1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Switzerland/History

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Swiss history falls naturally into five great divisions:


The Swiss Confederation is made up of twenty-two small states, differing from each other in nearly every point—religious, political, social, industrial, physical and linguistic; yet it forms a nation the patriotism of whose members is universally acknowledged. History alone can supply us with the key to this puzzle; but Swiss history, while thus essential if we could thoroughly grasp the nature of the Confederation, is very intricate and very local. A firm hold on a few guiding principles is therefore most desirable, and of these there are three which we must always bear in mind. (1) The first to be mentioned is the connexion of Swiss history with that of the Empire. Swiss history is largely the history of the drawing together of bits of each of the imperial kingdoms (Germany, Italy and Burgundy) for common defence against a common foe—the Habsburgs; and, when this family have secured to themselves the permanent possession of the Empire, the Swiss League little by little wins its independence of the Empire, practically in 1499, formally in 1648. Originally a member of the Empire, the Confederation becomes first an ally, then merely a friend. (2) The second is the German origin and nature of the Confederation. Round a German nucleus (the three Forest districts) there gradually gather other German districts; the Confederation is exclusively German (save partially in the case of Fribourg, in which after its admission in 1481 Teutonic influences gradually supplanted the Romance speech); and it is not till 1803 and 1815 that its French- and Italian-speaking “subjects” are raised to political equality with their former masters, and that the Romonsch-speaking Leagues of Raetia (Graubünden) pass from the status of an ally to that of a member of the Confederation. (3) Swiss history is a study in federalism. Based on the defensive alliances of 1291 and 1315 between the three Forest districts, the Confederation is enlarged by the admission of other districts and towns, all leagued with the original three members, but not necessarily with each other. Hence great difficulties are encountered in looking after common interests, in maintaining any real union; the Diet was merely an assembly of ambassadors with powers very strictly limited by their instructions, and there was no central executive authority. The Confederation is a Staatenbund, or permanent alliance of several small states. After the break-up of the old system in 1798 we see the idea of a Bundesslaat, or an organized state with a central legislative, executive and judiciary, work its way to the front, an idea which is gradually realized in the Constitutions of 1848 and 1874. The whole constitutional history of the Confederation is summed up in this transition to a federal state, which, while a single state in its foreign relations, in home matters maintains the more or less absolute independence of its several members.

Swiss history falls naturally into five great divisions: (1) the origins of the Confederation—up to 1291 (for the legendary origin see Tell, William); (2) the shaking off dependence on the Habsburgs—up to 1394 (1474); (3) the shaking off dependence on the Empire-up to 1499 (1648); (4) the period of religious divisions and French influence—up to 1814; (5) the construction of an independent state as embodied in the Constitutions of 1848 and 1874.