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Country of the Week: Switzerland

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve arrived in the small, landlocked country of Switzerland. Known across the world as a ‘bastion of neutrality’, there’s quite a bit more here than meets the eye.

  • Capital: None / Bern (de facto)
  • Largest City: Zürich
  • Population (2015): 8,256,000 (98th)
  • Total Area: 41,285 km² (135th)
  • Official Languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh
  • Currency: Swiss franc (Fr.) (CHF)
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Evening in Lucerne

History

It is a story that is familiar across Europe – various tribal groups populated Switzerland until the Romans arrived. Around the year 15 BC, Tiberius led his forces into the region and conquered the Alps, adding the land to the burgeoning Empire. After later losses, Switzerland became the frontier of Rome – one of the first lines of defense. Of course, this story of ours always ends the same way as Rome collapsed and the tribal groups were left to pick up the pieces.

Filling the void left by the Romans were the nearby Franks, who expanded their holdings to reign over the majority of the region. After the death of Charlemagne, Switzerland was divided amongst East and Middle Francia until reunification under the Holy Roman Empire around 1000 AD.

The country began to come into its own under the Old Swiss Confederacy in the late 1200’s. This alliance of regional powers ensured that trade ran smoothly while administering their separate areas. As the Old Confederacy expanded, it came into conflict with powerful neighbours and overlords. Thanks to some key victories against the Hapsburgs, Switzerland managed to claim effective independence within the Holy Roman Empire in 1499

Switzerland was next brought under foreign rule by Napoleon. These harsh times (and the foreign laws imposed) instilled a deep seeded desire for self-rule with their own central government in the Swiss people. Following this tumultuous period (which included wars fought on Swiss soil), the Congress of Vienna in 1815 recognized Switzerland as an independent country once more. In addition, the other countries agreed to permanently recognize Swiss neutrality – though some Swiss troops still fought in other wars for a time.

This wasn’t an end to all turmoil however. A short civil war erupted in 1841, reaffirming a need for unity in the face of other European countries regardless of religion or background. A new constitution was drawn up with a recognized central government and the ability of the cantons (regions) to govern local issues. This also reaffirmed Switzerland’s economic goals, with the Swiss franc recognized as the sole currency of the country.

Switzerland remained neutral throughout both World Wars, though this was tested at times. During WWII, concessions were made to the Germans while the military acted as deterrence to either side invading. At one point the country was completely surrounded by Axis powers, however it managed to maintain neutrality until the end.

Since the end of the war, Switzerland has been involved in regional and global politics to varying degrees. While the country joined the Council of Europe in 1963, it did not join the EU. There have been mutterings of support over the years, but the recent crisis has put these on hold. Still, many international organizations are based in the country thanks in part to its ‘neutral’ stance.

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Chateau d’Ouchy in Lausanne

Culture

As is clearly seen in the many languages spoken here, the culture of Switzerland is very diverse. Thanks to its position at the crossroads of Europe, the country shares elements of French, Italian, and German culture differing region to region. Local customs differ greatly, and this diversity is an ever-present part of Swiss national identity.

Culture and linguistic diversity is mated by culinary diversity throughout the country, though there are some dishes that are ever present. Fondue (bread dipped in melted cheese – it’s really good!) is popular throughout but the country is best known for its chocolate and cheese.

Alpine culture is a huge part of what it means to be Swiss. Thanks to the Alps activities such as hiking, skiing, and yodeling have found a constant place in everyday life. Speaking of skiing, alpine sports are among the widely enjoyed in Switzerland. Beyond this, soccer is popular with the national team finding some success on the international stage (and co-hosting the 2008 Euros). Last but not least, arguably the best tennis player of all time – Roger Federer – hails from the country.

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The country is well known for cheesemaking

Geography

When most think of Switzerland, the Alps are the first thing to come to mind. Indeed, Europe’s most famous mountain range dominates the southern part of the country. The iconic Matterhorn is one of the most recognizable symbols of Swiss mountains. A large plateau with rolling hills and plains characterizes the northern part of Switzerland.

While the country doesn’t have an official capital, the city of Bern serves as the home of the federal government. Other important cities include Zürich – the largest city in Switzerland – and Geneva, which is home to many important international organizations.

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The Matterhorn is one of the most iconic landmarks in Switzerland

Did you know?

  • The largest clock face in Europe is found in Zürich
  • Military service is mandatory and men are required to keep firearms in their home afterwards
  • There is no single head of state – instead Switzerland has a 7 person executive council
  • With the exception of the corkscrew, all parts of the Swiss Army Knife are made in Switzerland (the corkscrew is made in Japan if you were wondering)
  • The first youth hostel opened in the country 1200 years ago
  • Swiss Guards in the Vatican are the only Swiss serving in foreign armies (they are dual citizens)
  • CERN – the renowned physics lab – is located in Geneva
  • The country’s banking system is famous thanks to its… discretion
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Alpine scenes like this are common throughout the country

Last Word

Switzerland is a tough country to describe. What we do know is that a melting pot of different European cultures, gorgeous alpine landscape, and high quality exports of all sorts make it one we won’t soon forget about.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

Stay informed. Stay Current.