutral during the War of the First Coalition against revolutionary France,
but Napoleon, nonetheless, invaded and annexed much of the country in 1797-98,
replacing the loose confederation with a centrally governed unitary state.
The Congress of Vienna in 1815 re-established the old confederation
of sovereign states and enshrined Switzerland's status of permanent armed
neutrality in international law. In 1848, after a brief civil war between
Protestant liberals seeking a centralized national state and Catholic conservatives
clinging on to the old order, the majority of Swiss Cantons opted for a
Federal State, modeled in part on the U.S. Constitution. The Swiss Constitution
established a range of civic liberties and made far-reaching provisions
to maintain cantonal autonomy to placate the vanquished Catholic minority.
The Swiss amended their Constitution extensively in 1874, establishing
federal responsibility for defense, trade, and legal matters, as well as
introducing direct democracy by popular referendum. To this day, cantonal
autonomy and referendum democracy remain trademarks of the Swiss polity.
Switzerland industrialized rapidly during the 19th century and by 1850
had become the second most industrialized country in Europe after Great
Britain. During World War I serious tension developed between the German,
French, and Italian-speaking parts of the country, and Switzerland came
close to violating its neutrality but managed to stay out of hostilities.
Labor unrest culminating in a general strike in 1918 marked the interwar
period, but in 1937 employers and the largest trade union concluded a formal
agreement to settle disputes peacefully, which governs workplace relations
to the present day. During World War II, Switzerland came under heavy pressure
from the fascist powers, which after the fall of France in 1940 completely
surrounded the country. Some political and economic leaders displayed a
mood of appeasement, but a combination of tactical accommodation and demonstrative
readiness to defend the country helped Switzerland survive unscathed.
The Cold War enhanced the role of neutral Switzerland and offered the
country a way out of its diplomatic isolation after World War II. Economically,
Switzerland integrated itself into the American-led Western postwar order,
but it remained reluctant to enter supranational bodies. Switzerland did
not join the United Nations, even though Geneva became host to the UN's
European headquarters, and the country played an active role in many of
the UN's specialized agencies. Switzerland also remained aloof in the face
of European integration efforts, waiting until 1963 to join the Council
of Europe. It still remains outside the European Union. Instead, Switzerland
in 1960 helped form the European Free Trade Area, which did not strive
for political union. Following the Cold War, Switzerland joined the Bretton
Woods institutions in 1992 and finally became a member of the United Nations
Although it has a diverse society, Switzerland has a stable government.
Most voters support the government in the armed neutrality underlying its
foreign and defense policies. Domestic policy poses no major problems,
but the changing international environment has generated a significant
reexamination of Swiss policy in key areas such as defense, neutrality,
and immigration. Quadrennial national elections typically produce only
marginal changes in party representation.
In recent years, Switzerland has seen a gradual shift in the party landscape.
The rightist Swiss People's Party (SVP), traditionally the junior partner
in the four-party coalition government, more than doubled its voting share
from 11% in 1987 to 22.5% in 1999, and finally to 26.6% in 2003, thus overtaking
its three coalition partners. This shift in voting shares ended the 44-year
old "magic formula," the power-broking agreement of the four coalition
parties, and gave a second seat in the 7-person Swiss cabinet to the Swiss
People's Party at the expense of the Christian Democrats, now the weakest
party with 14.4% of the votes. For the first time in Swiss history, the
SVP has two seats in the government, reflecting its new status as Switzerland's
most popular party.
On December 10, 2003, Christoph Blocher -- a self-made industrialist
and main figure of the right-populist Swiss People's Party known for his
strong opinions on asylum and migration and law and order issues -- was
elected to the cabinet by parliament, replacing the incumbent Christian
Democrat Justice and Police Minister Ruth Metzler. The parliament also
elected the Free Democrat Hans-Rudolf Merz to replace retiring Finance
Minister Kaspar Villiger. All other incumbent ministers were reelected.
Both Blocher and Merz are strong advocates of drastic public spending cuts
in order to reduce the country's mounting $102 billion francs state deficit
and are staunch opponents to Switzerland's entering the European Union.