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Last updated : Nov 2009
Switzerland History
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The history of Switzerland has followed a mostly different course from that of its European neighbours, mainly because no ruler since the 14th century was able to claim more than a theoretical suzerainty over the small, well-organised and prosperous group of cantons that comprise it.

In the period between 1315 and 1388, they inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the armies of the Dukes of Austria, resulting in many other cantons joining the original three in the Swiss Confederation. Their location left them well placed to interfere in the interminable power struggles of the period, and their influence was backed by the formidable reputation of their army – probably the most powerful in Europe at the end of the 15th century.

The Reformation led to a division in Swiss society between the followers of the reformer Zwingli and the Catholics. The bitter controversy significantly reduced Swiss influence in Europe and the Confederation was lucky to survive a series of defeats. Swiss independence from the Holy Roman Empire was one of the results of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that concluded the Thirty Years’ War, in which Switzerland had suffered very badly. In the following 100 years, little progress was made towards a formal union of the cantons and the religious controversy roared on; the dominance of the Protestants was not established until after the Second Villmergen War in 1712.

The dramatic events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire resulted in a very confusing period, with much of the country being annexed by France. Independence was reinstated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (which also laid down the principle of the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland) but the repressive policies of the cantons and the lack of any central power continued to work against political unity and economic growth. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the federal government began to be truly effective, although the cantons continued to enjoy powers and do so to this day.

Domestic politics since 1945 have been dominated by 4 political parties Radical Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Swiss People’s Party and the Christian Democratic People’s Party, who have consistently governed the country in various coalition combinations.

The general election in October 1999 was noteworthy for the substantial gains made by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which moved sharply to the right during the 1990s and sought to build its electoral position by exploiting fears about the level of foreign immigration into Switzerland. In common with other European far right parties, the strategy has been fairly successful and the SVP made yet further gains at the most recent poll in October 2003 gaining almost 28% of the vote.

The principal long term question in Swiss politics has been relations with the EU, which accounts for 50% of Switzerland’s trade. The main popular concerns are the likely erosion of cantonal power, immigration levels and the loss of the country’s cherished neutrality. The division was also apparent from the result of the referendum on Swiss membership of the European Economic Area, a free-trade agreement between the European Union and EFTA (of which Switzerland is a member), held in December 1992. Opponents of the pact barely won.

Among the people, there is a rough division by age: younger people tend to favour closer links with Europe; the older people tend to place more value on neutrality. Given Switzerland’s continuing prosperity, economic arguments are not very much heard of , although there is a broad acceptance – especially in the financial community – that the Euro will become a standard feature of commercial life in the near future.

In 2001, 2 years after the inauguration of the Euro, the Swiss people voted – again in a referendum – to enhance links with the EU while endorsing a promise by the major parties that they would never countenance actually joining the EU. This appears to have put an end to the debate for the moment . The following year, it was Switzerland’s famed reputation for banking secrecy that came under inquiry from both the EU and USA, as part of a global crackdown on money laundering and large-scale tax evasion. Once again, the Swiss found themselves divided between maintaining a cherished tradition of confidentiality and being a good international citizen.