The Swiss Confederation started when Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, three small rural areas in the Alps, renewed their alliance to defend peace in their territories in 1291. In the course of the following two centuries, further towns and rural areas joined this ‘Confederation’ or were conquered or ‘acquired’ by it. This frequently involved war and internal strife. Following the Swabian War in 1499 against the German Swabian League, they could conduct their affairs largely independently of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia formally recognised Switzerland’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality was accepted by the European powers.
The Reformation spread first to Zurich in 1525 with Huldrych Zwingli, then to other areas and finally to Geneva in 1541 under Calvin. The Swiss Confederation became divided along religious lines. Catholic and Protestant areas increasingly grew apart and went to war against each other time and again up until the early 18th century.
It was French Revolution of 1789, which destroyed the old Swiss Confederation. First, its ideas spread to Switzerland leading to unrest in several areas and then a French army invaded Switzerland in 1798. The old Confederation collapsed, making way for the creation of the Helvetic Republic, which had a unitary centralist constitution imposed by the French. In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte dictated the Act of Mediation to Switzerland. Six new cantons with equal rights were formed from former subject territories and ‘affiliated regions’.
After France’s defeat in 1815, the old Confederation was restored. The centralist government lost some authority to the cantons, where in some cases the old elites once again were in power. After 1830, about half of the cantons adopted liberal constitutions, which guaranteed their citizens economic and political rights. This led to disagreement between liberal and conservative cantons as to how the Confederation should be shaped. These tensions led to the creation of a special alliance (‘Sonderbund’) among the conservative catholic cantons, culminating in the Sonderbund War in 1847. After a brief military campaign by federal troops, the seven cantons of the special alliance surrendered. In a referendum in 1848, the majority of cantons accepted the federal constitution and the modern federal state was founded. Numerous areas which were previously the responsibility of the cantons, such as military service and customs, postal services and coinage, were centralised and unified. Switzerland became a single political, judicial and economic entity.
In 1874, the right to referendum was introduced in the revised Federal Constitution and in 1891 the popular initiative was adopted in the Constitution, too. These two measures made Switzerland the most democratic country in the world.
Switzerland remained neutral during both the First World War (1914–1918) and Second World War (1939–1945). After 1945, Switzerland, traditionally a poor country, became very prosperous.
Switzerland is a federation of 26 cantons. It is located in the middle of Europe and bordered by Germany in the north, France in the West, Italy in the south and Austria and Liechtenstein in the east. Switzerland is famous for its neutrality.
Switzerland’s economy benefits from a highly qualified labour force performing highly skilled work. The main sectors are manufacturing, high-tech, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, as well as banking and insurance.
Switzerland’s three main geographical regions are the Jura, a rather low mountain range, the far higher Alps and the flat Plateau separating them. Thanks to its central position in Europe, Swiss rivers carry water to all the seas around Europe: the North Sea (the Rhine), the Mediterranean (the Rhone and the Ticino, via the Po) and the Black Sea (the Inn, via the Danube).
Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Rumantsch. The German-speakers account for over 60% of the population while about 20% of the Swiss speak French. For more information, see separate article on languages in Switzerland.
The main religion in Switzerland is Christianity. According to the census of 2002, 42% of the Swiss population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church while 35% are members of various Protestant churches.
The Swiss Confederation developed slowly over many centuries, as more and more regions came together to form a loose confederation whose members gave each other mutual support. It was only in 1848 that Switzerland became a centralised federal state. For more information see also separate article.
The Swiss government is made up of only seven people, elected by the Swiss Parliament. The government members take it in turns to act as president. The Swiss people can influence political affairs through the system of direct democracy. Swiss citizens can both propose legislation of their own, or thwart legislation already approved by parliament.