History of Switzerland
HOW A DESIRE TO WAGE WAR TRANSFORMED INTO A COMMITMENT TO NEUTRALITYAsk most anyone and they will be able to tell you about Switzerland’s neutrality. It is a nation of people dedicated to staying out of conflict, formally since 1815 but informally dating as far back as the Reformation. However, the Swiss were not always non-violent. Records of their passion for warfare are documented as long ago as the 1st century BC. The country’s central location often thrust the people into the thick of things, eventually leading to continued engagement in trade but purposeful neutrality in times of war.
PALEOLITHIC ERAEven though Switzerland is neutral, it is far from disconnected. It serves as a hub for trade and commerce and has done so for millennia. You may have heard of Otzi, the” Iceman.” His frozen, 5,000-year-old murdered body was found in the Alps on the Austria-Italy border. Anthropologists found an axe with a copper blade that linked Otzi to Tuscany. They also found other artifacts that suggest Otzi may have been a long-distance trader.
In 2017, archaeologists found a copper blade, made in the same fashion as Otzi’s, in the Swiss Alps. The blade is about 5,100-5,300 years old and is missing the wooden handle, but it is the same shape and material as Otzi’s. Both are believed to have originated in Tuscany, Italy, indicating Swiss involvement in broad trade networks for thousands of years.
ROMAN CONTROL AND INFLUENCESwitzerland’s central location continued to shape its role in trade and war much later than Otzi’s time. The Helvetians, a tribe of Celts who migrated to Switzerland, were first documented to live in the Swiss Mitteland in the 2nd century BC. In 58 BC, Julius Caesar prevented them from fleeing into southern France when they tried to avoid incursion by Germanic tribes from the west. Caesar forced the Helvetians to stay in the region and act as a buffer under Roman control. The Rhaetians, who were living in eastern Switzerland as early as the 1st century BC, also came under Roman control during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
The Romans kept detailed records and histories of the regions and peoples they conquered. They record that the Swiss did not always desire a neutral path. Julius Caesar painted a picture of the Helvetians as a proud warrior people frustrated by the geographical constraints limiting their expansion. He wrote that, “In such circumstances their range of movement was less extensive, and their chances of waging war on their neighbours were less easy; and on this account they were greatly distressed, for they were men that longed for war.” (The Gallic Wars, Book 1, Chapter 2).
The area now called Switzerland was an important transport and trade route for the Romans and remained under their control until the empire fell in 400 AD. Because of its importance, the Romans invested heavily in infrastructure, building roads and cities, including some of the most important cities in Switzerland today: Zurich (Turicum), Basel (Basilia), Geneva (Geneva) and Lausanne (Lousonna). Dozens of other towns and cities have Roman origins as well.
HOW A SINGLE BATTLE SOWED THE SEEDS OF NEUTRALITYMost of Switzerland’s post-Roman history follows along the lines of other countries in the region: feudalism, kings gaining and losing power, attempts to expand the country’s boundaries, and protecting borders from attack by outside forces. Historians attribute one critical attack in 1515 as a root cause of Switzerland’s desire for neutrality. Francis I of France fought Swiss troops back during an attempted Swiss expansion into Milan, Italy. During the segment of battle in Marignano, from September 13-14, 1515, the Swiss lost more than 6,000 men, one of the bloodiest two days of battle up to that time in European history (the French lost 5,000 men). The Swiss might have lost more men had the soldiers not left the battlefield to go home. According to historian Alain-Jacques Czouz-Tornare, “It was the beginning of the Swiss vocation to be neutral. It is the big powers that neutralised Switzerland and taught the country that she must cooperate with her neighbours.”
THE LEGACY OF THE LEGEND OF WILLIAM TELLThe drive towards neutrality represented a desire for reasonable action – so much life lost in battles they could not win did not make sense to the Swiss. Following a proper order and doing things that make sense are very much ingrained in Swiss thinking and behavior. Identifying right from wrong falls into this structure, and William Tell, more than any other figure, captures the Swiss idea of what is right.
The legend goes that William Tell angered an Austrian overlord, Albrecht Gessler, on November 18, 1307, by not bowing down to a hat Gessler had placed on a pole. Tell had refused because he was Swiss and, therefore, believed Gessler had no authority over him. Tell had a reputation as an outstanding marksman, and Gessler ordered Tell to shoot an apple off the head of his son as punishment for his disobedience. He did so, successfully. Afterward, Gessler noticed that Tell had another arrow and asked why. Tell replied that it was meant for Gessler had his son died. While much historical evidence exists to suggest that this tale is simply a legend, the story has shaped Swiss values and identity.
This proud sense of nationalism and honor guided the Swiss through the religious changes and challenges of the Reformation, the imperialist era of the 17th century, and the horrific wars of the 20th century. Knowing they could not defeat the stronger powers around them, the Swiss held their heads high and survived with their identity and confederation intact, facing internal challenges, to be sure, but free from domination by other nations.
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