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The first inhabitants of the region were a Celtic tribe, the Helvetia. The Romans appeared on the scene in 107 BC by way of the St Bernard Pass, but owing to the difficulty of the terrain their conquest of the area was never decisive. They were gradually driven back by the Germanic Altemanni tribe which settled in the 5th century. The territory was united under the Holy Roman Empire in 1032 but central control was never very tight. That was all changed by the Germanic Habsburg family, which became the most powerful dynasty in Central Europe. Habsburg expansion was spearheaded by Rudolph I, who gradually brought the squabbling nobles to heel.

Upon Rudolph's death in 1291, local leaders saw a chance to gain independence. Their pact of mutual assistance is seen as the origin of the Swiss Confederation, and their struggles against the Habsburgs is idealised in the familiar legend of William Tell. Encouraged by early successes, the Swiss gradually acquired a taste for territorial expansion themselves and gained independence from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1499. After a number of military victories, the Swiss finally over-reached themselves when they took on a combined force of French and Venetians in 1515. Realising they could no longer compete against larger powers with better equipment, they renounced expansionist policies and declared their neutrality.

The Reformation in the 16th century caused upheaval throughout Europe. The Protestant teachings of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin spread quickly, although central Switzerland remained Catholic. While the rest of Europe was fighting it out in the Thirty Years' War, the Swiss closed ranks and kept out of trouble. At the end of the war in 1648 they were recognised in the Treaty of Westphalia as a neutral state. Nevertheless, the French Republic invaded Switzerland in 1798 and established the Helvetic Republic. The Swiss, however, did not take too kindly to such centralised control. Napoleon was finally sent packing following his defeat by the British and Prussians at Waterloo. The ensuing Congress of Vienna guaranteed Switzerland's independence and permanent neutrality in 1815.

In 1848 a new federal constitution was agreed on and it is largely still in place today. Bern was established as the capital and the federal assembly was set up to take care of national issues. Switzerland was then able to concentrate on economic and social matters. It developed industries predominantly dependent on highly skilled labour. Networks of railways and roads were built, opening up previously inaccessible Alpine regions and helping the development of tourism. The international Red Cross was founded in Geneva in 1863 and compulsory free education was introduced.

The Swiss have carefully guarded their neutrality in the 20th century. Their only WW I involvement lay in the organising of Red Cross units. In WW II, however, Switzerland played a more insidious role as an amenable money launderer for Nazi Germany. Switzerland's quiet anti-Semitism included shutting its borders to Jewish refugees and forcibly repatriating many of those who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, in full knowledge of the fate which awaited them. While the rest of Europe underwent the painful process of rebuilding from the ravages of war, Switzerland was able to expand from an already powerful commercial, financial and industrial base. Zürich developed as an international banking and insurance centre, and many international bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, based their headquarters in Geneva.

Afraid that its neutrality would be compromised, Switzerland declined to become a member of the United Nations (though it currently has 'observer' status) or NATO. It did, however, join EFTA (the European Free Trade Association). In the face of other EFTA nations applying for EU (European Union) membership, Switzerland finally made its own application in 1992. As a prelude to full EU membership Switzerland was to join the EEA (European Economic Area), yet the government's strategy lay in ruins after citizens rejected the EEA in a referendum in December 1992. Switzerland's EU application has consequently been put on ice; in the meantime the government has been laying groundwork for closer integration with the rest of Europe. In 1998 the Swiss government agreed to pay US$1.2 billion compensation to relatives of holocaust victims whose funds were deposited in Swiss banks.


Switzerland does not have a strong artistic heritage, even though many foreign writers and artists (such as Voltaire, Byron, Shelley, James Joyce and Charlie Chaplin) have resided or settled in the country. In contrast, many creative Swiss such as Charles Le Corbusier, Paul Klee, Albert Giacometti and Jean-Luc Godard left the country to make their name abroad.

The naturalised Swiss writer Hermann Hesse is the most famous 'local' author. A copy of his novel Siddartha used to be found in the backpack of every questing Westerner heading on the hippy trail to India. German-Swiss dramatist and novelist Max Frisch was one of Europe's most respected authors in the 1950s. His best-selling 1957 novel Homo Faber was filmed in 1991 by Volker Schlondorff and released under the title Voyager. The 18th-century writings of Rousseau, who lived in Geneva, played an important part in the development of democracy, and Carl Jung, based in Zürich, was instrumental in developing modern psychoanalysis.

Swiss folk culture includes yodelling, playing the alp horn and Swiss wrestling. We suggest you don't indulge in any of these after a night in a Swiss tavern.

Switzerland is a linguistic melting pot with three official federal languages. German (most commonly the dialect known as Schwyzertütschis spoken by about 66% of the population, French by 18% and Italian by 10%. A fourth language, Romansch, is spoken by 1% of the population, mainly in the canton of Graubünden. Derived from Latin, it's a linguistic relic that's survived in the isolation of mountain valleys.

Switzerland doesn't have a great indigenous gastronomic tradition - instead, Swiss dishes borrow from the best of German and French cuisine. Cheeses form an important part of the Swiss diet. Emmenthaler and Gruyère are combined with white wine to create fondue, which is served up in a vast pot and eaten with bread cubes. Rosti (crispy, fried, shredded potatoes) is German Switzerland's national dish. Fresh fish from the numerous lakes frequently crop up on menus, especially perch and trout. Swiss chocolate, excellent by itself, is often used in desserts and cakes.

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