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Switzerland History, Language and Culture

History of Switzerland

Neutrality is a key part of the Swiss national identity. While the conflicting forces of the world have squared up to each other time and time again, Switzerland has steered clear of global clashes since it first adopted a neutral stance in 1515. Though peace and stability have characterised the last two centuries, the country’s earlier years were more turbulent.

Like most of its southern European neighbours, Switzerland was invaded by the Romans in the 1st century BC. As the Roman Empire began to decline in the 4th and 5th centuries, Germanic and Burgundian tribes arrived, effectively carving up the country between them – a division that is still evident today in the French and German-speaking areas of the nation. Italian and Romansh also developed from regions that spoke Latin dialects.

In the 9th century, Switzerland came under the dominion of the Holy Roman Empire, with Charlemagne (The King of the Franks) taking control of the Burgundians and Alemannians. 

To begin with, the Swiss were allowed to do mostly as they pleased, but by the 13th century, the Romans had tightened the reins. Resentment soon bubbled among the population, culminating in the founding of the autonomous Swiss Confederation (of three cantons) in 1291. The country was recognized as de-facto independent, under the Treaty of Basel in the late 15th century following the conclusion of the Swabian War and was replaced by a sovereign government in the late 19th century, relying on a democratic system. A new constitution in 1848 enforced that the central government would take on many of the past duties of the cantons, gave citizens new freedoms and allowed for Swiss economic expansion.

Nowadays, Switzerland is one of the world’s major financial hubs, with a flourishing banking industry. Despite being surrounded by EU states, Switzerland itself is not a member, with the independent-minded citizens rejecting accession in a 2001 referendum. It wasn’t the first time the Swiss refused to go with the herd; nine years earlier, membership of the European Economic Area was also rejected by referendum. Switzerland did, however, join the United Nations in 2002, and relations with the EU are now based on a wide range of bilateral agreements.

As a result of a popular vote, Switzerland joined the Schengen treaty and Dublin Convention in 2005, bringing the country into Europe's passport-free zone. In 2014, the Swiss voted to curb mass immigration with quotas in an initiative presented by the populist Swiss People’s Party, a move that would violate the country’s prior agreement with the EU regarding the free movement of persons. The government opposed this move to curb immigration in 2018 as it a yes vote would drastically impact the country’s trade market, and the referendum has not yet taken place.

Did you know?
• Women weren’t given the right to vote until 1971.
• In Switzerland, it’s against the law to keep a lone guinea pig; these sociable rodents must have a companion.
• Switzerland has enough nuclear bunkers to shelter every citizen. Geneva city authorities often use them as homeless shelters during winter.
• Bern is home to a disturbing 500-year old fountain sculpture, which depicts an ogre-like man eating a baby mid-bite. Oddly, nobody is sure exactly why it is there.

Switzerland Culture

Religion in Switzerland

Roman Catholic (38%), Protestant (27%), Muslim (5%), Jewish (0.3%) and Atheist (21.4%).

Social Conventions in Switzerland

It is customary to give flowers to the hostess when invited for a meal, but never give chrysanthemums or white asters as they are considered funeral flowers. Informal wear is widely acceptable. First-class restaurants, hotel dining rooms and important social occasions may warrant jackets and ties. Black tie is usually specified when required.

Language in Switzerland

German (63.5% of the population) in central and eastern areas, French (22.5%) in the west and Italian (8.1%) in the south. Romansch (0.5%), the fourth national language, is spoken in parts of the southeast. English (as a second or third language) is widely spoken.

Related Articles

Going underground

Built in 1976, the Sonnenberg bunker in Lucerne, Switzerland, is one of the world’s largest civilian nuclear shelters, once intended to protect 20,000 people against nuclear threat at the height of the Cold War. Forty years on, Caroline Bishop imagines what it might have been like to be holed up there for two weeks with 19,999 others.