Switzerland has 8.7 million people. It is a landlocked country of about 40,000 square kms, located in Western Europe next to France, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. Switzerland’s largest cities are Zurich, Geneva, and Basel. These cities have a high quality of life albeit the highest costs of living. Switzerland has the highest nominal wealth per adult of any country, and the eighth-highest per capita gross domestic product. The country attracts many skilled workers. It is federal republic of 26 cantons (states), with the federal authorities based in Bern, its capital city. Switzerland has four main linguistic and cultural regions: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Majority of the population are German speaking. English language is increasingly being used. According to legend, in or around 1307 Swiss William Tell was sentenced to death by the Habsburg bailiff Herman Gessler for refusing to acknowledge Habsburg power. However, Tell won a reprieve by shooting an apple off his son’s head with his crossbow and later killed Gessler. Tell was considered the father of Swiss Confederacy. During the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) in Central Europe (caused by Emperor Ferdinand II forcing protestants into Catholicism), Switzerland did not take part in the conflict, and this contributed to a boost in the country’s economy. Arrival of refugees from France introduced clockmaking in Switzerland and it became one of the country’s most important industries. The first electric telegraph was built by the physicist George-Louis Le Sage in Geneva in 1774. In 1798, the French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Switzerland, abolished the 13 cantons (states) and imposed a constitution, establishing the unpopular Helvetic Republic. When the French forces left in 1802, the Swiss Confederation was formed, but remained under French control until 1815. Switzerland has not fought an international war since 1815. Swiss neutrality as it exists today was formally established by the Congress of Vienna peace treaty in 1815, following Napolean’s defeat by the British and Prussians at Waterloo. This formally guaranteed Switzerland’s independence, and neutrality for the first time. In 1845, seven Catholic cantons formed a military alliance known as the Sonderbund. Condemned as unconstitutional by the Protestant cantons, this led to civil war and the defeat of the Catholic faction by the Protestant forces. In 1848, a central government was established under its new Constitution, and Bern was chosen as its capital. National unity was tested again in 1857 when Prussia threatened to take a Swiss canton. A 100,000 strong Swiss army sent to the Rhine River border repelled the Prussian ambitions. In 1864, Swiss Henri Dunant founded the International Red Cross in Geneva (the humanitarian Red Cross organised emergency aid for Austrian and French wounded in the Battle of Solferino in 1859 which resulted in 40,000 casualties). In the 19th century, industry boomed and Nestle’s powdered milk became an international brand. The World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and a range of other international bodies also set up headquarters in Geneva. The United Nations’ second largest office is in Geneva (the largest office is in New York, USA). Switzerland is not a member of the European Union – generally the western French-speaking cantons (states) wish join the European Union, but the German-speaking cantons are opposed to the idea.   

  1. In about 2,000 words, I will describe major events that affected Switzerland from 1900 to the present.
  2. 1901 – Swiss Henri Dunant receives the first Nobel Peace Prize for founding the International Red Cross.
  3. 1906 – Switzerland built Simplon Tunnel which is 19.8 km (12.3 miles) long and remained the longest rail tunnel until the end of the 20th century. It connects Switzerland and Italy.
  4. 1914 (to 1918) – World War One. Switzerland remained neutral during the War. It was not invaded. In practice, military commanders were passing intelligence to Berlin, and French Swiss were outraged by their army’s pro-German bias. Switzerland organised Red Cross Units. As the war went on, Switzerland embarked on a wide-ranging aid programme for some 68,000 prisoners of war and refugees. Political asylum seekers who had come to Switzerland included many heads of state and political figures, including the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
  5. 1915 – World War One. Some 100,000 Swiss troops are mobilised to guard the country’s frontiers.
  6. 1917 – Vladimir Lenin who had stayed in Switzerland left for Russia and founded the Soviet Union.
  7. 1918 – Workers’ Strike. The revolutionary socialist ideas brought in by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky fermented unrest among Swiss workers, which culminated in the General Strike. Bankers in Zurich walked out in their first ever strike amidst growing unrest over the rising cost of living. A local general strike then broke out in support of a demand for a pay rise and was successful. The strike was quickly broken by the Swiss army, but because of their action, the workers won proportional representation, improved welfare and a 48-hour working week.
  8. 1920 – Switzerland joins the League of Nations, but on a strictly financial and economic basis (which included providing its headquarters in Geneva) – it would have no military involvement, ie exempted from military requirements.
  9. 1922 – The Simplon Tunnel opens.
  10. 1930s – The Depression brought unemployment and decreased wages to Switzerland. At this time, Switzerland’s pacific stance and democracy were threatened by Nazi and Fascist sympathizers among its population. By the late 1930s, as war seemed imminent, Switzerland’s economy accelerated, fuelled partly by the booming arms industry in which the country was involved and by the fact that Swiss banks now played an important role in international finance.
  11. 1930s – Switzerland bolstered its national identity by affirming Romansh as an official language.
  12. 1934 – Banking confidentiality, dating back to the Middle Ages, is enshrined in Swiss Law, when numbered (rather than named) bank accounts are introduced. Swiss banking thrived. Due to its neutrality, Bank for International Settlement chose Basel (in Switzerland) as its base in 1930.
  13. 1934 – Swiss Carl Jung founder of analytical psychology (theory of the unconscious – extrovert vs introvert) becomes head of the Department of Psychology at Zurich University.
  14. 1939 (to 1945) – World War Two. Once again, Switzerland remained neutral during the War. It was able to do this through military deterrence and concessions to Germany. General Henri Guisan’s army warns off invaders – 430,000 troops are placed on borders, but most are put in Alpine fortresses to carry out partisan war in case of German invasion. Switzerland’s trade was blockaded by both the Axis and the Allies. Switzerland however was a base for espionage by both sides of Axis and Allied powers. The country set up anonymous bank accounts for German Jews. Switzerland’s most important exports during the war were precision machine tools, watches, jewel bearings (used in bombsights), electricity, and dairy products. The Swiss franc was the only currency in the world that was accepted everywhere. Both the Allies and the Germans sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank. Switzerland admitted 300,000 refugees (aided by the International Red Cross) but refused tens of thousands more, including Jews persecuted by the Nazis. Some accidental bombings occurred when Allied troops mistook Swiss towns for German ones.
  15. 1950s – Consolidation of Switzerland’s economy.
  16. 1960s – Boom in Switzerland’s economy.
  17. 1970s – Recession in Switzerland’s economy.
  18. 1971 – Women obtain federal voting rights. Switzerland was the last Western republic to grant women the right to vote. This was extended to local elections only in 1991.
  19. 1978 – A referendum approved the secession of the French-speaking canton of Jura from the mostly German-speaking canton of Bern.
  20. 1980s – Entrenchment and readjustment in Switzerland’s economy.
  21. 1990s – Streamlined growth in Switzerland’s economy. Achieved social modernity like the rest of Europe.
  22. 1990 – The internet is ‘born’ at Geneva’s CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research), where Tim Berners-Lee (an English computer scientist) develops HTML, the language used to prepare pages for the World Wide Web and link text to graphics.
  23. 1992 – In a referendum the Swiss electorate decides not to join the European Union.
  24. 1995 – After a series of scandals erupted, Switzerland was forced to reform its secretive banking industry. Feeling pressure from Jewish groups, Swiss banks announced that they had discovered millions of dollars lying dormant in pre-1945 accounts and belonging to Holocaust victims and survivors.
  25. 1998 – Amid allegations the Swiss banks were sitting on money without seriously trying to trace its owners, Switzerland’s two largest banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, agreed to pay US$1.25 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors and their families.
  26. 2001 – National airline Swissair – having squandered millions buying up failing European carriers – collapses.
  27. 2002 – Switzerland becomes a full member of the United Nations.
  28. 2007 – Ex-directors of Swissair, which collapsed in 2001, are in the dock in Switzerland’s biggest corporate trial. They are all cleared.
  29. 2008 – The world financial crisis affects Switzerland’s two biggest banks, UBS and Credit Suisse. The government bails out UBS with a $60 billion package, while Credit Suisse seeks funds elsewhere.
  30. 2009 – Switzerland’s government announces it will relax its rules on banking secrecy to allow Swiss financial institutions to co-operate with international investigations into tax evasion.
  31. 2009 – Swiss economy returns to growth.
  32. 2009 – Swiss voted to ban the construction of mosque minarets (towers built adjacent to mosques to project the Muslim call to prayer).
  33. 2010 – Election of a fourth female minister to a seven-member Federal Council gives the Swiss cabinet a female majority for the first time ever.
  34. 2010 – Swiss voters approve referendum initiative on automatically deporting foreigners who have committed serious crimes.
  35. 2011 – Voters in a referendum reject plans for tighter gun controls.
  36. 2011 – In the wake of the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, Switzerland becomes the first country in Europe to announce plans to phase out nuclear power.
  37. 2011 – A soaring, over-valued Swiss franc prompts the Swiss National Bank to peg it to the euro.
  38. 2012 – The Ecopop environmentalist group collects enough signatures to force a national referendum to cap annual population growth at 0.2%, by drastically restricting immigration.
  39. 2013 – Lower house of parliament refuses to debate bill to allow banks to pass client information to USA tax authorities in pursuit of American tax evaders. USA threatens to deny Swiss banks access to dollar markets unless the country complies.
  40. 2013 – Voters reject a proposal to scrap military conscription (service).
  41. 2014 – Swiss voted to set immigration quotas, breaking the Swiss-European Union agreement on the freedom of movement.
  42. 2015 – The Swiss National Bank responds to the steep depreciation of the euro during 2014 by abruptly terminating the pegging of the franc to the euro introduced in 2011. The move causes the franc to soar and prompts warnings of serious damage to Switzerland’s struggling tourism and export sectors.
  43. 2016 – The Swiss National Council voted to withdraw its application to join the European Union.
  44. 2016 – The Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest high-speed rail tunnel at 57 kms, opens for operation speeding up connections between the Alps and Italy.
  45. 2017 – A measure to make it easier for third generation immigrants to become citizens is approved in a referendum.
  46. 2017 – The Swiss vote in favour of phasing out nuclear energy and switching to renewables.
  47. 2009 – USA, Britain, Germany, and other high-tax countries, start to apply immense pressure on Switzerland to change its 1934 banking laws that protect depositors accused of tax evasion by their home countries.
  48. 2013 – Wegelin, Switzerland’s oldest bank, closed after pleading guilty in USA to aiding tax evasion. Switzerland and USA signed a joint statement allowing Swiss banks to voluntarily cooperate with USA authorities on the issue of tax evasion.
  49. 2014 – Switzerland’s second largest bank, Credit Suisse, pleaded guilty in criminal wrongdoing for conspiring to aid tax evasion over many years. The bank agreed to pay US$2.6 billion in penalties.
  50. 2020 – 62% of Swiss voters rejected the anti-free movement referendum.
  51. 2020 – English is increasingly used in Switzerland in education, business, and popular culture, much to the chagrin of those trying to build cultural bridges between the four main language communities of German, French, Italian and Romansh.
  52. 2020 (to 2023) – COVID-19 pandemic caused more than 14,000 deaths in Switzerland.
  53. 2023 – Switzerland has 8.7 million people.

© Comasters March 2023

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