Country Profile: Switzerland

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index

Country Profile: Switzerland

The Legendary Birth of Switzerland  In 1804 the great German romantic playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote a play called William Tell. His dramatisation of the events surrounding the foundation of Switzerland has become one of the world's classic stories. It's worth telling in full. It goes like this.

In the Waldstätten or 'forest states' surrounding Lake Lucerne — Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz — discontent was seething. It was directed at the cruel and appalling despotism of the Austrian bailiff whose name was Gessler. Conspiracy was in the air. At Rütli meadow on the shores of the Urnersee on August 1, 1291, representatives of these three states under the charismatic leadership of William Tell from Uri swore an oath of allegiance 'to last, god willing, for ever' against their Austrian overlords. Then, in the town of Altdorf, Tell refused to pay feudal homage to Gessler in the form of the humiliating ritual of bowing to a hat resting on a stick. His gesture of defiance provoked from Gessler a terrifying punishment.

Tell had a reputation as a brilliant archer and Gessler chose to test that reputation. An apple was placed on the head of Tell's son and he, from a distance too far to be sure of his shot, was forced to shoot at the apple. If he hit the apple he would go free. If he missed, the boy would die, either from Tell's own arrow or shot by Gessler's men. William Tell did not miss. But he had drawn two arrows. When questioned he said that if he had missed, the second arrow would have been for Gessler.

This insult was too much and Tell was arrested. He was taken from Altdorf by boat across Lake Lucerne to prison. He was accompanied by Gessler and his men. But suddenly — and this can happen, provoked by the famous wind called the Föhn — a huge storm blew up. Only Tell knew the weather conditions, the lake and lie of the land well enough to take action, so he was freed in a desperate attempt to save the boat and its crew. He steered the boat to land, jumped to shore and kicked the boat back into the storm. (The place where this allegedly happened is where the Tellskappelle stands by the side of the Axenstrasse on the Urnersee.)

William Tell now went into hiding, protected by the people of the Waldstätten. Gessler survived the storm, and the persecution and despotism continued. Finally, on the northern edge of the lake at a sunken road near the village of Küssnacht, Tell met Gessler again. The Austrian bailiff was threatening and mistreating local peasants who could not protect themselves. Tell drew an arrow and once again he did not miss his target. Switzerland was free at last.

The Truth  The truth of the foundation and early history of Switzerland is a lot more prosaic and a lot more drawn out. Representatives of the Waldstätten, ie. Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz, expressing popular discontent with the Hapsburg imposition of bailiffs, signed a pact of mutual assistance on August 1, 1291 (now the Swiss national day). This was not a declaration of war. Their idea was to reject an administrative and judicial system imposed from outside. But the demands were too great. They set in motion a century of intermittent war with the Austrians. The first of the great Swiss victories was at Morgarten in the canton of Schwyz in 1315. Soon more states joined the renegade allies: Lucerne in 1332, Zurich in 1351, Glarus and Zug in 1352 and Bern in 1353. They were the original Eight Cantons which formed the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. Under the leadership of the most powerful canton, Bern, they continued their struggle against the Austrians until their final victory at Näfels (1388) secured an independent nation.

The last cantons, all French speaking, joined the Confederation in 1815. They were Geneva, Neuchâtel and the Valais. The shape of Switzerland was as it is now. The modern constitution dates from 1848.

The following pages are not intended to provide the basis for a coherent commentary. they are just a collection of random facts, figures and curiosities.

Switzerland is a small country of 16,000 square miles. Nearly two thirds of its area is covered in mountains, slightly less than Austria. In terms of average altitude, however, it is the most mountainous country in Europe, at 4,428 feet above sea level.

The population is 6,600,000, of whom about 1,000,000 for foreign residents or Gastarbeiten. The vast majority of the Swiss live in the high plain to the north of the Alps. 20% of the population live in the five major cities: Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern and Lausanne.

There are 26 cantons, including the half cantons. These are:

Appenzell Inner Rhoden (AI), Appenzell Ausser Rhoden (AR), Aargau (AG), Basel District (BL), Basel Town (BS), Bern (BE), Fribourg (FR), Geneva (GE), Glarus (GL), Graubunden (GR), Jura (JU), Lucerne (LU), Neuchâtel (NE), St. Gallen (SG), Schaffhausen (SH), Schwyz (SZ), Solothurn (SO), Thurgau (TG), Ticino (TI), Nidwalden (NW), Obwalden (OW), Uri (UR), Valais (VS), Vaud (VD), Zug (ZG), and Zurich (ZH).

7% of the workforce are employed in forestry and agriculture. (Farming is subsidized by up to 80%). 49% work in the service industries, banking, insurance, etc. (There are 1,700 banks in Switzerland operating 4,500 branches. There are more banks than dentists). 10% work in tourism. 34% work in industry.

Switzerland's largest company is Nestlé, the eighth largest company in Europe. Next come three pharmaceutical giants: Ciba-Geigy, Hofmann-La Roche and Sandoz. These three are based in Basel, which is accordingly nicknamed "La Ville Pilule" or "Pillestadt" — Pill City.

In 1943 Andreas Hofmann, working for Sandoz in Basel, discovered and was the first man to take LSD.

Switzerland has a 90% share of the world's quality watch market.

Switzerland has absolutely no mineral resources. Nuclear energy production is the highest in Europe at 41%. The principal source of energy is hydroelectric.

Until the late 1980s, the Swiss were the highest per capita producers of waste in the world, after the United States. With the imposition of new and strict environmental laws in the early 1990s, that has changed and Switzerland is now one of the greenest and most environmentally conscious nations in the world.

There are four national languages: German (spoken by nearly 70%), French (spoken by 18%), Italian (12%) and Romansch (spoken by about 40,000 people in the canton of Graubunden). The German dialect, which has its own divisions of mini dialects, is called Schwyzerdütsch and is all by incomprehensible to a speaker of High German when it wants to be. Switzerland is split more or less 50/50 Catholic and Protestant.

The Swiss flag is the world's only square-shaped national flag. Reversed (red on white) it becomes the flag of the Red Cross.

The Swiss are highly educated. There are 8 universities, all with international reputations. 90% of Swiss adults have a professional or trade diploma. The Swiss have won more Nobel Prizes per capita than any other people, mainly in physics and chemistry. Per capita spending on research and development is the highest in the world. Per capita the Swiss have registered more patents than anywhere else. Among the peculiar diversity of Swiss inventions are DDT, milk chocolate, gas turbines, the formula for life insurance and the Alpine Horn.

The Swiss Military  Until this century the greatest Swiss export was its mercenary soldiers, reputedly the finest in the world. But they didn't come cheap. Their unofficial motto was "pas d'argent, pas de Suisses" or "no money, no Swiss."

The organisation of the army centres around cantonal militia. There is no officer corps and no Commander-in-Chief (except in times of war or general mobilisation). Every adult male owns his own army rifle, ammunition and a gas mask. National service starts at the age of 20. It involves four months of intensive training after which the man is eligible for call-up until the age of 32. From 32 to 43 (recently brought down from 50), he remains in the military reserves.

Within 48 hours, 400,000 men can be mobilised. All buildings built since WW II have air raid capacity. The entire population can be sheltered underground. Food and raw materials are continuously being stockpiled underneath the mountains. Emergency hospitals are maintained unused but fully equipped beneath ordinary hospitals.

As you drive through the country's motorways, you will occasionally see what looks like manhole covers, perhaps about 20 together, placed on the tarmac in a checkerboard pattern of 3 or 4 rows. They are found at all points of entry to the country, by major tunnels, at the foot of certain mountains, at the approaches to the big cities or at any other important strategic site. These are mines primed for explosion and controlled from Bern. In the event of invasion they can be used to close off and even, if necessary, destroy the entire country. They are the ultimate line of defense in Switzerland's highly developed national defensive system.

Swiss Democracy

That government governs best which governs least.
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The essence of Swiss politics is direct participation and a distrust of strong central government, of anything that smacks of the presidential. This is a tradition that goes right back to the foundation of the country, the reason for Switzerland's existence.

At the top level the political system is federal, the 26 cantons and half-cantons being the foundation of the system. National government is bicameral, similar to the United States, with the two chambers together forming the Federal Assembly. This assembly is the legislative authority. Crucially, though, any law passed by the Federal Assembly can be — and often is — vetoed by a popular referendum. This can be forced by means of a petition of at least 30,000 signatures. Thus, in Switzerland, the people can always overrule their lawmakers.

It is always important to remember that even without the failsafe of the referendum the scope of the national government is severely limited. It controls currency, foreign policy, communications and customs and excise. Every other issue is in the hands of the cantons and still further devolved to the communities (3,000 in total) into which the cantons are divided. It is in these small communities that the essence of Swiss direct democracy lies. The most visible expression is the annual Landesgemeinde of Glarus in which people vote on community issues by public show of hands. This traditional form of democracy is dying out nowadays but its principles remain strongly intact. The national government is virtually anonymous. The people are sovereign at every stage of political activity.

Women got the vote in 1971.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy