The History of Switzerland

Over the centuries, Switzerland developed from a network of various alliances of towns and rural areas into the federal state it is today, consisting of 26 cantons. It developed much like large parts of Western Europe, but was able to maintain its unique characteristics and independence.

Painting depicting several armed men raising their hands to swear a common oath.
Legend has it that Switzerland was founded in 1291 with the Rütli Oath that the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden took, forming an alliance against the foreign rule of the Habsburgs. © Photo archive of the Swiss Confederation

Switzerland is located in the middle of Europe, not just geographically; the country's historical development resembles that of its neighbours. The territory of today's Switzerland was part of the Roman Empire and was shaped in the Early Middle Ages by Christianity, migratory flows and the rule of various foreign powers. In the Late Middle Ages, the Old Swiss Confederacy, the political constellation preceding today's Switzerland, gradually took shape.

Like in large parts of Europe, the Reformation and the division of Western Christianity led to tensions and armed conflicts in Switzerland, too. In parallel, Switzerland developed a characteristic that has withstood the test of time – its neutrality.

Still, neutrality could not prevent the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars from also affecting Switzerland. In the Helvetic Republic created through the French occupation, today's borders were defined and closely linked areas became independent cantons. The modern federal state evolved from these developments.

The 20th century also clearly showed how strongly Switzerland was linked to its neighbouring countries on the one hand and how it took its own distinct path on the other. Although Switzerland was also severely affected by the two world wars, it was spared any destruction. During the Cold War, Switzerland developed in a way similar to Western Europe, but was able to maintain its neutrality and mediating role between East and West. After the end of the Cold War, Switzerland continued to participate in the economic unification of Europe, but kept its distance from the European Union.

From prehistoric times to the Middle Ages

Photo of three pile dwellings in the water and footbridges with visitors.
During the Stone and Bronze Ages, people lived in pile-dwelling (or stilt house) settlements on the shores of the Swiss lakes. © AngMoKio / Wikimedia

Early Modern Period

 Photo of the reformation monument in Geneva, a 100-metre-long wall of light-coloured stone with sculptures of the main protagonists of the Geneva Reformation.
The International Monument to the Reformation in Geneva commemorates the main actors of the Geneva Reformation and its international impact. © MHM55 / Wikimedia

On the way to becoming a federal state

 The Federal Palace in Bern, viewed from the south-west.
The parliament and government building known as the Federal Palace symbolises the Swiss federal state and the federal capital Bern. © Pierangelo66 / Wikimedia

Switzerland in the 20th century

Poster for the national exhibition of 1939.
A portrayal of Switzerland's uniqueness and culture in a Europe shaped by Nazi Germany's aggressive expansionist policies: the national exhibition of 1939 in Zurich. © ETH Bibliothek Zürich / Wikimedia