Country in central W Europe bounded by Germany to the N, Austria and Liechtenstein to the E, Italy to the S, and France to the W. The country is a confederation of 26 states including 20 cantons and 6 half cantons. The official languages are German, French, and Italian, with a fourth semiofficial language of Romansch (a Latinic dialect). The federal capital is Bern, and the largest city is Zurich.
Switzerland was originally inhabited by a Celtic people, the Helvetti. In 58 b.c. the Helvetii were conquered by the Romans under Julius Caesar. Helvetia was a prosperous Roman province, but later declined under continual Germanic invasions, including the Alemanni and Bugundii (fifth century a.d.) and the Franks (sixth century a.d.). The area was divided between Swabia and Transjurane Burgundy in the ninth century, but reunited in 1033 under the Holy Roman Empire. The expand ing local aristocratic families, notably Zahringen and Kyburg, were supplanted in the 13th century by the Austrian house of Hapsburg and the French house of Savoy. Hapsburg restrictions on the rights of the three alpine cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden resulted in the development in 1291 of a defensive league of states against the Hapsburgs. The legend of William Tell stems from this time. The league triumphed over the Austrians at Morgarten in 1315, and , joined by Lucerne, Zurich, Zug, Glarus, and Bern, decisively defeated the Hapsburgs at Sempach in 1386 and Nafels in 1388.
In the 15th century the Swiss league became a major military power in Europe. The Swiss conquered Aargau, Thurgau, and the valleys of Ticino and then defeated Burgundy in 1477, and Emperor Maximilian I and the Holy Roman Empire, who in 1499 granted Switzerland virtual independence. Fribourg, (1480) Solothurn, (1481) Basel, Schaffhausen, (1501) and Appenzell (1513) joined in the league, making the 13 original cantons until others joined in 1798. The conquest by Bern of Vaud from Savoy in 1536, and close alliances with the Grisons, Geneva, St. Gall, and other alpine towns and regions, further increased the Swiss sphere of influence in the early Renaissance, but the Swiss were destroyed as a major European power in 1515 when defeated by the French at Marignano near Milan.
After 1516, a “perpetual alliance” with France and neutrality became the basis of Swiss foreign policy.
The Swiss mercenaries, however, continued to serve in wars across Europe as well as the Vatican.
The cantons were loosely bound together by a federal diet and by individual treaties. They were also seriously split by the Protestant Reformation, preached by Zwingli at Zurich and by Calvin at Geneva. The Catholics, led by the Four Forest Cantons, defeated the Protestants at Kappel in 1531, where Zwingli was killed. The Treaty of Kappel preserved Catholicism in Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Fribourg, and Solothurn. Swiss national unity almost disappeared for more than two centuries, but the Swiss (except the Grisons) remained neutral throughout the Thirty Years’ War. Switzerland was an island of prosperity in the midst of general destruction when, in 1648, at the end of the war, its formal independence was recognized in the Peace of Westphalia.
Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the role of government in many of the cantons became the exclusive business of a small oligarchy. While Switzerland was not a political power, it began to become an economic power, and scientists and writers such as von Haller, von Muhler, Pestalozzi, and Rousseau made it a center of learning and culture. The Swiss strongly opposed the French Revolution. The French established the Helvetic Republic after conquering the Swiss in 1798. Napoleon’s Act of Mediation in 1803 partially restored the old confederation, and , at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Pact of Restoration (1815) reestablished the Confederacy with the addition of nine additional cantons, expand ing the nation to its current dimensions.
The Treaty of Paris in 1815 established Swiss neutrality in foreign affairs. A subsequent economic depression in the 1830s and 1840s caused large-scale emigration to the Americas, and reactionary government in the cantons created a push for reform and greater federalization. Opposition to centralization centered in the Catholic rural cantons, which in 1845 formed the Sonderbund, a defensive alliance. After a brief and almost bloodless civil war in 1847, the confederation became a unitary federal state under the constitution of 1848.
The Swiss pursued a policy of armed neutrality that kept the nation out of World Wars I and II. Switzerland was a member of the League of Nations, and although it has long participated in many activities of the United Nations, it did not become a UN member until 2002 for fear that its neutrality would be compromised.
In 1959, Switzerland became a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and in 1972 it signed an industrial free-trade agreement with the European Community (EC; since 1993 the European Union). In the 1950s, French-speaking inhabitants of the Jura region of German-speaking Bern canton unsuccessfully demand ed, with some violence, the creation of a Jura canton. In 1979, Jura officially became the 23rd canton of the Swiss Confederation.
The Swiss were one of the last nations to give their women the vote when, in 1971, a referendum was passed by male voters. Elisabeth Kopp of the Radical Democratic Party became the first woman government minister (1984–88).
In a 1986 referendum, a proposal to join the United Nations was rejected. Swiss voters also rejected participation in the European Economic Area, an EFTA-EC common market, but did approve joining the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Later negotiations resulted in agreements that established closer economic links with the European Union in 2000.
In 1998, two Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to the families and survivors of Holocaust victims amidst international criticism of the role of Switzerland and Swiss banks during World War II.
In the 1999 and 2003 elections, the right-wing nationalist People’s Party increased its presence in the National Council in part as a national reaction to this criticism and to the threat of immigrant impacts on Swiss society.