To the 15th century AD

La Tène and the Helvetii: 5th c. BC - 5th c. AD

Switzerland's earliest European role is as the heartland of the Celts. Various tribal groups, from whom the Celts evolve, share an origin in the early Iron Age culture of Hallstatt in Austria. But the metalwork and pottery found at La Tène, at the eastern end of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, introduces the swirling and geometrical patterns which are associated specifically with the art of the Celts.

The earliest La Tène objects are from the 5th century BC.

Of the many Celtic tribes moving through or settling in the region now known as Switzerland, one in particular leaves its mark. Under pressure from Germans, the Helvetii migrate south into Switzerland in the 2nd century BC. They are the dominant tribe in the area when the Roman empire expands northwards and beyond them into Gaul. So the Roman name for Switzerland becomes Helvetia.

The link survives in modern international car registration. CH on a Swiss vehicle stands for Confederatio Helvetica.

In the 5th centuryGerman pressure southwards deprives the Helvetii of much of their territory. The Alamanni, a group of Germanic tribes occupying the triangle between the Rhine and the Danube, move into northern Switzerland. They too leave their name in European history. As the immediate neighbours of Gaul, and a permanent threat from just across the Rhine, they represent in the French mind all Germans (les Allemands).

The Alamanni bring the German language into Switzerland. Other neighbours bring French and Italian.

Knucklebone of Europe: from the 9th century AD

Seen on a relief map of western Europe, mountainous Switzerland stands out like a knucklebone between three great regions - France, Germany and Italy. The Alps are a watershed, an invitation, a barrier. Three groups of people, speaking three different languages, press against the Alps, trade through the mountain passes, squabble over possession of the valleys. Yet the difficulty of those passes, and the seclusion of the valleys, makes it almost impossible for outsiders to dominate or suppress these mountain people.

Switzerland's history is implicit in its geography.

These considerations become apparent once there are developed communities on all sides. In the Roman period Switzerland has imperial order to the south and west, but tribal chaos (in varying degrees) to the north. The Franks, from the time of Clovis, undertake the long process of conquest which eventually creates an empire surrounding Switzerland.

In about500 Clovis defeats the Alamanni (who have ventured west over the Rhine into Alsace). By the early 9th century Switzerland is within Charlemagne's Frankish empire, which evolves into the Holy Roman empire. Another century later, after the division of the empire, Switzerland is in the East frankish kingdom as part of the duchy of Swabia.

Waldstätte and Vogt: AD 853-1293

The Feudal structures of the Middle Ages are confusing at the best of times, but the arrangements concerning three Waldstätte (forest districts) round the lake of Lucerne are unusually complex. The districts are Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. Uri has from853 the privilege of a special link to the German king, through a Vogt or 'advocate'.

The role of Vogt, bringing with it the power of a local ruler, gradually becomes hereditary. By the early 13th century it is inherited within the Habsburg family, who are already holders of many other feudal rights in Schwyz and Unterwalden and around Zürich.

The overlord of these forest districts becomes exceptionally powerful in 1273 when the Habsburg duke Rudolf is elected German king. In 1291, a few months before his death, Rudolf purchases enhanced feudal powers around the lake of Lucerne.

The farmers of the Waldstätte feel that their independence is threatened. They band together in self-defence.

Landsgemeinde in Schwyz: AD 1294

The forest districts of Switzerland, smaller than other political units in the Middle Ages, adopt a form of government in the Athenian tradition of direct democracy.

These districts are like Athens, in that the community is small enough for every adult male to be able to walk to an assembly and cast a vote. In Switzerland such a meeting is called a Landsgemeinde (district community); the earliest record of one is in Schwyz in 1294. Held in the open air, assemblies of this kind become the highest legislative authority in the rural cantons of the Swiss federation - Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Glarus and Appenzell.

Even today a Landsgemeinde is still held every year, on the last Sunday of April, in the tiny canton of Appenzell. Issues of local relevance are voted on, and passed into law, in the traditional method.

At the earliest known Landsgemeinde, in Schwyz in 1294, the issues are of grave concern, with weighty implications for the future of the region. The meeting takes place just three years after the formation of the Everlasting League.

Everlasting League: AD 1291-1315

On the death of Rudolf I, in 1291, the three forest districts of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden openly campaign against the election of his Habsburg successor, Albert, as German king. To protect themselves against Habsburg attack, they pledge themselves to an Everlasting League of mutual defence (signing it, tradition says, in the Rütli meadow in Uri).

The pledge remains for the moment hypothetical. A rival candidate wins the crown. Albert subsequently defeats him in battle and becomes the German king, in 1298. But there is no dramatic clash between the rebellious cantons and the Habsburgs until fifteen years later, when the next escalation in the drama follows an act of aggression by the Swiss.

In 1313 the men of Schwyz attack the rich Benedictine abbey of Einsiedeln. The Habsburgs, with feudal responsibility for the abbey, take various steps to reassert their authority. When these fail, they assemble a great army in 1315 to attack Schwyz.

On the mountain slope of Morgarten, on the border of Schwyz, the glittering Habsburg array is met on November 15 by a much smaller Citizen army drawn from the farmers of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. The Swiss are armed with a weapon which they make very much their own - the halberd.

The Habsburg knights, mounted and in armour, rely on the thundering weight of a charger to mow down the opposition. In the confined space of Morgarten, they find themselves at the mercy of the Swiss halberdiers.

At the end of each 8-foot halberd there is a sharp metal point; this can jab like a spear. Below the point to one side is a hook; this is used to grapple a knight and drag him from his horse. Below the point on the other side there is an axe blade; with a heavy sweeping blow, at the end of the long handle, this will cut through armour and sink into limb or neck. With this lethally adaptable weapon the Swiss footsoldiers bring down the Habsburg cavalry.

The great victory at Morgarten prompts the Swiss farmers to renew their Everlasting league. They meet on December 9 at Brunnen, Schwyz's port on Lake Lucerne. This time the document is in German (in 1291 it was in Latin), but the clauses are much the same. None of the three confederate cantons is to accept any new feudal obligation without consulting the others; all are to come to each other's defence if attacked.

It is an agreement which other Swiss cantons can subscribe to when they wish, and it remains the basis of an expanding Swiss confederation. The leading role of Schwyz, particularly at Morgarten, causes the confederation to be referred to informally as Schwyz (hence Switzerland) from as early as 1320.

Withering of Habsburg rule in Switzerland: AD 1318-1389

Morgarten does not immediately free the forest cantons from Habsburg influence. But the Swiss have earned a new respect.

Another great victory - at Sempach in 1386 - settles the issue. Some 1600 Swiss confederates crush a Habsburg force of about 6000 men. A treaty agreed in Zürich in 1389 effectively annuls Habsburg feudal rights over the Everlasting league, now much enlarged from the three original members of 1291. The treaty is renewed in 1394, 1412 and 1474 until the Peace of basel finally recognizes Swiss independence in 1499. (The missing name from this brief account is Switzerland's most famous character, William Tell. But alas, like England's King arthur, he appears to be a figure of legend.)

The confederation: AD 1332-1481

The success of the three Forest cantons brings other districts into association with them. The first to be admitted are Lucerne in 1332 and Zürich in 1351, introducing a new urban element into what has been until now a rural alliance. Tension between these two groups remains a problem throughout the early history of the confederation.

Zürich is at open war with the other confederates from 1436 to 1450, but after being defeated the city is allowed back into the fold. A generation later civil war threatens again, on a wide range of issues. This time it is solved, remarkably, by the intervention of a hermit - Nikolaus von der Flüe, known as Brother Klaus.

Brother Klaus has been living the life of a recluse for some fifteen years, acquiring a reputation for sanctity and wisdom, when it is suggested in 1481 that leaders of the squabbling cantons should seek his advice. He presides over an assembly at the village of Stans, where terms are agreed which hold the alliance together. The Convention of Stans asserts the full sovereignty of each confederate state, and then defines the obligations of each towards the others - including such eminently practical matters as how the loot collected in any war shall be shared out.

The military skills honed in self-defence have made the Swiss formidable fighters. Warfare, during this century, brings them land and reputation.

The fighting Swiss: 15th century AD

The most valuable acquisition of territory by the Swiss is in the Alps, at the expense of the duchy of Milan. Between 1403 and 1410 men from Uri and Unterwalden forcibly secure control of two of the most important Alpine passes, St Gotthard and Simplon. Both strategically and in terms of trade these are valuable additions.

Later in the century, military adventures in the west lead to war with the powerful dukedom of Burgundy. The Swiss win the war with a decisive victory at Morat in 1476.

At the very end of the 15th century the confederates engage in a final series of battles against the Habsburgs. The conflict of 1499 is variously known as the Swabian War or Swiss War. Again it is a Swiss triumph. The peace of Basel - agreed with the emperor Maximilian that September - brings effective recognition of Swiss independence from the Holy roman empire.

There are now ten cantons in the League. By 1513 three more have joined (the number will remain at thirteen until the French Revolution). Meanwhile the Swiss are becoming a force to be reckoned with outside their own region. Julius ii establishes the papacy's famous Swiss guard in 1505. By then Swiss armies are also playing an active role in the troubled affairs of north Italy.

16th - 20th century

North Italian adventures: AD 1503-1516

Several circumstances conspire to draw the Swiss into north Italy during the early 16th century. The cantons have a long-standing interest in controlling two passes (the St Gotthard and the Splügen) which carry much of the trade between Italy and northern Europe.

The best way of achieving this is to acquire land south of the passes, and there are now fine opportunities to do so. Northern italy is in chaos, as several contenders struggle for the duchy of Milan. The contenders are eager to enlist the support of the famously effective mercenary armies of Switzerland.

The Swiss help the French king Louis xii in his capture of Milan; in reward, in 1503, he gives them the Milanese region of Bellinzona. Nine years later the Swiss are fighting on the pope's side against the French. When they drive the French out of Milan in 1512, they are rewarded with Locarno and Lugano.

The run of Swiss successes in Northern italy ends abruptly in 1515 at Marignano, where they are heavily defeated by a French army. But the new French king, Francis I, proves more eager to pacify the Swiss than to recover every part of the duchy of Milan.

In a treaty of 1516, which becomes known as the Perpetual Peace, Francis I grants the cantons most of their gains south of the Alps in return for a Swiss commitment not to serve in campaigns against France.

The treaty brings under Swiss control a large Italian population. For three centuries they are governed at arm's length (and not well) by the northern cantons. Finally, in 1803, these Italian regions are grouped into a new canton, Ticino, which becomes a member of the Swiss confederation.

The Perpetual Peace of 1516 comes at a good moment for the cantons, where many citizens are beginning to question the loss of young Swiss lives as mercenaries in other people's battles.

Among those expressing this view is Huldreich Zwingli, the central figure in the next chapter of the Swiss story. The ruggedly individual Swiss have already demonstrated how to cast off a feudal yoke, that of the Habsburgs. They have proved that citizens on foot, armed only with Pikes and halberds, can subdue the mounted chivalry of Europe. Now, in the same spirit, they ask more radical questions than anyone else in the great debate of the 16th century - the Reformation.

Zwingli: AD 1518-1525

The towns of Switzerland are the perfect context for the new movement of reform. Independent, free of any feudal ties, they are run by councils in which the merchants of the guilds usually have the predominant voice. The largest town is Zürich, where from 1518 there is a powerful preacher on the cathedral staff - Huldreich Zwingli.

Zwingli's first overt gesture against Catholic dogma is his eating of sausage during Lent in 1522, an event usually taken as the start of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli, experiencing little of the opposition faced by Luther in Germany, persuades Zürich to accept sweeping Protestant reforms. But, like Luther in Wittenberg, he is soon confronted by reformers more radical than himself.

Anabaptists: AD 1525

Zürich, swift in its acceptance of Zwingli's Protestant logic, is also the first city where radical reformers insist upon logic in a ritual central to the Christian faith - that of baptism (one of only two sacraments retained by Luther and Zwingli, the other being the Eucharist).

If each Christian in the reformed faith is to be personally responsible for his or her relationship with God, how can a mewling infant be offered the sacrament of baptism? In the gospels, there is only an adult baptism - that of Jesus himself. In the early years of the religion most Christians were converts, choosing the faith and receiving baptism as adults.

Arguments for adult baptism formed part of the unrest in Wittenberg during Luther's absence in 1521. Now, in 1525 in Zürich, Conrad Grebel - a young follower of Zwingli - takes a drastic step. He baptises a former Catholic priest, Georg Blaurock.

The action forms part of a wider programme, derived by Grebel from the gospels. His tenets include a free church of believers, fully detached from the state; refusal to swear an oath; and pacifism. The last two commitments, subsequently of great importance to all radical sects in this tradition, derive from Christ's sermon on the mount (Matthew, v, 33-48).

Grebel's act of baptism is a direct challenge to his former mentor, Zwingli, who is closely associated with the state - indeed he has a guaranteed majority of supporters on Zürich's city council. It can also be seen as blasphemy, since this is a rebaptism. It denies the validity of a sacrament, in the form of Georg Blaurock's original baptism as an infant.

The reaction of Zürich, under Zwingli's guidance, is swift and extreme. Anyone even attending a ceremony of this kind is to be liable to death by drowning - if they want water they shall have it. It is the start of a long ordeal of persecution for Anabaptists (from Greek for 'baptize again'). No other Christian sect has had such a high proportion of martyrs.

The Anabaptists leave Zürich and find a haven for a while in Moravia, where a tolerant nobleman is glad to recruit sober and hard-working employees for his estate. Sectarian disputes within the new sect (a splintering process inherent in radical endeavours) soon bring this respite to an end. But the appeal of the Anabaptists' brave and rational theology causes other such groups to emerge in south Germany and along the Rhine.

One or two of these degenerate into apocalyptic ravings. The 'kingdom of 1000 years', established at Münster in 1534 and violently destroyed in 1535, is the extreme example.

Most of the Anabaptist communities are ahead of their time - in being profoundly committed to personal responsibility, and willing to assert themselves against all authority for conscience's sake. From their suffering, the voice of everyday people, women as well as men, comes through with astonishing poignancy.

Direct descendants of these Anabaptist groups survive in sects such as the Mennonites, living now mainly in America and Canada. But the ideal of pacifism and the quiet inner voice of conscience have also nourished other Christian communities such as the Quakers.

Swiss reform: AD 1525-1531

Zürich is intolerant of the radical programme of the Anabaptists, but nevertheless this is the city in which the pattern of a fully reformed church is first established. The central detail, on which Zwingli goes much further than Luther, is the nature of the Eucharist.

By 1525 Zwingli has already replaced the mass (containing implications of a sacrificial ritual) with a simple service in which the altar becomes a communion table. In Zwingli's communion the bread and the wine, both of which are given to the congregation, merely symbolize Christ's body and blood. Luther maintains a more traditional view. The two men clash dramatically at Marburg, in 1529. They fail to reach agreement.

In this respect the Swiss reform differs intrinsically from the Lutheran version (or, later, the Anglican variety). It does so also on the issue of holy images. It is only the Swiss example which causes sculpture and painting to be smashed in many churches of Europe during the 16th century.

The independence of each Swiss canton has enabled Zürich to effect very rapidly its own programme of reform. But the same political freedom also makes it impossible for the whole federation to move together into reform. It soon becomes evident that the rural cantons are remaining faithful to Rome, while Basel, Bern and Schaffhausen side with Zürich.

The pope and the emperor (Clement VII and Charles V) see in this split a chance of containing the Swiss movement for reform. They encourage the rural cantons to band together in 1529 as a Christian Union. Hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant cantons break out in that year and again in 1531. On the second occasion Zwingli himself marches into battle, at Kappel, and loses his life in a decisive Catholic victory.

This disaster ends the pre-eminence of Zürich in the Swiss reformation. But Zwingli's reforms are developed, during the next decades, in a city which has close links with the Swiss federation - Geneva, where Calvin begins preaching in 1536.

Catholic and Protestant cantons: AD 1529-1798

The hostility between Catholic and Protestant cantons, seen so dramatically on the field of Kappel in 1531, remains a feature of the next three centuries. In 1597 one of the smallest cantons, Appenzell, even has to split into two parts (known as Rhoden). Henceforth the northern half of Appenzell is administered by Protestants, the southern half by Catholics.

In this atmosphere cooperation becomes difficult. The Swiss Confederation, established courageously and effectively in a time of feudalism, almost collapses under the strain of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Only when threatened from outside is there a show of unity. After remaining free of foreign alliances during the Thirty Years' War, all thirteen cantons make an agreement in 1647 pledging themselves to defend jointly their shared outer frontier. This pact of armed neutrality, known as the Defensionale of Wyl, is a significant step towards a Swiss national identity. But it does nothing to prevent conflict between the cantons themselves.

The two most serious clashes between Protestant and Catholic interests are both ended by battles at Villmergen, in 1656 and 1712. But the Confederation does somehow hang together, while becoming an increasingly sleepy backwater of Europe. Then, in 1798, it is rudely awakened by Napoleon.

Geneva: AD 1535-1762

Geneva is not a member of the Swiss Confederation until after Napoleon's interference. But the city becomes closely linked with Protestant Bern in the early 16th century.

During the Middle Ages Geneva was ruled by a prince-bishop of the Holy roman empire. More recently it has fallen under the control of Savoy. Now Geneva uses the Reformation to win its freedom. In 1535 the city council shows an inclination to adopt the reformed faith of Zürich and Bern.

The duke of Savoy and the bishop of Geneva join forces to attack the city, but it is saved by the intervention of a citizen army from the Swiss canton of Bern. With this success, Geneva formally adopts the reformed faith in May 1536.

Two months later a young French reformer, passing through the city, is persuaded to stay and preach. He is John Calvin, who subsequently transforms Geneva (between 1541 and his death in 1564) into a theocratic state run on strict puritan lines.

Bern remains closely linked to Geneva (citizenship is even shared between the two towns), and in 1584 Zürich joins the alliance. But Savoy has ambitions to recover this prospering city.

During the night of 12 December 1602 an army of the duke of Savoy arrives suddenly outside Geneva with ladders to scale the walls. The Savoyards are repelled with considerable losses at a cost of only seventeen Genevan lives. The citizens crowd into the former cathedral to sing Psalm 124, beginning 'If it had not been the Lord who was on our side..'. It has been Geneva's psalm for this day ever since, on the anniversary of the victory which secures the city's independence.

The duke of Savoy signs the peace of St Julien in 1603, finally relinquishing his claim. Geneva settles down, like its neigbours in the Swiss cantons, to a life of quiet prosperity. Huguenot refugees arrive from France bringing valuable skills, particularly after the revocation of the Edict of nantes in 1685. Clockmaking thrives, as the city's main industry. Geneva even produces a citizen of world renown.

Jean Jacques Rousseau is born here in 1712. But he leaves Geneva at the age of sixteen, only very occasionally returning. After 1762, when the views expressed in his Social Contract and Emile bring him notoriety, the city council orders the burning of both books.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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