History of Zurich



There is evidence to suggest that Celtic tribes of hunter-gatherers settled in the lowlands north of the Alps in 1500 BC. The oldest known farming settlements are located around Gachlingen and date to around 5300 BC. By the Neolithic period, the area was becoming quite populated. The Helvetii in the east were infringed by migratory Germanic tribes in 58 BC. They moved into Gaul, but were defeated at Bibracte by Julius Caesar's armies. Defeated, they returned and the Roman Empire integrated into the area. Several major Swiss cities and towns were founded by the Romans, including Basel, Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Chur. However, the label "Helvetia" can still be found on coins and postal stamps.

At the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes further entered the area. The western Germanic tribe of the Franks invaded France, and settled near Paris though vast segments of Roman culture were retained. The Burgundians settled along the Jura mountain range in modern day Burgundy and western (French speaking) Switzerland. The southern Germanic tribes were called Alamannen settled in southern Germany and northern Switzerland. These groups were the roots of modern day German-speaking Swiss culture. They stuck to their German language as did the northern Germanic tribes settling in northern Germany and Scandinavia. Today's border between the German and French language groups of Switzerland are reminiscent of the border between Burgundians and Alamannen. The Celtic groups merged with these newer influences and can barely be seen in Switzerland today.

In the Middle Ages, the Feudal System was developed in Europe. Under the Carolingian kings, monasteries and bishoprics became important bases for maintaining rule. The Treaty of Verdun of 843 assigned Upper Burgundy (the western part of what is today Switzerland) to Lotharingia, and Alemannia (the eastern part) to the eastern kingdom of Louis the German.

But by the 10th century the rule of the Carolingians waned. Saracens attacked the Valais, and Magyars destroyed Basel in 917 and St. Gallen in 926. King Otto I regained these lands in 955 in the Battle of Lechfeld. In the 12th century, the dukes of Zahringen were given authority over the Burgundy territories. They founded the cities Fribourg in 1157, and Bern in 1191. Their dynasty ended with the death of Berchtold V in 1218 and once again the cities came under control of the Holy Roman Empire.

Alpine passes gained importance during the 11th to the 13th centuries. Areas that were previously inaccessible became part of the larger community. People from the canton (federal states) of Wallis developed wooden water pipes and catwalks in steep rocks and settled in upper Uri and Graubunden. Trade routes developed across the St. Gotthard Pass gained importance as a direct route through the mountains.

German king Friedrich II exempted Uri (1231) and Schwyz (1240) from the powers of counts and made them subjects to the king. When king Rudolf of Habsburg died in 1291, the people from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden united to avoid control from the counts of Habsburg. Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village's square and hung his hat on it, demanding all the townsfolk bow before the hat. William Tell passed by the hat without bowing and was arrested. As punishment, he was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter or both would be executed. On November 18th, 1307, Tell successfully hit the apple with his crossbow. Tell told Gessler that he had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, so that if he had killed his son, he would have used the second bolt on Gessler. Gessler was furious and again captured Tell, taking him by boat to his castle at Kuessnacht. A storm broke on Lake Lucerne and the soldiers unbound Tell asking him to steer. Tell escaped, leaping from the boat at the site now known as the Tellsplatte. Tell continued to Kuessnacht and when Gessler arrived, Tell assassinated him with his crossbow. His defiance sparked a rebellion, eventually leading to the formation of the Swiss Confederation. The Habsburgs eventually had to flee their native castle and the Swiss legend of William Tell was born.

Reforms began as corruption degraded the hold of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther's preaching in Germany led to Huldrych Zwingli's radical teachings in Zurich. Johannes (John) Calvin organized the reformed church in Geneva. This split the country in two distinct fractions:
Progressive cities like Zurich, Basel, Berne, Neuchatel, Geneva turned to the new confession
Rural areas in Central Switzerland (like Lucerne) remained conservative and catholic

The French Revolution had reverberations in Switzerland. The liberal people in western Switzerland revolted against the undemocratic reign of the Swiss Confederacy. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte's troops occupied Switzerland and a central government was introduced. However, Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo also resulted in upheaval for Switzerland and the country returned to federal structures in 1815, with the change of the cantons St Gallen, Graubünden, Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino, Vaud, Valais, Neuchatel and Geneva becoming full and free members of the confederation.

From 1815 to 1848, the factions of liberals and conservatives debated about the structure of Switzerland. The 1815 Vienna conference on international affairs obliged Switzerland to a neutral status in any conflicts between other nations. Changes happened through the cantons as there were liberals and conservatives in every canton. This came to a head as cantons with conservative governments made a secret treaty with Austria against the liberals in 1846, resulting in a civil war (Sonderbundskrieg). The war was settled in days by Henri Dufour, general of the liberal troops and resulted in the creation of the Federal Constitution of 1848. A confederation of 22 (today 26) autonomous cantons with enforced central structures after the model of the United States of America.

One of Switzerland's most important contributions to the world was begun by Henri Dunant, a Swiss merchant, win the mid 1800s. Shocked at the fate of wounded soldiers in the battle of Solferino (1859, Austrian-French war), he wrote a book in 1862 and by 1864 the Swiss government organized an international conference on humanitarian aspects during war. Twelve nations signed the Geneva conventions and established the International Committee of the Red Cross as a permanent, neutral institution to take care of military and civil persons wounded or imprisoned in war.

Switzerland was not invaded during either of the world wars. During World War I (1914-1918), Switzerland's commitment to neutrality was first tested, though the major powers respected their stance. In World War II (1939-1945), Switzerland was challenged as it was surrounded by troops of German Nazis. Though the country maintained its neutrality, it can be said from today's point of view that the country should have done more in favor of Jewish refugees, and that accepting gold from the Nazis was a poor decision. However, it is impossible to understand the pressure and fears of that time today. To make amends, Switzerland's government has appointed an international Independent Commission of Experts (ICE) to conduct an inquiry on Switzerland's role in World War II.

In 1963, Switzerland joined the Council of Europe. Women were granted the right to vote in 1971, and an equal rights amendment was ratified in 1981. In 1979, parts of the canton of Bern attained independence, forming the new canton of Jura.

Switzerland joined the UN by a popular vote in 2002 and further enforced the country's concern for neutrality. Switzerland is not a member state of the EU, but since 2005, Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen treaty and Dublin Convention by popular vote.


Lake-side settlements existed in the area now known as Zurich from the Neolithic and Bronze age. Settlements were discovered in the 1800s, submerged in Lake Zurich. The Celtic Helvetians had a settlement on the Lindenhof and were eventually succeeded by the Romans. who The Romans used this area as a custom station for goods going to and coming from Italy. A military base was constructed in 15 BC. A castle was eventually added in 400 AD. The earliest record of the town's name is preserved on a 2nd century tombstone found in the 18th century on Lindenhof, referring to the Roman castle as "Turicum".

From the early Middle Ages until the middle of the ninth century, almost nothing is known of Zurich's history. The Alemanni had infiltrated during the Barbarian migration and reached the area in the sixth century. Eventually the city came under Frankish Merovingian rule.

Ludwig the German, grandson of Charles the Great, built a convent in 853. This was on the graves of Felix and Regula, the patron saints of Zurich. The oldest church in the city is St Peter's, which was probably another site of Roman worship. These religious sites drew religious writers which had a great effect on the city.

In the 12th century, the city grew and developed. When the house of Zaehringen died out in 1218, Zurich became a free city. With this prosperity and freedom, security was developed in the form of city walls in the 13th century. During this time, mendicant orders were also formed. The formal head of the city was the abbess of the cathedral, but property rights were eventually absorbed more by the city.

The Guild revolution of 1336 was led by Rudolf Brun and brought down the ruling class. From 1383, two mayors, alternating every six months, governed the city, with the guilds taking over power in the 15th century.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the modern canton of Zurich was established. In 1351, it joined the Swiss Confederation started by Forest Cantons. Also during this time, the Old Zurich War (1436-1450) waged with the city swayed politically between Austria and the Confederation. Trade declined in the silk, linen, and wool industry. The prosperous city was now a humble city of artisans.

Ulrich Zwingli led the Reformation in Switzerland in 1519. Zwingli preached in Zurich until his death in 1531. Partly due to his teachings, a religious civil war was begun.

Zurich became the center of the Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland, but during the 16th and 17th centuries it adopted an increasingly aristocratic and isolationist attitude was adopted. A second ring of city ramparts was built in 1642. The funds required for this project were raised by taxing the territories without consultation. This led to violent revolts that were forced down. A new form of textile industry provided a comfortable level of affluence and the city again grew in prosperity. From 1648, the city changed its official status from Reichsstadt to Republik, thus likening itself to city republics like Venice and Genova.

In the 18th century, Zurich experienced a cultural surge with Johann Jakob Bodmer, Johann Jakob Breitinger, Salomon Gessner and Johann Caspar Lavater. From 1803 to 1814 Zurich was one of the six directorial cantons. However, the city again lost it's status with the fall of the Ancien Regime during the Helvetic Republic. Zurich lost control of the land and its economic privileges due to the demands of its rural subjects. Most of the ramparts built in the 17th century were torn down, without ever having been sieged.

In 1833, Zurich tried to secure a revision of the Federal constitution and a strong central government. In 1839, Zurich succeeded in becoming the Federal capital, but just for a year. Its liberal politicians were successful in establishing the modern federal state in 1848.

Alfred Escher crafted railways and politics. Sometimes known as the Tsar of Zurich, he connected Italy with Switzerland and Germany in 1880. From 1847, the Spanisch-Brotli-Bahn became the first railway in the Swiss territory. It connected Zurich with Baden, making Zurich Hauptbahnhof the origin of the Swiss rail network. The present Hauptbahnhof actually dates to 1871.

A coup against the liberal local government by the Conservative party in 1839 led to outrage at the nomination of Radical David Strauss, the author of The Famous Life of Jesus. This caused a fall in popularity for the Radicals, but they regained power in the Federal capital for 1845-46. Zurich's politicians maintained prominence in the Federal government.

During the 19th century, Zurich developed as Switzerland's of trade and transport. Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse (Station Street) was laid out in 1867, and the Zurich Stock Exchange was founded in 1877. In 1902, the medieval monastery was removed for modern necessities. The city was modernizing and changing.

World War II left Switzerland formally neutral, but totally surrounded by the Axis. The Swiss suffered from difficulties in importing food and goods. After the war Switzerland's economy boomed and there was mass immigration from Southern Europe. Politically, Switzerland remained anti-communist and very conservative.

In the 1980s Switzerland experienced a series of youth riots. In Zurich, these occurred in 1980. There was discontent as many young people felt the bourgeois culture was not benefiting them. It began with the Zurich city authorities allocating a large subsidy to the local opera house. A group calling itself the Red Factory Action Group clashed with police and a group gathered to demand premises for alternative, non-commercial youth culture. The demand for respect of the youth movement resulted in Autonomous Youth Centers (AJZ) and brought new ideas to the city.

Zurich has shaped Swiss policy and culture. Issues in the 1990s with drugs have pushed national policy and allowed the city to develop a less formal reputation compared to the rest of Switzerland. It has become popular as a place to live with an exceptionally high quality of life.

Update 26/02/2014

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