Switzerland - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Switzerland: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Switzerland, federal republic in west central Europe. Switzerland is a small, landlocked country set amid mountainous terrain in the heart of the European continent. It is bordered on the west by France, on the north by Germany, on the east by Austria, and on the south by Italy. The tiny principality of Liechtenstein lies between Switzerland and Austria. Each of the four major bordering countries has had an influence on Swiss culture. The Swiss people are an ethnic mix consisting mainly of native German, French, and Italian speakers, and most towns have two or even three correct names in those languages. The country has an area of 41,285 sq km (15,940 sq mi). Its largest city is Zürich, and the capital is Bern.

Switzerland’s official name is Confoederatio Helvetica (Latin for “Helvetic Confederation”), which is frequently translated in English as Swiss Confederation. The Helvetii, an ancient Celtic people who occupied what is now western Switzerland, were defeated by the Roman army of Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC. As a province of Rome, the region became known as Helvetia. The name Confoederatio Helvetica, an ethnically and linguistically neutral term that recalls this ancient history, is testimony to an enduring desire to forge unity among a diverse population. The name Switzerland (French Suisse; German Schweiz; Italian Svizzera), the nation’s widely recognized but unofficial designation, is a variation on Schwyz, a territory that in 1291 became the first member of the present-day confederation. The Swiss flag, a red square with a centered white cross, is a variation on the traditional flag of the Schwyz region.


Natural Regions in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the most mountainous countries of Europe. More than 70 percent of its area is covered by the Alps, in the central and southern regions, and the Jura, in the northwest. The Swiss Alps are part of the largest mountain system in Europe and are famous for their jagged peaks and steep-sided valleys.

The Swiss Alps encompass several mountain ranges, three of which are particularly noteworthy. The Pennine Alps, which form a part of Switzerland’s southwestern border with Italy, have Switzerland’s highest peak, the 4,634-m (15,203-ft) Dufourspitze, one of ten lofty summits of the Monte Rosa mountain group. Nearby is the world-famous Matterhorn (Italian Monte Cervino), a 4,478-m (14,692-ft) glacially sculpted mountain, and the 4,545-m (14,911-ft) Dom, the tallest mountain located entirely within Switzerland. The Bernese Alps, which straddle the border between the cantons of Bern and Valais, have many of Switzerland’s most famous peaks. These include the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, mountains that tower above the resort town of Interlaken. The Rhaetian Alps, which form part of the eastern border with Italy, contain Piz Bernina and neighboring peaks in the Saint Moritz area.

The Jura (Celtic for “forest”) are much lower than the Alps and occupy a smaller area. They are generally rounded and naturally wooded, with many cleared areas used as pastureland for dairying. The highest peaks in the Swiss Jura are Chasseron and Chasseral, located some 50 km (30 mi) apart, each rising to a height of 1,607 m (5,272 ft).

Between these two mountain systems lies the Swiss Plateau, or Mittelland, a basin that stretches across much of central Switzerland. It extends from Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) in the far southwest to the Bodensee (Lake of Constance) in the far northeast. A region about 50 km (30 mi) wide with an average elevation of about 400 m (about 1,300 ft) above sea level, the plateau consists of gently-to-moderately rolling terrain punctuated by hills. Most of Switzerland’s large towns and about three-quarters of the Swiss population are located in this region. The plateau contains many lakes and rivers, as well as Switzerland’s most fertile soils.

Rivers and Lakes in Switzerland

Switzerland is a principal water source in central Europe, and the nation’s rivers flow into four different seas. The Rhine, one of Europe’s major rivers, rises in eastern Switzerland. The Rhine drains much of northern Switzerland and flows to the North Sea. Its largest tributary is the Aare, which drains most of the Swiss Plateau and the southern slopes of the Jura. The Rhône, the other great European river originating in Switzerland, flows west and south to the Mediterranean Sea. The Ticino river system in southern Switzerland flows to the Po and into the Adriatic Sea. The Inn drains eastern Switzerland and flows into the Danube, which empties into the Black Sea.

Switzerland’s mountain systems contain innumerable picturesque valleys, most of which are traversed by streams and rivers. Waterfalls frequently issue from the slopes above. Some waterfalls are exceptionally high. The spectacular Staubbach Falls in the canton of Bern is one of the world’s highest, with a drop of some 300 m (about 980 ft). Glaciers feed many Swiss rivers. Among the best known is the Rhône Glacier, a vast glittering cascade of ice at the headwaters of the Rhône River. The Bernese Alps have the highest concentration of glaciers in the Alps.

Most rivers in Switzerland are not suited for navigation. Their fall is too great and their currents too swift. Even the Rhine is broken by dramatic falls near the northern city of Schaffhausen. It is not suited for commercial navigation in Switzerland until Basel, just inside the border with Germany.

Switzerland is famous for its many scenic lakes, especially those of the Alpine region. Lakes have long been important for transportation in Switzerland, and many towns are situated along lakeshores. Several lakes are shared with other countries, including Lake Geneva, Switzerland’s largest lake, on the western frontier with France, and Bodensee (Lake of Constance), on the northeastern frontier with Germany and Austria. On the southern frontier with Italy are Lake Lugano and Lake Maggiore, which lies at 190 m (640 ft) above sea level, the country’s lowest point. Lakes entirely within Switzerland include Lake of Neuchâtel, Lake of Lucerne (Vierwaldstätter See), Lake of Zürich (Zürichsee), Brienzersee, and Thunersee.

Climate in Switzerland

Switzerland has a varied climate, due largely to differences in elevation and exposure to sun and prevailing winds. On the plateau and in the lower valleys of Switzerland a temperate climate prevails, with a mean annual temperature of about 10°C (about 50°F). In the summer months, temperatures in low-lying areas can rise above 27°C (80°F). Mountainous areas are significantly cooler throughout the year, and temperatures decrease about 2 Celsius degrees (about 3 Fahrenheit degrees) for every additional 300 m (1,000 ft) of elevation. Large glaciers are found in the Alps, and permanent snow covers the highest peaks. Winter temperatures are generally below freezing throughout Switzerland, except for the north shore of Lake Geneva and the shores of the Swiss-Italian lakes, which have a mild climate like that of northern Italy. During January and February high-pressure conditions over the Alps bring clear, cold weather that is ideal for winter sports.

Precipitation in Switzerland generally increases with elevation. Precipitation on the Swiss Plateau and in the lower valleys is about 910 mm (about 36 in) annually; the higher regions typically receive more precipitation. Most precipitation occurs during the winter in the form of snow, when moisture-laden winds moving northward from the Mediterranean are forced to rise over Switzerland’s Alpine ranges.

Locally important winds include the bise and foehn. The bise is mainly a summer phenomenon in which a warm breeze moves up-valley during the day, causing cloud formation over higher elevations. The wind reverses direction about sundown and moves down the valley as a cool downdraft. The foehn, which occurs during the winter months, is a dry and relatively warm airflow that is drawn northward over the Alps. The foehn can quickly melt snow and ice, increasing the risk of mudslides and avalanches.

Natural Resources of Switzerland

Waterpower is the chief natural resource of Switzerland. The principal source of water is runoff from the considerable annual precipitation that falls on the Alps. An important complement is melt water from the country’s hundreds of glaciers. The Swiss have long harnessed the energy of falling water for productive uses. Long ago, torrents turned waterwheels that powered preindustrial mills and machinery. Today, the flow is captured by hundreds of hydroelectric power facilities, which provide 51 percent of the country’s domestic electricity.

Mineral resources are not plentiful in Switzerland. Granite, limestone, other building stones, and salt are the only abundant mineral resources with commercial value. Small deposits of iron and manganese ores also are found.

About 11 percent of Switzerland’s land is used for agriculture, while another 30 percent is covered by forests. Steep terrain is the principal obstacle to agricultural expansion. The mountainous landscape is, however, central to the country’s famous tourism industry, one of Switzerland’s most important revenue sources.

Plants and Animals in Switzerland

Switzerland’s varied climate supports a great diversity of plants and animals. In the sunny and southerly canton of Ticino, Mediterranean-style scrub vegetation and pines are common. Decorative palms also dot communities along the shores of Lake Lugano and Lake Maggiore. In the cooler, more northerly parts of the country, a mix of deciduous trees and coniferous trees dominates. The most common deciduous trees include oak, beech, maple, and chestnut. Coniferous trees include spruce, pine, and fir.

Elevation and exposure to sun have a powerful influence on Switzerland’s plant life. A major characteristic of plant geography in Switzerland is vertical zonation, a clustering of species at different elevations according to their ability to tolerate warmer or colder temperatures. The exact elevation at which one community of plants is replaced by another varies significantly in different locations. Sunny south-facing slopes, for example, are warmer and drier than shaded north-facing slopes. As a result, different species may characterize opposing slopes of a single valley.

In general, deciduous forests dominate landscapes below about 1,400 m (about 4,500 ft), while coniferous forests dominate from that elevation to about 2,200 m (about 7,200 ft). Above this elevation begins the alp, the meadow above the tree line. Various grasses and flowering plants are common here, the latter including edelweiss, alpine aster, alpine pansy, and gentianella. The realm of permanent snow and ice—the region above the alp—typically begins at about 3,000 m (about 9,800 ft).

Chamois, marmot, and ibex inhabit the Alpine regions, as do the golden eagle, bearded vulture, and Alpendohle—a relative of the crow. The forests contain deer, fox, and many species of birds, including varieties of woodpecker, pheasant, and jay. Species of wolf and lynx are still found in some areas. Lakes and wetlands provide habitat for the grebe, heron, plover, and numerous duck species. Trout are common in the streams, and salmon are found in some rivers.

Environmental Issues in Switzerland

The environmental problems faced by Switzerland stem largely from human impacts due to population growth, consumption of fossil fuels, urbanization, and the steady rise of tourism. One of the most significant threats to the environment is damage to forests from acid rain, a form of air pollution. Acid rain is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which emit sulfate and nitrate particles into the atmosphere. These compounds, which fall to the earth in the form of rain, snow, and fog, can prove fatal to trees and other plant life. Trees in Switzerland play a critical role in averting landslides and avalanches by preventing soil erosion and holding back snow. In an effort to maintain healthy trees, Switzerland vigorously supports regional, European, and global treaties aimed at reducing emissions that contribute to acid rain. Domestically, Switzerland has sought to reduce damaging emissions by enacting strict vehicle emission standards and by limiting heavy truck traffic on the transalpine routes. To further protect Swiss forests, a federal permit is required to cut trees.

The concern for plant protection extends beyond trees to numerous other species, especially flowering plants. Years of agriculture, livestock grazing, and other land-use practices have imperiled many native plant species. To help prevent extinctions, dozens of plant varieties are protected under federal law—they may not be picked, uprooted, or transplanted. Many other species have more limited protections. The Swiss National Park, located in Graubünden canton, was established mainly to protect and preserve endangered plants. Founded in 1914, it is one of Europe’s first national parks. Hundreds of nature reserves also exist in agricultural, urban, and wilderness areas across Switzerland.

Water pollution is another major environmental concern in Switzerland. Many of the nation’s rivers and lakes have been degraded by agricultural fertilizers, urban sprawl, and pollutants from automobiles and trucks. The expansion of alpine tourist resorts is of special concern because such developments can degrade pristine headwaters. Safe disposal of radioactive wastes from the nation’s nuclear power plants is also a concern.

Major Swiss environmental laws are made at the level of the federal government, although protected areas are usually managed by individual cantons. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, play an important part in conservation, environmental policymaking, and management of protected areas. Internationally, Switzerland is bound by environmental agreements on air pollution, biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, and the ozone layer. Regionally, Switzerland participates with its neighbors in agreements to protect the delicate environments of the Alps.


Over the course of human history many different groups have left their mark on Switzerland, including ancient Etruscans, Celts, Romans, and Germanic peoples. Today, most Swiss can trace their ancestry to Alpine, Nordic, and southern European peoples. The ethnic composition of Switzerland is generally defined by the country’s major language communities: German, French, Italian, and Romansch (Rhaeto-Romanic). Other ethnicities, including Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish, make up about 6 percent of the population.

Population Characteristics of Switzerland

The population of Switzerland (2009 estimate) is 7,604,467, with an overall population density of 191 persons per sq km (495 per sq mi). The population is unevenly distributed, with nearly 90 percent living on the Swiss Plateau. Some 68 percent of the population is classified as urban, but most people live in small towns. Swiss citizens account for about three-quarters of the total population. The remaining people are citizens of other countries, mainly Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. The vast majority of noncitizens are guest workers and their families.

Switzerland, like many industrialized countries, is experiencing a declining birth rate and an overall slowing of the rate of population growth. The estimated growth rate in 2009 was only 0.28 percent. Current projections suggest Switzerland’s population will begin declining in the first decades of the 21st century. The Swiss people, with an average life expectancy of 80.8 years, are among the world’s longest lived. The country’s infant mortality rate (the number of infants per 1,000 who die before the age of 1) is 4, one of the world’s lowest.

Political Divisions of Switzerland

Switzerland is a confederation of 26 states, called cantons. There are 20 full cantons and six half-cantons; the half-cantons were formed when three full cantons were subdivided. The cantons and half-cantons are as follows: Aargau; Appenzell (consisting of the half-cantons Appenzell-Ausserrhoden and Appenzell-Innerrhoden); Basel (consisting of the half-cantons Basel-Landschaft and Basel-Stadt); Bern; Fribourg; Geneva (Genève); Glarus; Graubünden (Grisons); Jura; Lucerne (Luzern); Neuchâtel; Sankt Gallen; Schaffhausen; Schwyz; Solothurn (Soleure); Thurgau; Ticino; Unterwalden (consisting of the half-cantons Nidwalden and Obwalden); Uri; Valais; Vaud; Zug; and Zürich. The cantons and half-cantons are subdivided into communes (German gemeinde), which are roughly equivalent to counties and number about 3,000.

Principal Cities of Switzerland

The capital of Switzerland is Bern, which has a population (2005 estimate) of 122,178. Zürich (347,517) is a financial center and Switzerland’s largest city. Basel (163,930) is a commercial center noted for textile and clothing manufacturing. Geneva (178,722) is a cultural, financial, and manufacturing center that is also home to the headquarters of several hundred international organizations, including the Red Cross and the World Health Organization. Lausanne (117,388) is a transportation center and the permanent home of the International Olympic Committee, which administers the Olympic Games.

Religion in Switzerland

Roman Catholicism is the faith of about 44 percent of the population of Switzerland, and about 41 percent of the people are Protestant. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and people of the Jewish faith make up a small percentage of the population, while those with no religion number about 7 percent. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the Swiss constitution. A national referendum in 1973 repealed articles of the constitution, dating to 1848, that prevented members of the Jesuit order (a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church) and affiliated societies from settling in Switzerland.

Several important developments of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation occurred in Switzerland. The pastor Huldreich Zwingli instituted sweeping reforms in Zürich as a Swiss Reformation leader. Later, French theologian John Calvin took residence in Geneva where his religious doctrines and reforms in civil administration and education achieved lasting influence.

Languages spoken in Switzerland

The official languages of Switzerland are German (spoken by 64 percent of the population), French (19 percent), and Italian (8 percent). The fourth national language, Romansch, is spoken by less than 1 percent of the people. Other languages, particularly Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish, are spoken by the remaining population.

Most Swiss are multilingual. In a majority of the cantons the most commonly spoken language is Schweizerdeutsch (Swiss German), an Alamannic dialect of German differing vastly from other German dialects. Newspapers and magazines are written in standard German, however, and German is the language of many theater, motion picture, and television productions. French is the most commonly spoken language in the cantons of Fribourg, Jura, Vaud, Valais, Neuchâtel, and Geneva, and Italian is the predominant language in Ticino. Romansch, a Romance language, is spoken chiefly in the canton of Graubünden.

Education in Switzerland

Switzerland has a long history as a center of education, and its modern educational system is among the best in the world. Literacy is nearly 100 percent. The pedagogic tradition in Switzerland, particularly religious education, was inspired in part by John Calvin, who settled in Switzerland in 1536. The 18th-century Geneva-born philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau promoted an influential view of education that emphasized the importance of individual self-expression. The theories of Johann Pestalozzi, the 18th-century Swiss educational reformer who advocated that children should learn from their own experiences, have contributed to the development of educational practices around the world. In recent times, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget became widely recognized for his insights into the learning abilities and habits of children.

Responsibility for primary and secondary education lies with the cantons and half-cantons. Public primary schools are free, and education is compulsory for children from age 6 or 7 until age 15 or 16, depending on the canton. Schools are taught in the local official language. To promote national unity, primary school students are required to study a second national language.

The cantons and half-cantons also administer gymnasiums (college-preparatory schools), teacher-training institutes, and various institutions of higher learning and special schools. Switzerland’s vocational schools have a reputation for providing quality technical training for the job market. Enrollment in vocational schools has waned in recent decades as the economy has shifted away from manufacturing and toward services. At the same time, university enrollment has increased appreciably—more than 50 percent since 1980.

Most universities in Switzerland are under cantonal control. They include the universities at Basel (founded in 1460), Lausanne (1537), Geneva (1559), Zürich (1833), Fribourg (1889), and Neuchâtel (1909). The only institutions of higher education administered by the federal government are the Federal Institutes of Technology at Zürich and Lausanne. The academic excellence of Swiss universities is well known and draws students from around the world.


Switzerland has a rich and diverse cultural heritage. The German, French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Roman cultures embodied in the Swiss linguistic regions have all profoundly influenced the broader Swiss culture, even as they have retained their own distinctive forms of expression. Foreign influences have shaped Switzerland since early times. By the Middle Ages the country had achieved a high level of cultural development. Carolingian culture, especially painting and Romanesque architecture, flourished, and the Sankt Gallen (Saint-Gall) monastery emerged as a brilliant educational center. Since that time the Swiss have assimilated most important European cultural trends, including humanism and the Reformation. For centuries Switzerland’s tradition of neutrality enriched Swiss culture by attracting a wide variety of creative people to the country during times of turmoil and war.

Swiss contributions to science and philosophy over the centuries are numerous. The influential 16th-century Swiss physician Philippus Paracelsus, who combined the study of chemistry and medicine, is sometimes considered the first modern scientist. Nicholas of Fluë, a 15th-century theologian, achieved wide recognition and was canonized in 1947. Mathematician Leonhard Euler made many important discoveries in the 18th century, as did Nobel Prize-winning chemist Alfred Werner in the 19th century. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the major writers of the Age of Enlightenment, and educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi laid the groundwork for modern elementary education in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Huldreich Zwingli and John Calvin, leaders of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, are claimed by the Swiss, as are the eminent 20th-century psychological theorists Jean Piaget and Carl Gustav Jung. Jakob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian of art and culture, wrote the acclaimed Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860; Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1878).

Literature in Switzerland

Though small in size, Switzerland has a great literary tradition. Swiss literature encompasses Latin-Swiss literature and German-Swiss and French-Swiss literatures, which are closely linked to the literatures of the neighboring countries. Latin-Swiss literature was important chiefly during the Middle Ages in religious and humanistic works. Historically less significant are the Italian-Swiss, Romansch, and Swiss-dialect literatures.

The most influential Swiss literature is in German, beginning with the poetry of the minnesingers of the Middle Ages and including the popular ballads and chronicles dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Celebrated 19th-century German-Swiss authors include Gottfried Keller, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Jeremias Gotthelf (pseudonym of Albert Bitzius), and 20th-century Nobel Prize winners Carl Spitteler (1919) and Hermann Hesse (1946). The works of 20th-century dramatists Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt are widely known and produced. Johanna Spyri wrote the children’s classic Heidi (1880; translated 1884). Among the best-known French-Swiss authors are Germaine de Staël, whose novel Corinne, ou l’Italie (Corinna, or Italy, 1807) had a deep influence on fiction of the era, and 20th-century novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Among Romansch writers, Peider Lansel gained a reputation as an outstanding poet in the early 20th century.

Architecture in Switzerland

Much of Switzerland’s historic architecture has survived into the modern era, having been spared the ravages of two 20th-century world wars. Roman occupation of Switzerland in the 1st century BC gave rise to numerous colonies, and many Roman ruins and monuments are well preserved. Noteworthy examples of surviving Romanesque architecture can be found in the towns of Avenches, Martigny, and Windisch, and in numerous cathedrals and castles across the countryside. Later architectural styles, including Gothic, baroque, and Renaissance, found rich expression in Switzerland, and these styles are still visible in urban areas, especially Bern. In addition, no fewer than 20 styles of regional folk architecture have been identified. Switzerland is also known for its many covered bridges, which date from as far back as the 14th century.

The most influential modern Swiss architect is Le Corbusier, a pseudonym for Charles Édouard Jeanneret. A major force in modern architecture, Le Corbusier helped develop the International Style that dominated architecture in the early 20th century. Swiss engineer Robert Maillart won acclaim for his innovative bridge designs during the first half of the 20th century.

Visual Arts in Switzerland

A number of Swiss painters and sculptors have achieved international recognition over the centuries. Chief among them are painters Konrad Witz, Henry Fuseli, Arnold Böcklin, and Ferdinand Hodler. Perhaps the best-known Swiss painter is Paul Klee, considered one of the original masters of modern art. Sculptor Alberto Giacometti won renown for his highly distinctive elongated figures, while fellow Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely achieved recognition for his elaborate mechanical sculptures and junk art.

Noteworthy contemporary artists include sculptors Roman Signer and Thomas Hirschhorn, and mixed-media artists Pipilotti Rist and Sylvie Fleury. Virtually every city of consequence in Switzerland has one or more art museums. Switzerland also has a small film industry, which is subsidized by the federal government. The annual Locarno International Film Festival, which highlights the work of young filmmakers, is widely renowned.

Performing Arts in Switzerland


Although Switzerland is best known for its rich tradition of folk music, Swiss composers have made notable contributions to European classical music since the Renaissance compositions of Ludwig Senfl and Heinrich Loris (called Henricus Glareanus). Influential Swiss composers in the 20th century include Arthur Honegger, Ernest Bloch, Othmar Schoeck, Frank Martin, Ernst Levy, and Conrad Beck. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet gained worldwide fame as conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, based in Geneva.

Traditional Swiss folk music encompasses a wide range of instruments, including the alphorn, a long wooden instrument historically used by alpine herders to communicate. The yodel, a singing style characterized by rapid shifts to falsetto and back, offered another means of communication among isolated herders.

Music remains an important part of contemporary Swiss culture. Zürich, Geneva, and Lausanne each have their own opera houses as well as resident companies that offer a regular schedule of performances during the year. Lucerne hosts an annual international music festival, and numerous events devoted to folk, pop, country, and jazz are held throughout Switzerland. The Montreux Jazz Festival is especially well known.


Swiss drama has a long history, and the theater has enjoyed tremendous growth as a popular art form since the late 19th century. Today, leading centers of drama include the Stadttheater Basel, Stadttheater Bern, Grand Théâtre de Genève, Théâtre de la Comédie in Geneva, and Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne. In addition to these large, state-subsidized venues, numerous small independent theaters are found throughout the country, giving aspiring dramatists the opportunity to have their plays produced. Even in Romansch-speaking Switzerland, for example, amateur groups perform Romansch plays and translated works. Professional ballet companies are present in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zürich.

Libraries and Museums in Switzerland

Switzerland has many federal, cantonal, and municipal public libraries. These are complemented by collections maintained by universities, private organizations, and religious institutions. The library of Basel University, with several million volumes, is among the largest in Switzerland. The Swiss National Library, in Bern, and the libraries of the United Nations (UN) and of the International Labor Organization (ILO), both in Geneva, are among the most important specialized libraries. The Abbey Library in Sankt Gallen contains thousands of old and rare works that date from the 8th century.

The National Museum, in Zürich, houses the most important of several large historical collections in Switzerland. Fine arts museums in Basel, Bern, and Zürich contain collections of 15th- and 16th-century German, 17th- and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish, 19th-century French impressionist, and contemporary European works. The Museum of Art and History and the Museum of Natural History, both in Geneva, are perhaps the best of their types in the country. Noteworthy specialty museums include the International Museum of Horology, devoted to clocks and timepieces, in La Chaux-de-Fonds; the Swiss Transportation Museum, the country’s most visited museum, in Lucerne; and the Swiss Open Air Museum at Ballenberg, which preserves houses and farm buildings that epitomize the country’s rich rural architecture.


Switzerland has a highly developed industrialized economy and one of the highest standards of living in the world. Gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 totaled $424.4 billion. Services constitute the dominant sector of the Swiss economy, with banking, insurance, tourism, government administration, and other services accounting for 73 percent of all employment. Industry, primarily manufacturing and construction, employs 23 percent. Switzerland’s domestic market is small, and most Swiss manufacturing is geared to the production of high-quality goods for export. Key exports include machinery and electronics; chemicals and pharmaceuticals; and watches, musical instruments, and jewelry. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employ 4 percent of Swiss workers.

Labor in Switzerland

In 2007 the Swiss labor force was made up of 4.2 million people. Switzerland’s excellent educational system produces large numbers of young people with academic, technical, and vocational training for the job market. Progressive employment legislation ensures that workers are well paid and well cared for. By federal law, men and women who perform the same work must receive the same pay. Imbued with a strong work ethic, the Swiss are among the world leaders in number of hours worked per year and in the least amount of time lost to labor strikes and other disruptions. Foreigners comprise about one-quarter of the labor force. The leading labor group is the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions.

Agriculture of Switzerland

Because cultivation is difficult on the steep slopes that characterize so much of Switzerland, a majority of the country’s arable land is devoted to pasture for grazing animals. The dairy cow was domesticated in Switzerland in prehistoric times, and dairying has long dominated the agricultural sector of the Swiss economy. Today, dairy products account for about 35 percent of the value of all Swiss agricultural activity; livestock accounts for another 28 percent. Cheese and milk chocolate—two quintessential Swiss products—are derived from the dairy industry. Dozens of varieties of cheese are produced and exported, including the world-famous Swiss cheese, also known as Emmentaler because it is produced in the valley of the Emme River. Almost equally famous is Gruyère, produced in and around the town of the same name. Milk chocolates are made in considerable quantity. Nestlé S.A., Switzerland’s largest single employer, and Lindt, are major manufacturers of chocolate products. Dozens of other Swiss chocolate manufacturers are known regionally and internationally.

Dairying has given rise to some of Switzerland’s most enduring practices and symbols. Among the most important is the transhumance, the seasonal movement of livestock between lowland pastures and alpine meadows. The cycle begins in spring with the alpaufzug, in which herders and their animals move up into alpine meadows as the snow retreats. During this time of year, cows are fitted with bells of different size and pitch so they can be found more easily in severe weather; the bells produce a pleasant clanging across the alps. In the fall, before the snow returns, herders and their animals return to lower elevations in a movement called the alpabfahrt. Both the ascent and descent are cause for local celebration and are marked by the donning of traditional costume.

Cultivation of grapes for wine began in Switzerland during Roman times. Today, the production of grapes, and other fruits, accounts for about 11 percent of the value of the country’s agricultural output. Warm, south-facing slopes are favored for grape cultivation. The land that rises above Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux (locally called Corniche de Lavaux) is an important center of grape production and is especially picturesque.

Employment in the agricultural sector has dropped significantly in recent decades, declining 25 percent between the years 1985 and 1995. At the same time, the value of Switzerland’s agricultural production has risen. The employment loss is principally a result of the mechanization of agriculture and land consolidation, as many small, family-owned farms are replaced by larger agribusinesses.

Forestry and Fishing in Switzerland

About 30 percent of Switzerland is forested. For centuries timber was one of Switzerland’s most important sources of raw material and fuel. Today, Swiss forests are carefully managed to prevent any net loss of woodlands, which are vital to preserving Switzerland’s water quality, wildlife, and scenic beauty, as well as to help protect against landslides and avalanches. Reforestation of cleared areas is required under Swiss law. Most timber is harvested in small, selective cuttings. Production of timber in Switzerland was 5.7 million cu m (201 million cu ft) in 2007.

Fishing is a minor industry in Switzerland, with catches of fish such as salmon and trout totaling about 2,636 metric tons in 2007. Most fishing takes place on Lakes Geneva and Neuchâtel and Bodensee and their tributary rivers.

Mining in Switzerland

The Swiss mining industry is not of major importance. Mineral production mainly involves rock salt and cement.

Manufacturing in Switzerland

Although raw materials are scarce in Switzerland, the country has a well-developed manufacturing sector. Switzerland’s skilled workers convert imported raw materials into high-value exports.

Historically, manufacturing in Switzerland stems from the country’s abundant sources of waterpower. For centuries the physical energy of falling water turned water wheels that powered mills and machinery of all sorts, especially those involved in textile manufacturing. Textiles, in turn, created demand for dyes, which stimulated development of a chemical industry. The country’s engineering, machinery, electrical, and metal industries also can trace their origins in part to the age of water wheels. Because potential waterpower exists throughout the country, Switzerland never developed a manufacturing belt or industrial heartland. Instead, industrial production is geographically dispersed.

Today, heavy engineering and machine building, especially the manufacture of top-quality custom-built equipment, accounts for a significant portion of Swiss exports. Switzerland is the largest producer of textile machinery in the world, and one of the world’s top manufacturers of weighing and printing machines. Switzerland remains a world leader in the production of dyestuffs, and the Swiss pharmaceutical industry ranks among the top producers of specialized drugs.

Also important to the economy are smaller products of precision engineering, especially watches, chronometers, and clocks—an industry that dates to the 16th century in Switzerland. Most important developments in watchmaking since that time have come from Switzerland, whose manufacturers have earned world renown for their expertise, workmanship, and inventiveness. Switzerland has been the world’s dominant producer of watches and chronometers since the 19th century. The contemporary Swiss watch industry is concentrated in cities and towns throughout the Jura region. Hundreds of Swiss firms annually produce some 1.5 billion watches, movements, basic parts, and other watchmaking products—95 percent of which are exported. Famous for its exquisitely engineered luxury timepieces, Switzerland is also known for making the world’s bestselling plastic watch, the Swatch.

Not all products manufactured for export have their origins in modern factories and workshops. Switzerland also has a long tradition of producing high-quality handicrafts. Most important among these are music boxes, embroideries, laces, and carved wooden objects.

Services in Switzerland

Currency and Banking

The unit of currency is the Swiss franc, divided into 100 centimes (1.20 francs equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The semiprivate Swiss National Bank, the nation’s central bank, is the bank of issue. Shares in the bank are held by the cantons, other banks, and the public.

Switzerland is a major international financial center, and private banking is one of the country’s principal employers and sources of income. Leading commercial banks are the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS AG) and the Credit Suisse (Swiss Credit Bank). The Zürich Stock Exchange is one of the most important in Europe, and the city is also a major trade center for gold.

International depositors and financiers have long favored Swiss banks because of Switzerland’s political and monetary stability, experience in financial matters, and banking secrecy laws. The Swiss banking industry rose to international prominence after World War I (1914-1918), when inflation eroded the currencies of many war-damaged European countries. A neutral nation, Switzerland emerged from the war with a strong economy and stable currency. Foreign money deposited in Swiss banks, and accounted for in Swiss francs, stood little chance of being lost to inflation. The advent of the banking secrecy laws largely coincided with the rise of German dictator Adolf Hitler in the years preceding World War II (1939-1945). Fearful of Hitler’s intentions, many Europeans—especially Jewish people—began transferring personal and commercial assets to Swiss banks. Hitler, angered that assets in Germany had been sent abroad, dispatched agents to Switzerland to investigate. In response, Swiss authorities enacted secrecy laws shielding the accounts from scrutiny.

In recent decades Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws have drawn criticism. A frequent complaint is that such secrecy has helped criminals to hide their ill-gotten gains. In the mid-1990s, in response to domestic and international pressure, Switzerland agreed to relax banking secrecy laws when accounts are the subject of criminal investigations. During the same period, a growing controversy emerged over funds in unclaimed accounts of victims of the Nazi Holocaust. In 1995 the Swiss Banking Association (SBA), under pressure from leading Jewish organizations, consented to search its vaults for such accounts. A survey of the largest Swiss banks revealed $34 million in dormant accounts opened before 1945. Jewish groups disputed the findings, claiming the search should have turned up billions of dollars in lost assets. Subsequent investigations confirmed the existence of thousands of additional accounts. In 1998 Swiss banks agreed to a global settlement of all claims and suits against them. This led to the creation of a $1.25 billion fund to compensate Holocaust victims and their descendants. Not everyone considers the matter closed, however, and investigations and legal maneuverings continue.

In March 2009 Switzerland for the first time agreed to adopt bank secrecy standards set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that are aimed at curbing tax evasion and fraud. Although Swiss officials maintained that they would continue to protect the privacy of Swiss bank depositors from unjustified scrutiny, they agreed to cooperate with criminal investigations of tax evasion and fraud.

Foreign Trade

Switzerland is highly dependent on foreign trade, both for imports and exports. Swiss trade policy is marked by a strong preference for free trade, low import duties, and few import quotas, apart from limited quotas applied to some agricultural goods. The vast majority of Switzerland’s foreign trade is with its industrialized neighbors in western Europe, in addition to the United States, Japan, and China. In 2000 Switzerland’s chief trading partners for exports were, in order of importance, Germany, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, and China. Leading partners for imports were Germany, France, Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Switzerland generally earns less from exports than it spends on imports. Despite this deficit in foreign trade, Switzerland maintains a positive balance of international payments because of the large income it receives from other sources, mainly payments for services. These include international banking, insurance, and tourism.


The tourism industry is a leading source of foreign exchange and employment in Switzerland. Tourism has been important in Switzerland since the Enlightenment, when writers, artists, and scientists found inspiration in the majestic pinnacles of the Alps. Picturesque lakeside towns, including Interlaken, Lausanne, Lucerne, Montreux, and Vevey, were the initial centers of the Swiss tourism industry. In the 19th century, during the early era of mountain climbing, foreign adventurers flocked to high-altitude towns, such as Zermatt.

Swiss tourism experienced its most significant expansion in the decades after World War II. Of major importance was the advent of downhill skiing as a popular winter sport, made possible by the development of the ski lift and cable car. Dozens of resorts have since blossomed throughout the Swiss Alps, making Switzerland the skiing capital of the world. Switzerland receives tens of millions of visitors annually.

Infrastructure in Switzerland


Switzerland’s extensive waterpower resources account for about 51 percent of the country’s domestic electricity, or about 16 percent of its total energy needs. More than half of Switzerland’s total energy needs are met by oil and natural gas, virtually all of which is imported. During the 1970s Switzerland turned increasingly to nuclear power to meet the rising demand for energy, and today nuclear power plants generate about 44 percent of all electricity generated in Switzerland. Output from all sources in 2006 was 60.2 billion kilowatt-hours.


Switzerland has a highly developed transportation system, with a dense road network and comfortable, efficient trains. Hundreds of finely engineered tunnels and bridges cross the country’s rugged terrain. Especially important are the transalpine tunnels that permit year-round travel through the Alps, which were historically a formidable barrier to movement between northern and southern Europe. These include the Saint Gotthard and Lotschberg train tunnels, and the 16.3-km (10.1-mi) Saint Gotthard Road Tunnel, the world’s longest automobile tunnel and the main artery of European transalpine traffic. An immense volume of traffic traverses these routes, causing substantial air and noise pollution and leading to plans to widen existing tunnels and construct new ones. The largest of these projects is the 57-km (35-mi) Saint Gotthard Base Tunnel, a railway tunnel scheduled to open in 2014. In 1994 Swiss voters approved a controversial referendum to protect alpine areas from the negative effects of heavy traffic. The measure authorized the Swiss government to restrict traffic over transalpine roads and to shift most transalpine freight from trucks to railroad cars.

Swiss Federal Railways, owned by the federal government, operates a majority of Switzerland’s more than 5,000 km (3,000 mi) of railroad track, nearly all of which is electrified. Switzerland also has a large number of private railroads, many of which are partially owned by local governments. Few locations in Switzerland are far from a train station. To conquer Switzerland’s great heights, the railroads make ample use of switchbacks and loops. More important for high-altitude access, however, is the cog locomotive, which has a special gearlike wheel with teeth that engage a separate toothed rail. This permits steady ascent and controlled descent on steep grades. Swiss cog locomotives offer some of the world’s most spectacular train rides, including the Glacier Express, which runs between Zermatt and Saint Moritz, and the Bernese Oberland railway, which climbs from Interlaken to the Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest train station at 3,454 m (11,332 ft). The punctuality of train service is a national hallmark.

Switzerland’s highway system is equally first-rate. Roads totaled 71,214 km (44,250 mi mi) in 2004. The rate of automobile ownership in Switzerland is high and growing; in 2000 there was one automobile for every two people. Increasing vehicular use is straining the road system, and most major roads and highways are heavily congested, especially during the summer and winter tourist seasons. Buses also are an important part of public transportation in Switzerland, especially the famous, brightly painted post buses operated by Swiss Post. The schedules of post buses are timed to coincide with the departure of trains, which serve nearly every village and town.

Waterways constitute another part of Switzerland’s transportation network. The Rhine is the largest navigable river in the country, but it is suited for commercial navigation only along the 19-km (12-mi) stretch between Basel and Rheinfelden. A canal linking the Rhine and Rhône is important for industrial shipping. Switzerland’s many lakes are used for transportation and recreation; pleasure cruises are especially popular. Although Switzerland is landlocked, the Swiss merchant marine, created by decree of the federal government in 1941, consists of 35 large oceangoing vessels and numerous river barges, which operate from foreign ports and from the port of Basel on the Rhine River.

International air transport is provided by Swiss International Air Lines, which is owned jointly by public and private investors. Switzerland’s international airports are in Zürich, Geneva, and Basel.


The Swiss government plays a major role in the provision of postal and telecommunications services throughout Switzerland. In the late 1990s, in response to deregulation in international markets, Switzerland instituted reforms to make postal and telecommunications services more flexible and market-oriented. The Swiss Postal and Telecommunications agency was divided into two separate units. Swiss Post, which remains a federally owned institution, handles mail. Telecom PTT, which was partially privatized, oversees telecommunications services and maintains networks for sound and data transmission. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation provides radio and television programs in German, French, and Italian, and Swiss Radio International transmits radio programs to foreign countries. In 1997 there were 979 radios and 542 television receivers in use per 1,000 people. Switzerland has 96 daily newspapers; dailies with international reputations include Neue Zürcher Zeitung, published in Zürich, and Journal de Genève, published in Geneva.


Switzerland is a federal republic governed under a constitution adopted in 1874 and amended many times since. The Swiss political system combines direct and indirect democracy with the principle of federalism, in which subnational units of government are granted wide powers. Sovereign power rests with the people, who elect representatives and also legislate directly by means of referendums. In federal elections, all citizens aged 18 or older are eligible to vote.

Under Switzerland’s system of federalism, the cantons and half-cantons exercise all the powers of government, except those delegated exclusively to the federal government. These include the power to declare war and make peace, to conclude treaties and alliances, to train, equip, and direct the armed forces, and to regulate foreign trade. Both the federal government and the subnational units (cantons and communes) have the power to levy taxes. The federal government also regulates roads, railroads, and communications; hydroelectric power; higher education; and labor. The cantons have freedom in a wide range of policy areas and a high degree of administrative autonomy.

The referendum is an important instrument of direct democracy in Switzerland. A constitutional amendment may be initiated by a petition of 100,000 voters and must be ratified by referendum. A petition of 50,000 voters or eight cantons can force a referendum on proposed laws. Referendums have decided many significant issues in Switzerland. These include creating the canton of Jura in 1979; rejecting restrictions on abortion and some forms of contraception in 1985; tightening constraints on immigration and political asylum in 1987; making racial discrimination, racist propaganda, and denial of the German Nazi Holocaust illegal in 1994; and defeating a proposal to abolish the military in 2001. In 2002 Swiss voters approved a referendum supporting Swiss membership in the United Nations. Referendums have also been central to extending rights to women. A referendum in 1971 granted women the right to vote in federal elections (a right eventually extended in all the cantons by 1990), and an equal rights amendment to the constitution was approved by referendum in 1981. A 1985 referendum granted women legal equality with men in marriage.

Executive of Switzerland

Executive power in Switzerland is vested in the Bundesrat, or Federal Council. The Bundesrat is composed of seven members who are elected to four-year terms by a joint session of the parliament. Bundesrat members are elected from among members of the parliament and are responsible to that body. All major political parties are represented on the council, and no two members of the Bundesrat may come from the same canton. The Bundesrat enforces existing laws and drafts new legislation, conducts foreign affairs, and authorizes the mobilization of troops.

The legislature elects a president and a vice president from among the council members to a single one-year term. The president presides over meetings of the Bundesrat, but otherwise holds a largely symbolic position. Each of the seven council members heads one of the federal ministries. These are the ministries of economy, foreign affairs, transportation and power, interior, finance, defense, and justice and police.

Legislature of Switzerland

The Swiss parliament, called the Federal Assembly, consists of two houses. The Ständerat, or Council of States, the upper house, has 46 members (two for each full canton and one for each half-canton), each elected for varying periods at the discretion of the canton. The Nationalrat, or National Council, the lower house, has 200 members elected for four-year terms under a system of proportional representation. Seats in the National Council are allocated to cantons in proportion to population size, with each canton receiving a minimum of one seat.

Judiciary in Switzerland

The Federal Tribunal, located in Lausanne, is the highest court of appeal in the land. It has final jurisdiction in suits between the cantonal and federal governments, corporations and individuals, and between cantons. The court is composed of 30 judges who are appointed to six-year terms by the Federal Assembly. It has original jurisdiction only in cases involving offenses against the confederation, and—unlike the United States Supreme Court—it may not review the constitutionality of federal laws. There are no lower federal courts in Switzerland. Capital punishment was abolished for civilians in 1942 and for wartime offenses in 1991.

Each canton has its own autonomous system of justice, including civil and criminal courts and a court of appeals. Cantonal courts are responsible for interpreting federal law as it pertains to local matters. The cantonal judiciary is composed of two or three levels of courts, depending on the size of the canton. A single national code for criminal, civil, and commercial law was introduced in 1942.

Local Government of Switzerland

A concern for self-government is firmly established in Switzerland, and units of local government are at the core of the country’s system of decentralized democracy. All powers not delegated to the confederation by the Swiss constitution are reserved to the cantons. Forms of cantonal government vary, but most of the 26 cantons (there are 20 full cantons and six half-cantons) have an elected legislative council and an executive council. Several smaller cantons have preserved direct democracy in the form of a Landsgemeinde (German for “village community”), a general assembly of voting citizens who decide matters by a show of hands or voice vote.

Each canton is composed of communes, the smallest units of local government. There are some 3,000 communes in Switzerland, many of which comprise a town or city. Citizens elect their communal authorities, who convene in local councils. Communes are largely autonomous in many governmental matters. They have the authority to levy taxes; maintain local roads, bridges, and public buildings; provide water and electricity; and administer primary and secondary schools, police and fire services, and social services. In addition, the communes—not the federal government—control the granting of Swiss citizenship to foreigners. Adjacent communes may group into a district, which is headed by a prefect who represents the cantonal government.

Political Parties of Switzerland

The Swiss have a multiparty system. In 1959 a power-sharing arrangement known as the “magic formula” was drawn up to ensure consensus politics among the country’s four leading parties. These parties were the Swiss People’s Party, representing the far right of the political spectrum; the Social Democratic Party, a left-of-center party advocating principles of democratic socialism; the Radical Free Democratic Party, a centrist party promoting a strong federal government and liberal democratic principles; and the Christian Democratic People’s Party, a centrist party promoting cantonal rights. The Swiss People’s Party, which promotes anti-foreigner policies, has gained in popularity in recent years, becoming the largest party in the Swiss parliament. The pro-environment Green Party also increased its share of seats.

Health and Welfare in Switzerland

The Federal Insurance Law of 1911 regulates accident and sickness insurance. Accident insurance is compulsory for most officials and workers. Compulsory insurance against illness does not exist at the federal level in Switzerland, although cantons and communes may make it obligatory. Unemployment insurance is compulsory for all wage earners. Old-age and survivor’s insurance, which also includes disability benefits, has been compulsory since 1948; it is financed by a payroll tax on both employers and employees.

Defense of Switzerland

The Swiss military consists of an army and air force that number about 220,000 in total. Service in the Swiss military is compulsory for all males. Women are exempt but may volunteer for a variety of roles. A typical male inductee is called to service at the age of 20, undergoes a few months of basic training and a period of service, then returns to civilian life. For the next 20 years or more, however, inductees are periodically recalled by the military to take refresher courses designed to maintain and update military skills. In the meantime an inductee may be asked to serve at any time. Switzerland’s citizen-soldiers keep weapons and ammunition, uniforms, and other equipment at home, and the country can fully mobilize for defensive purposes within about 48 hours.

Given this overall structure, the Swiss military is best described as a highly trained militia, rather than as a standing army. Only about 1 percent of military personnel serve full time, typically as members of the officer corps. In peacetime, the military has no hierarchical leader. A general is selected by the parliament only when military mobilization is required.


In pre-Roman times the territory now known as Switzerland was inhabited by the Helvetii in the west and the Rhaetians, a people believed to have been related to the Etruscans, in the east. In the 1st century BC Julius Caesar and the Romans conquered the region, which they named Helvetia, and it became thoroughly Romanized. A series of Germanic invasions swept over the Western Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, and two Germanic groups—the Burgundians and the Alamanni—conquered Helvetia.

The Middle Ages

The Franks in turn conquered the Alamanni in the 5th century AD and the Burgundians in the early 6th century. The Franks introduced a new civilization based largely on Christianity. On the dissolution of the Frankish Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, most of Switzerland became part of the duchy of Alemannia, or Swabia, one of the great feudal states of the German Kingdom; the southwestern part was incorporated into the kingdom of Transjurane Bourgogne. In 1033 Switzerland was united under the German-dominated Holy Roman Empire. The Swiss area consisted of a collection of petty states, ruled by dukes, counts, bishops, and abbots, and a number of small city-states, independent by imperial charter, which later became cantonal commonwealths.

Struggle for Independence

In 1276 Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I of the Habsburg dynasty attempted to assert feudal rights in Switzerland, making his power a threat to the traditional liberties of the Swiss. To resist Rudolf’s aggression, representatives of the three so-called forest cantons—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—gathered on August 1, 1291, in a meadow above the Lake of Lucerne, and entered a league for mutual defense. This event is regarded as the birth of Switzerland. Events preceding the conflict gave rise to the story of William Tell, Switzerland’s most famous folk hero. According to legend, a villainous governor named Gessler was sent by Habsburg authorities to govern the canton of Uri. To proclaim his power, Gessler required passing locals to salute his hat, which had been placed on a pole. When Tell refused, he was arrested and ordered to shoot an arrow through an apple resting on his son’s head. After doing so, Tell was arrested again, but later escaped and killed Gessler—an event that is said to have prompted the Swiss uprising against the Habsburgs.

The first test of strength for the confederation came in 1315, when mountaineers (peasant foot soldiers) of the forest cantons confronted the superior forces of the Habsburgs and their allies. The Swiss fighters routed the Habsburg forces at Morgarten Pass in the canton of Schwyz, effectively guaranteeing the independence of the young confederacy. This victory encouraged other communities to join the confederation. The urban cantons of Lucerne, Zürich, and Bern, and the rural cantons of Glarus and Zug, made separate alliances with the three forest cantons between 1332 and 1353, establishing a series of confederations. Though lacking a coherent structure, these alliances were able to provide for the independence of every community.

In the 15th century the Swiss Confederation was strong enough to undertake a vigorous program of expansion. The Swiss captured Aargau in 1415, and from 1451 to 1466 the confederation won a series of new allies: Sankt Gallen, in 1451; Appenzell, in 1452; Schaffhausen and Stein am Rhein, in 1459; Rottweil, in 1463; and Mulhouse, in 1466. However, these areas were not granted full rights. Swiss armies defeated the armies of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1476, and of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1499. By the Treaty of Basel on September 22, 1499, Maximilian was compelled to abandon his plans to reassert control in Switzerland and recognize the unofficial independence of the Swiss. Soon afterward the confederation expanded again and by 1513 included the cantons of Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell. This created a federal union of 13 cantons that continued unchanged until the French Revolution.

In the early 16th century, Swiss troops, fighting with the French, were able to annex the Italian districts and towns that later formed the canton of Ticino. Swiss fighters later sided with Italy in a campaign to drive the French from the Po Valley. The campaign initially succeeded, but French forces returned to the Po and in 1515 dealt the Swiss a crushing defeat at Maringano in northern Italy. The defeat proved to the Swiss that they could not hope to defeat their larger neighbors in battle. Soon afterward, the Swiss renounced their expansionist aims, proclaimed a neutral foreign policy, and turned to developing the country’s rich potential as a crossroads of trade routes. Since then, Switzerland’s policy of neutrality has been strictly observed.

Despite Switzerland’s withdrawal from international warfare, Swiss mercenaries—known for their great courage and skill in war—became famous throughout Europe. They continued to serve in other armies for centuries. The tradition was largely abandoned in the 18th century when Swiss fighters increasingly found themselves on opposing sides of European conflicts. The Swiss Guard, the papal guard of the Vatican in Rome, is a vestige of that era.


The Protestant Reformation spread to Switzerland in 1518, when a Swiss pastor named Huldreich Zwingli began preaching in Zürich. Zwingli denounced the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, and the city of Zürich, under Zwingli’s leadership, subsequently revolted against church dogma. Zwingli’s followers burned relics, banned the adoration of saints, and released clerics from their vows of celibacy. Vigorously backed by the merchant class, such innovations further asserted the city’s independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, which had yet to officially recognize Swiss independence. Zwingli soon found adherents in other Swiss towns, including Basel and Bern, but had difficulties in conservative rural areas.

In 1536 the people of Geneva declared themselves Protestant, refused to acknowledge the authority of their Roman Catholic bishop, and proclaimed Geneva a republic. John Calvin, a French theologian and Protestant reformer, was invited to Geneva to lead its citizens in reforming the church. Calvin organized his church democratically, incorporating ideas of representative government. From 1541 to 1564 Geneva became the stronghold of the Calvinist brand of Protestantism.

Because Protestantism failed to take hold in Switzerland’s Roman Catholic central cantons, a religious split was inevitable. A series of short religious wars between the Protestant and Catholic cantons ensued, resulting in a rough balance of power between the two religions. Largely because of this equilibrium, the cantons remained outside the bitter religious wars that engulfed Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 1648 Peace of Westphalia Switzerland won official recognition as an independent state.

Internal Developments

Switzerland grew increasingly prosperous in the 17th and 18th centuries. The country’s neutrality proved economically beneficial during the Thirty Years’ War and other conflicts, as Swiss merchants profited from wartime trade. At the same time, Swiss industry greatly expanded, aided by an influx of refugees. The textile industry, established centuries earlier, became the county’s most important industrial enterprise. Factories spinning significant quantities of cotton, linen, and silk were established. Watchmaking also emerged as an important industry. Switzerland’s first guild of watchmakers was established in Geneva in the early 17th century, and the industry soon extended along the Jura mountain chain stretching from Geneva to Schaffhausen.

Despite the country’s growing wealth, political power in Switzerland was controlled by a small oligarchy. The wealthy urbanized cantons dominated the confederation, and a few powerful families dominated the country’s government and social life. Only the rich enjoyed political liberties. Peasant unrest, driven by the growing domination of the urban upper class over rural areas, exploded into an unsuccessful peasant revolt in 1653.

French Revolution

The French Revolution had a profound effect on Switzerland. Switzerland did not join the war against revolutionary France, and at first France accepted Swiss neutrality. However, in 1798 French troops invaded and occupied the country with the help of the Swiss revolutionaries, a group seeking political reforms and a strong national government. The invasion put an end to the ancient Swiss confederation of 13 cantons, a loose defensive alliance with no central government. Napoleon Bonaparte, the future emperor of France, unified Switzerland under the name Helvetic Republic and imposed a written constitution. The constitution, modeled on that of the first French Republic, gave Switzerland a bill of rights and a strong central government.

The new constitution, however, disregarded the nation’s tradition of federalism, and it was bitterly resisted by many Swiss. The struggle between the federalists, who opposed the new system, and the centralists, who favored it, was briefly interrupted in 1803, when Napoleon withdrew the occupation troops and granted a new constitution with Swiss approval. This constitution, known as the Act of Mediation, restored many of the old cantonal privileges and expanded the confederation from 13 to 19 cantons. The new cantons included Aargau, Sankt Gallen, Graubünden, Ticino, Thurgau, and Vaud.

In 1815, after Napoleon’s downfall, the cantons rejected the French-sponsored government. The full power of the cantons to govern themselves was restored, and the cantons allied themselves together as sovereign states. The Congress of Vienna, in 1815, recognized the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland, and Swiss territory was expanded to include 22 cantons, with the addition of Valais, Geneva, and Neuchâtel. Since that time the country’s boundaries have remained largely unchanged.

Civil War

The period following the reintegration of Switzerland as a confederation of sovereign states was marked by internal strife. Conflict existed between autocratic and democratic elements, with many cantonal governments controlled by reactionary oligarchs. The cantons maintained separate armies, legal systems, and currencies, and each conducted its own foreign affairs. The Swiss increasingly viewed citizens of other cantons as foreign nationals. At the same time, the religious conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas intensified.

Opposition to decentralization and the reactionary cantonal governments increased in subsequent decades with the growth of liberal sentiment. The Radical Party developed in the 1830s, with the aim of strengthening the federal government. Support for cantonal sovereignty led seven Roman Catholic cantons to form a defensive league, the Sonderbund, in 1847. The federal government declared the league a violation of the constitution, and civil war resulted when the league refused to disband. The federal army brought the civil war to a rapid conclusion before any major European power could intervene.

The federal constitution of 1848 was a direct result of the war, and it significantly expanded federal power. A balance was achieved between advocates of strong central government and conservative forces who demanded the preservation of cantonal authority. This compromise helped heal the wounds of the war and established a basic constitutional framework that has lasted to the present day. A permanent executive body was created, consisting of a federal council of seven members elected by a bicameral legislature. The federal government was given the authority to issue currency, regulate customs duties, and, most importantly, to conduct foreign affairs. Bern was designated as the federal capital. In 1874 the constitution was revised, completing the development of Switzerland from a group of cantons to a unified federal state. The constitution also gave Swiss citizens a greater voice in government by introducing the initiative and the referendum.

Economic Development

The 19th century was a period of rapid economic growth in Switzerland. Tourism emerged as an important source of revenue, and the nation’s older economic sectors, including agriculture and industry, began to modernize. Economic gains were especially great in the textile industry, which adopted mechanized spinning machines. The production and maintenance of these machines led to the development of Switzerland’s famous machine-building industry.

During the last decades of the 19th century industrial growth in Switzerland continued, aided by a national program of railroad construction. The expanding rail network, which included the 1882 opening of the Saint Gotthard tunnel, facilitated transalpine travel and increased the importance of Switzerland as a transportation center. With the help of the chief natural resource, hydropower, imported raw materials were transformed into high-quality products and shipped to the world. Switzerland has maintained this export-oriented pattern of industrial development to the present day.

Switzerland in the World Wars

Although Switzerland remained neutral in World War I (1914-1918), it did not escape from the conflict unscathed. National unity was threatened internally because the French Swiss overwhelmingly favored the cause of France, and the German-speaking population sympathized with Germany. In addition, the cost of keeping its army mobilized created a heavy economic burden. Vitally needed raw materials were cut off, unemployment increased, and food became scarce. A wave of unrest culminated in November 1918 with a general strike that brought the country to a standstill. After the war, in 1919, Geneva was chosen as the site for the headquarters of the League of Nations.

The outbreak of World War II (1939-1945) found the Swiss people more united, since German National Socialism, or Nazism, had few friends in the country. Strategically, however, Switzerland’s position was precarious, as it was surrounded by totalitarian powers. Switzerland’s established tradition of neutrality, its humanitarian activities, and its armed readiness to defend itself against aggressors, all helped prevent the country from becoming engulfed in the conflict.

Neutrality and International Relations

Because of its long history of neutrality, Switzerland became the favored site of international conferences and the headquarters of many organizations. During the mid-19th century the main office of the International Red Cross was established in Geneva. Swiss neutrality was strengthened after World War I when the League of Nations, also based in Geneva, issued a 1920 declaration that recognized Switzerland’s permanent neutrality and guaranteed its territorial integrity.

At the end of World War II the League of Nations was disbanded and replaced by the United Nations (UN). Switzerland declined to join the UN, convinced that remaining outside the organization would help preserve its independent position as a neutral. The nation did, however, acquire permanent observer status at the UN, becoming a member of many UN agencies. In addition, Switzerland permitted the organization to establish its European headquarters and several of its agencies—including the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization—on Swiss soil. In 1948 Switzerland became a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), an international trade organization replaced in 1995 by the World Trade Organization (WTO). WTO headquarters are in Geneva.

The far-reaching political, economic, and social changes generated by greater European integration during the postwar years have forced Switzerland to continually reevaluate the meaning of neutrality and its position toward Europe. In 1948 Switzerland willingly joined the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, but had misgivings about joining the European Economic Community (EEC, later the European Community [EC], then, in 1993, the European Union [EU]). The organization’s avowed goals of closer economic and political cooperation were unacceptable to Switzerland. However, Switzerland was a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960, and in 1963 the country joined the Council of Europe.

In 1992 Swiss voters soundly rejected a government-backed proposal to join the European Economic Area (EEA), a free-trade agreement that would draw Switzerland and the other EFTA members into the EU’s single market. The agreement held that EFTA countries would be bound by EU laws but would not be involved in the EU’s political integration. The Swiss electorate’s rejection of the EEA was a significant blow to Switzerland’s application, filed earlier that year, to join the EU. However, in 1993, after three previous rejections, voters approved a national value-added tax consistent with the tax structure of other EU members.

In recent years, Switzerland has continued to test the meaning of neutrality. While some Swiss have argued in favor of a strict interpretation bordering on isolationism, others have supported a policy of greater international engagement, citing the nation’s robust foreign trade and the increasingly multinational character of Swiss businesses. Matters culminated in March 2002 when, following a fiercely contested campaign, Swiss voters approved a national referendum in favor of joining the UN. The experiences of Finland and Sweden, which successfully maintained their own policies of neutrality as UN members, appeared to have swayed many Swiss voters.

Contemporary Domestic Issues

Switzerland faced a number of important challenges as the country moved into the 21st century. One of the most contentious issues is immigration, which has provided labor for Switzerland’s expanding economy since World War II. During the 1970s, many Swiss became disturbed at the large number of resident foreign workers in the country, and laws were adopted limiting immigration. Today, economic growth and a declining domestic birth rate increasingly pits those who favor expanding the number of foreign workers in Switzerland against those who believe increased immigration poses a threat to the country’s traditional character.

Maintaining Switzerland’s celebrated environmental quality in the context of continued industrialization and economic growth poses another set of challenges. Swiss efforts to curtail acid rain, which has damaged one-third of Swiss forests, are opposed by domestic and international forces that view restrictions on industry and transportation as economically harmful. At the same time, the expansion of cities and tourist resorts increasingly threatens the natural and cultural resources that attract international visitors.

Swiss neutrality, a traditional value, is likely to be tested in the years ahead as the country builds closer economic ties with the EU and formally joins the UN. So too is Switzerland’s long tradition of compulsory military service, which some Swiss have portrayed as a costly relic of the past. Critics of the army have met fierce resistance from soldiers and former soldiers, who view military service as central to Switzerland’s traditional values of preparedness and self-reliance. Whatever the eventual outcome of these issues, it is virtually certain that the Swiss will approach them with the same commitment to unity and democratic principles that has characterized the nation for much of its history.

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