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What Should I Know About Switzerland?

The Swiss flag with the Matterhorn in the background.
Switzerland is a country of 15,900 square miles in western Europe.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2014
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Switzerland is a small country in Western Europe. It covers 15,900 square miles (41,300 sq. km), making it just a bit larger than the state of Connecticut. It shares borders with Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Liechtenstein.

Humans first arrived in the area many millennia ago, but it wasn’t until the 2nd millennium BCE that the Celtic tribes first settled the region. The Roman Empire conquered the region in the 1st century BCE, and integrated its people into the empire. In the 3rd century a Germanic tribe, the Alamanni, took much of Switzerland from Rome. The Roman Empire fell not long after, and more Germanic tribes moved in, displacing the Romanized Celts and pushing them into the mountains.

The Franks under the Carolingian Dynasty soon absorbed most of eastern Switzerland, and it eventually became a part of the Holy Roman Empire in the mid-10th century, after being decimated by the Magyars. The Burgundians continued to control western Switzerland. The passes into the country were essentially independent, and many were very important, particularly the cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri.

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Near the end of the 13th century a Habsburg ascended to be what was Holy Roman Emperor in all but name, holding dominion over the eastern and western portions of Switzerland. He revoked the independence of the cantons, turning them into city-states under the control of the empire. Three of the cantons banded together to form the Old Swiss Confederacy, battling the Habsburgs and regaining their independence. More cantons and city states joined the Confederacy in the next few decades, and even more joined during the next century.

At the end of the 15th century the Swiss Confederacy won a resounding victory against a proxy of the Holy Roman Empire, cementing a de facto independence. True independence was finally achieved in 1648, when the Holy Roman Empire recognized Switzerland as a sovereign state. At the end of the 18th century Napoleonic forces overwhelmed the country, turning it into the Helvetic Republic. Sovereignty was restored in 1815, and its neutrality was recognized by all of the major European powers.

Switzerland abandoned its loose-knit formation in the mid-19th century, following a civil war between the Protestants and the Catholics. It adopted a federal constitution, outlining matters that would be federal responsibilities, but leaving a great deal of freedom to the individual cantons.

The country retained much of its neutrality during World War I and World War II. It played a number of important roles in World War II, including as a mediator between the Allies and the Axis Powers and as a holder of the world’s only remaining freely exchangeable currency. Since the end of World War II it continued to liberalize, albeit somewhat slowly at times. In 1971 women were given the right to vote, and in 1981 an equal rights amendment was passed. Switzerland has opted to not join the European Union, and has only been a member of the United Nations since 2002.

The Swiss Alps are undoubtedly the country's largest tourist attraction, both literally and figuratively. Some of the best skiing in the world can be found in these mountains, and the infrastructure to support it is top of the line. For sightseers, many of the small villages throughout Switzerland offer a welcome respite from the overcrowded cities found in the rest of the world. For those inclined towards something a bit more historical, the Augusta Raurica are ruins of a Roman colony from the 1st century BCE on the banks of the Rhein.

Flights come in to both Geneva and Züat;rich daily from most European hubs and major US cities. Travelers can arrive by train or bus from the rest of Europe as well, and buses. Boat travel also carries visitors in on the Rhein, from as far away as the Netherlands, and travelers can arrive by lake on boat from Italy, France, or Germany.

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