Switzerland as we know it developed over several centuries, emerging out of a loose alliance of autonomous entities to eventually become a more centralised federal state. Here are ten key dates that shaped the modern state.
1291 – The signing of the Federal Charter, Switzerland’s oldest constitutional document. Legend has it that the nobility of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden in central Switzerland signed a pact, later known as the Federal Charter, pledging to protect each other. In reality, the pact was one of several treaties of this kind and was signed at the beginning of the 14th century. Although there is no indication of its existence at the beginning of August 1291, it is considered the founding document of Switzerland.
1499 – The Confederation wins the implicit right to manage its own affairs after defeating the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I in the Swabian War.
1648 – The Treaty of Westphalia ends the Thirty Years War and contains a special provision on Switzerland, endorsing the process begun in 1499. With this treaty, European powers recognise the Swiss Confederation as an independent state.
1803 – Internal unrest and numerous coups d’état prompt Napoleon to issue an “Act of Mediation”, which puts an end to the Helvetic Republic and restores the sovereignty of the cantons. The Swiss “vertical power structure” was unstable and fragile and was therefore abolished and never brought back. However, this led to the principles of the current Swiss political system, which remains the most stable in the world.
1815 – The end of the Napoleonic Wars. The European powers are interested in recognising and maintaining sovereign and neutral Switzerland in order to ensure the neutrality of the strategic Alpine passes. Swiss independence and neutrality are formally recognised by European powers at the Congress of Vienna.
1848 – Formation of modern Switzerland at the end of a civil war. Switzerland is transformed from a union of states to a federal state as declared by a new constitution. All restrictions on free trade and the movement of people are abolished. Universal suffrage is introduced, but only for men.
1874 – The first complete revision of the Constitution and the introduction of the instruments of direct democracy (the right to an optional referendum allowing citizens to express their opinions on any law enacted by parliament and government) leads to the collapse of the oligarchy known as the “Escher system”. The construction of the Gotthard and Simplon railway tunnels. The rise of international tourism.
1918 – A quasi-revolution in Switzerland. Political disagreements lead to a general strike in Zurich. Its leaders (Olten Committee) demand the adoption of the proportionality principle in the election in the House of Representatives (which took place in 1919), women’s suffrage (which was not introduced until 1971), a 48-hour work week and old-age and disability insurance. The government mobilises the military and suppresses the strike.
1939 – A large-scale exhibition (called Landi 39) in Zurich to demonstrate opposition to Hitler’s Germany. Swiss German dialects are used as a political instrument to distance speakers further from Nazi Germany. This period marks the culmination of the political and cultural movement called “intellectual defence of the nation”.
1978 – The creation of canton Jura, whose territory was previously part of canton Bern, following a long process of mutual compromises and concessions and several referendums. The most recent popular vote on the territorial affiliation of the municipality of Moutier took place on June 18, 2017.