The Helvetii, a Celtic tribe conquered by Julius Caesar in 58 BC , were the first inhabitants of Switzerland (Helvetia) known by name. A Roman province for 200 years, Switzerland was a prosperous land with large cities (Avenches was the capital) and a flourishing trade. In AD 250, however, Switzerland was occupied by the Alemanni, a Germanic tribe, and in 433 by the Burgundians. The Franks, who defeated the Alemanni in 496 and the Burgundians about 534, incorporated the country into the Frankish Empire. Under Frankish rule, new cities were founded; others, such as Zürich and Lausanne, were rebuilt; and Christianity was introduced.
In 1032, some 200 years after the death of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and the defeat of his weak successors, Switzerland became part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 13th century, it was placed under the House of Habsburg. Harsh domination resulted in the rebellion of several cities and the formation on 1 August 1291 of the "eternal alliance" between the three forest cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, the first step toward the Swiss Confederation. The Habsburgs invaded the three provinces, but with their defeat at Morgarten Pass on 15 November 1315, the Swiss secured their independence. By 1353, five other cantons, Luzern (1332), Zürich (1351), Glarus and Zug (1352), and Bern (1353), had joined the confederacy. All these allies were called Swiss (Schwyzer), after the largest canton. Four victories over Austria (1386, 1388, 1476, and 1499) confirmed the confederation. The Swiss also defeated Charles of Burgundy, whose ambitions threatened their independence until his death in 1477. Complete independence was secured by the Treaty of Basel (1499) with the Holy Roman Empire. Switzerland thereafter remained unmolested by foreign troops until the French Revolution of 1789. Such legendary or real heroes as William Tell, Arnold von Winkelried, and Nikolaus von der Flüe symbolized Swiss bravery and love of freedom. The Helvetian Confederation (Eidgenossenschaft) continued to grow with the inclusion of Aargau (1415), Thurgau (1460), Fribourg and Solothurn (1481), Basel and Schaffhausen (1501), and Appenzell(1513). As of 1513, there were 13 cantons and several affiliated cities and regions. Swiss sovereignty reached south of the crest of the Alps into the Ticino. The Swiss also controlled many of the vital mountain passes linking southern and northern Europe.
The power of the Confederation was, however, undermined by conflicts stemming from the Reformation, led by Ulrich Zwingli in Zürich and John Calvin in Geneva. Seven cantons resisted the Reformation, and a prolonged conflict resulted. In its first round, Zwingli was killed in action (1531). The Catholic cantons later allied with Savoy and Spain. The struggle with the Protestant cantons centered during the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) on control of the Valtelline pass. The Treaty of Westphalia ending that war granted the Swiss Confederation formal recognition of independence by all European powers.
In the following centuries, the Catholic-Protestant conflict continued with varying success for each side. Apart from this struggle, a number of abortive uprisings against oligarchic control occurred in such places as Geneva and the canton of Vaud. The oligarchs were still in power in most cantons when the French Revolution broke out. With the progress of the revolution, radical groups gained the upper hand in several cities. In 1798, the Helvetic Republic was proclaimed, under French tutelage, and during the Napoleonic imperial era Switzerland was governed as an appendage of France. Boundaries were partly redrawn, and six new cantons were added to the original 13.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna reconstituted the independent Swiss Confederation with three additional cantons (for a total of 22) and recognized its perpetual neutrality. Switzerland, however, did not remain untouched by the great conflict between liberalism and conservatism that affected all Europe in the first half of the 19th century. Many revolutionaries found temporary refuge in Switzerland and influenced some of its citizens. Under their goading, several cantons introduced more progressive governments and liberalized their old constitutions.
In 1848, a new federal constitution, quite similar to that of the United States, was promulgated. Meanwhile, the struggle between Protestants and Catholics had culminated in the Secession (Sonderbund) War of 1847, in which the Protestant cantons quickly overcame the secessionist movement of the seven Catholic cantons. As a result of the war, federal authority was greatly strengthened.
In 1874, the constitution was again revised to enlarge federal authority, especially in fiscal and military affairs. Since the last quarter of the 19th century, Switzerland has been concerned primarily with domestic matters, such as social legislation, communications, and industrialization. In foreign affairs, it remained rigidly neutral through both world wars, resolutely determined to protect its independence with its highly reputed militia. In 1978, Switzerland's twenty-third sovereign canton, Jura, was established by nationwide vote. In 1991, Switzerland celebrated the 700th anniversary of Confederation.
Despite its neutrality, Switzerland has cooperated wholeheartedly in various international organizations, offering home and hospitality to such diverse bodies as the League of Nations, the Red Cross, and the UPU. Switzerland has long resisted joining the UN, however, partly on the grounds that imposition of sanctions, as entailed in various UN resolutions, is contrary to a policy of strict neutrality. In a March 1986 referendum, a proposal for UN membership, approved by the Federal Assembly, was rejected by Swiss voters. Switzerland is a member of most specialized UN agencies and is a party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice. Swiss attitudes toward UN membership changed at the beginning of the 21st century, as citizens decreasingly saw participation in the UN as jeopardizing the country's neutrality. In a referendum held on 3 March 2002, nearly 55% of Swiss voters approved of joining the UN, but approval by the country's 23 cantons received a narrower 12 to 11 vote. On 10 September 2002 Switzerland became a full member of the UN.
Foreign governments have targeted Switzerland's tight bank secrecy laws as providing a haven in the country for tax evasion and money laundering. The EU maintains that if Switzerland were to join the body, such laws would have to be reformed. Switzerland suffered from the global economic downturn that began in 2001; it employs 220,000 people (out of a total population of some 7 million) in financial services, of which more than half work in banking. The Swiss economy is not expected to expand until 2004. The Swiss have also expressed ambivalence toward Europe. In December 1992, the Swiss rejected participation in the two major European organizations—the European Economic Area (EEA) of the European Union (EU). Fearing adverse effects from non-participation, the Swiss government has taken steps to bring the country's laws and economy into harmony with the EEA. Because of the fact that all legislation can be subjected to referenda, however, the government is finding it difficult to alter certain protectionist policies and to lower certain barriers. Officially, however, the government is committed to eventually joining the EU, although in order to do so it will have to convince a majority of voters it is the correct path.