This mountainous nation (where much of the Alps are located) has a history that goes as far back as the Romans, when they occupied the country from 200 BC to 400 AD. The original name of the country (Helvetia) got its original name from the Celtic tribe that lived in the country, and were defeated by Julius Caesar in 58 BC. Present-day Swiss cities such as Zürich, Basel, Geneva and Lausanne were founded during the Roman era.
After 400 AD, Germanic tribes took over Switzerland, with Frankish rule established there from the 6th through the 8th centuries. The country gained its distinct political and social identity from the establishment of the Old Swiss Confederacy (consisting of an alliance among the valley communities in the central Alps – confirmed by the Federal Charter of 1291 AD). By the middle of the 15th century, this confederacy expanded to outer lying areas of what’s now present-day Switzerland (particularly areas south and west of the Rhine, and the Jura mountains). The country’s military victory against the (Germanic) Swabian League in 1499 won it de facto independence within the pre-existing Holy Roman Empire.
Switzerland’s reputation of being difficult to conquer by outsiders (due in part to its rugged mountainous terrain) suffered a setback in 1798 when the revolutionary French government conquered it. However, under Napoleon, the country managed to gain its autonomy under the Act of Mediation in 1803. Napoleon granted such autonomy to the Swiss, so that the country itself could act as a pro-French buffer state with Austria and the German states. In 1815, just after the demise of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna fully re-established the country’s independence, with Swiss neutrality in European political affairs permanently recognized. That gave the Swiss the opportunity to set up an American-inspired Federal political system (with central authority, along with room for self-government on local issues).
Interestingly, Switzerland was never invaded during World Wars I and II. It enforced a policy of neutrality during World War II by shooting down both Nazi Germany and Allied war planes that flew over its territory. The Swiss cities of Basel, Zürich and Schaffhausen suffered some Allied bombings during that conflict.
Nowadays, in keeping with its long tradition of sovereignty and neutrality, Switzerland is one of only a handful of western European nations that have not joined the European Union (EU). Bordered on all sides by member states, the Swiss maintain a bilateral relationship with the EU. In 2001, Swiss citizens voted on a popular initiative to open membership negotiations, but nearly 77 percent of voters decided that Switzerland should remain separate from the EU. Many view this political stance as a form of protecting the country’s major industries (such as banking and finance).
Over the years, Switzerland has become a popular tourist destination, especially for those who enjoy the country’s winter weather and accompanying mountain ski resorts. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism consisted of 7.4% of the country’s GDP. Switzerland is also unique in that it is divided into linguistic German, French and Italian-speaking regions (that are geographically proximate to France, Germany and Italy). Zürich, the country’s largest city, is one of Switzerland’s major destinations (noted for its art and shopping).