Research Tip: The ultimate Swiss genealogy book is "SWISS SURNAMES: A COMPLETE REGISTER", commonly known as Familiennamenbuch der Schweiz (LDS library fische #6053507) - Three volumes contain every surname now found in Switzerland, a total of 48,500 surnames arranged alphabetically, together with information giving exactly in which Heimat or community the surnames enjoy hereditary rights of citizenship as of 1962. If a surname is not listed, the family had died out by the time of this compilation.
Switzerland on-line map - Multimap.com mapping web site.
Switzerland from Space
Name of Canton
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Switzerland is located in Central Europe, bordering Germany to the north, Austria to the east, Italy to the south, and France to the west. It covers an area slightly less than twice the size of New Jersey. The climate is temperate but varies with altitude with cold, rainy/snowy winters and cool, humid summers. Mountains (Alps in the south, Jura in the northwest) form the majority of the terrain with a central plateau of rolling hills, plains, and large lakes. The Alps Mountain Range extends from France, covering 60% of Switzerland, and levels out into Austria. The Highest peaks include Dufourspise (15,203 feet), Dom (14,913 feet) and Matterhorn (14,691 feet). Two of Europe's largest rivers, The Rhine and Rhode, originate in the Swiss Alps. There are thousands of glaciers covering over one thousand square miles. Along the French border, north of the Alps, is the smaller Jura mountain range. "Jura" is the ancient Celtic word for "forest".
The Bernese Mittelland, or "Middle Land", lies between the Jura and Alps. It is a central plateau of rolling hills covering 23% of Switzerland. The area is tempered with cold winds, called "Bise", from the northwest and pronounced warm gusts from the south called "Föhn". Natural resources include timber, salt, and hydropower potential.
Swiss ancestors chose to live in a country almost completely ringed by mountains and with few resources. The surounding lands were occupied by various incivilized and barbaric peoples. Prehistoric reindeer and bear hunters from western Europe (now France) started to appear in Mittelland in large groups during the Würm Glacial Period, around 30,000 years ago. Fossel findings suggest these nomadic hunters may have visited the area as early as 350,000 years ago. Around 1500 BC, when the glaciers melted at the end of the Würm Glacial Period, many tribes began settling permanently in the Alp valleys. The Mittelland, with its fertile soil and ample water supply, attracted Switzerland's first settlers.
After several hundred years, two tribes became prominent: 1) the Helvetians (or Helvetii) a warrier Celtic people, which were the first inhabitants of the region and controlled much of Europe, Jura, and the Mittelland plain between Lakes Constance and Geneva, and 2) the Rhaetians (or Rhaeti - a sect of Etruseans) from northern Italy settled near several Alpine Lakes and the Graubünden Alps.
The land-hungary Roman invaders began their attacks on the Rhaetians 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. By 52 BC, the germanic tribe assults from the north caused the Helvetians to abandon Mittelland en mass to southern France. Well-trained Roman soldiers easily blocked their way and forced their return with Roman ruler, Julius Ceasar, promising to protect their lands from the Germanics in exchange for absorbing all Helvetian territories into the Holy Roman Empire. Forty years later, after a series of skirmish defeats, the Rhaetians joined the empire. The Romans renamed the area "Helvetia", which flourished over the next two hundred years. The Roman occupation did not stop foreign invasions and the Romans were gradually driven back by the Germanic Altemanni tribe which settled in the 5th century.
For centuries, the Swiss dwelled in small villages, sometimes separated from the nearest settlement by an avalanche-buried trail. One's life often depended on being self-sufficient, observant, persevering. The territory was again 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. The leaders of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden formed a mutual-defense pact. Switzerland (whose name is derived from Schwyz) celebrates that alliance as the first step in its formation as a nation. Situated on a grassy plateau north of the Alps mountains, Uri and its neighbors were trying to cope with changing times. Not far away, other Europeans were fighting over the expansion of Austria's Habsburg empire. Their struggles against the Habsburgs is idealised in the familiar legend of William Tell. The three Swiss neighbors wanted to be ready, if the conflict moved in their direction. After all, their plateau formed a strategic crossroads between east and west Europe, and between its north and south. It was a place any empire would want to control.
The new alliance soon proved itself. In 1315, an army of Swiss peasants successfully defended their land against a large Austrian force. 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. Others joined the trio, and, by 1515, Switzerland was a loose federation of 13 regions and city-states. Its armies had defeated French and Italian forces, too and acquired territory in the process. 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. As a result of its expansion, Switzerland now had a diverse population. Its people retained languages and customs that linked them to the French, Italians, Germans, and other neighbors. So, any future war against those neighbors could lead to conflict within the alliance maybe even split it! Neutrality seemed wiser.
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 (1618-1848), 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.
The Swiss no longer live in isolated villages. And, by now, those early life-sustaining traits have evolved into skills that make great scientists and entrepreneurs. In fact, Swiss citizens have registered more patents and won more Nobel Prizes, per-capita, than any other country.
Switzerland is a confederation of 26 cantons (states), each of which has its own predominant language, religion, and culture. The Swiss cantons united in 1848 and formed a federal republic. There's no "Swiss language" or even a "Swiss culture" in the ethnic sense. That's because early migrants to Switzerland came from nearby regions in Europe and wished to preserve their particular cultural heritage. Thus, a Swiss citizen today is likely to be Protestant or Catholic and to speak one of four national languages: German (75 percent), French (20), Italian (4), or Romansch (1). Religiously, the country may be described as follows: Roman Catholic (46.7%), Protestant (40%), other (5%), and no religion (8.3%).