Monday, November 12, 2012

Brief History of Switzerland

Switzerland is a lovely country which is only understood if you have a perspective on its history. And it history has been significantly impacted by its geography, of a plains located between two mountain ranges, one to the north and one to the south. I address the geography in more detail in my earlier blog, so I won’t do so here.


Ice Age – Iron Age

The history of the region began after the Ice Age. After all, the plateau where Lucerne now sits was under approximately 3000 feet of ice. Following the Ice Age some traces of human development have been found in several natural caves in Switzerland and ice melts in the mountain passes. Finally, around 3000 B.C., a few people began building houses made of wood and clay on posts on the shores of Switzerland's lakes. However, one can see from the National Geographic Geno graphic Project how migrations from the Middle East to the north bypassed Switzerland, no doubt due to the formidable Alps. This geographic isolation led to the first colonization from the East by the Helvetian’s a Celtic tribe who was colonizing Europe.

Roman influence

When the Helvetians attempted to move south to Southern France they were stopped by the Roman commander, Julius Cesar in 58 B.C. and forced to return to Switzerland. The Romans then controlled Switzerland's territory until about 400 A.D. Roman military camps and forts were erected at the northern Rhine frontier towards Germany. Several major Swiss cities and towns were founded by the Romans, among others Basel, Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Chur.

At the time, the total population of Switzerland was only 100,000 to 200,000 people. They settled where the soil was easy to cultivate and the climate not too cold (especially in winter). The central plains and a few major alpine valleys. Vast tracts of forest remained a wilderness.

Languages of Switzerland

Building the core culture of Switzerland

Attacked by Germanic tribes from the north, The Roman’s withdrew to areas south of the Alps. This opened Switzerland up to the southern Germanic tribe called Alamannen who settled in southern Germany and northern Switzerland and tribes of Franks coming in from the East. The Alamannen’s stuck to their German and the Franks to their French. Today's border between German and French languages in Switzerland is more or less the border between the Franks and Germanic tribes that infiltrated Switzerland in the vacuum left by the Roman’s. In the illustration to the left, you see French language in area 1 and German in area 2. Italian in area 3 and Romansh in area 4. The original Celtic population in Switzerland completely melded with the newcomers leaving little evidence of their culture.

You will find a French, German, Italian translator indispensable in your trips around Switzerland. I use my  Android phone but you can also get an app for the I phone.


The Road to Democracy

In the Middle Ages the Feudal System was developed in Europe but, Swiss political history never consolidated into a single monarchy like that found throughout Europe. In 1291, as a defensive alliance, three Feudal areas, now called Cantons, developed a loose confederation. In succeeding years, other Cantons joined the original three. Finally the Swiss Confederation secured its independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499. Switzerland's present boundaries were fixed in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. Then in 1848 a constitution replaced the confederation with a federal government.

Switzerland was neutral in World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945). Its neutral stance has also kept it from joining the United Nations until 2002.

Today, the Swiss live in a democracy where the average citizen often has greater influence than in other countries. A unique example of direct democracy found in parts of Switzerland is the Landsgemeinde (People's Assembly). Citizens gather under the open sky on a Sunday in spring to pass laws and elect officials by a show of hands.

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