Switzerland History – From the Reformation to the Collapse of the Ancient States (1519 – 1798)

If conflicts of interest between the western cantons and the central and eastern cantons had caused the failure of a policy, for which the confederation was not sufficiently firm inside, an independent policy in European conflicts became decidedly impossible only with the Reform, which a few years after the defeat of Marignano violently disunited the Confederation. The Reformation, which originated in Switzerland from that capital of the Confederation which was then Zurich, succeeded indeed in conquering the city-states of Bern and Basel, in part also Schaffhausen, Appenzell and Glarus and several regions or allied subjects. But the most historically important regions: inner, rural-conservative Switzerland with Lucerne and Zug resolutely opposed innovation. The Confederation thus shared the fate of the Empire, where an internal split was likewise provoked, so that the Empire was paralyzed in its political development. The Swiss mercenaries retained their international fame, although they could not avoid, both at the Bicocca (1522) and in front of Pavia (1525), the defeat of Francis I in the face of the Germanic lansquenets and the most powerful imperial artillery.

But Switzerland as a whole had to renounce to assert great political interests; because neither the leader of the Reformed, the pastor of the cathedral of Zurich, Ulrigo Zwingli, could not force the Orthodox to access his convictions; nor was the strength of the Catholic cantons sufficient to destroy the heresy, which for a time had penetrated and conquered even their circle.

With the battle of Kappel, on 11 October 1531, a paradoxical situation arose. The cities of Zurich and Bern, materially superior to their adversaries, together with Basel and Schaffhausen, had to agree to a peace which was disadvantageous to them, which prevented any further propagation of the new doctrine. The common subject regions (above all the Aargau and Thurgau, Ticino, etc.) were almost completely removed from their political influence: with this the preponderance of the Orthodox was ensured. The vanquished attempted 124 years later to appeal against this juridical situation, for them as harmful as it is unworthy, with the so-called First Vilmergen War, in 1655; but their action, militarily very imprudent, failed. With the accession of Freiburg, of Solothurn and Valais to the three forest cantons and to Lucerne and Zug, an anti-reform bloc had already formed shortly after the death of Zwingli, who fell in 1531 on the battlefield of Kappel. Politically and militarily this was directed in a far more effective way than the adversaries, territorially disjointed, even if in themselves more capable and more susceptible to development, could not do. Of course, with the reforming activity of Calvin and Geneva (1536-38 and 1541-64) the Reformation had not only acquired a new province, but the starting point for its diffusion throughout the world; and Bern also reformed the Vaud, torn from the House of Savoy in 1536, so that its state now extended from the Rhine to Lake Geneva. But in the meantime Catholicism was also being strengthened in turn,

In the meantime, relations with the House of Habsburg had certainly improved, given that the restoration of the possessions of anterior Austria had little importance for the world monarchy of Charles V and given that the Catholics sought their most important in the Orthodox emperor. Help. Even more significant than these relations, however, was the alliance with France: an alliance that was interrupted only between 1715 and 1777. The Swiss supplied mercenaries to the French monarchy; in return, their economy was supplemented by more or less regular remittances of French money both to the cantons and to private individuals.

Since territorial contacts began only in 1674 – after the conquest of Franche-Comté by Louis XIV – the interests of the two states were integrated. For a time almost only this alliance, besides the common subject regions, kept Catholics and Protestants united. Because the two confessions hindered each other as much as ever; and often only with great difficulty could religious wars be avoided. In 1560 the 5 Orthodox cantons concluded an alliance with the Duke of Savoy Emanuele Filiberto, so that four years later Bern had to renounce its 1536 conquests located south of Lake Geneva, in order not to lose them in the war since there it was the danger that her confederates would attack her from behind. While from 1562 until about 1590 Catholics enthusiastically took part in the wars of religion in France, there was then a battle for decades for the Calvinist Geneva, which Duke Carlo Emanuele I of Savoy particularly aimed to conquer. Only the failure of an unexpectedly attempted attack on the so-called Escalade put an end to such a struggle in 1602.

Although the Confederates seemed to participate only indirectly in these struggles, since the Orthodox stubbornly refused to welcome Geneva into the Confederation, the latter was shaken by confessional dissensions to the point of running the risk of falling apart. The Catholics concluded the so-called “golden” or “Borromean” league in 1586, to safeguard their particular interests; in 1587 they also joined with Philip II of Spain. Their most notable statesman, the mayor Ludovico Pfyffer of Lucerne, worked hard for the victory of the House of Habsburg: in 1585 he sacrificed even his old friendship with France for this purpose, regardless of the fact that the Switzerland was almost completely surrounded by Habsburg territories, that is, by territories of the ancient mortal enemy.

The Thirty Years’ War had therefore to translate into a real danger for the very existence of the Confederation. It was only with difficulty that the reformed cantons were prevented from marching with Gustavo Adolfo of Sweden in 1631-32, which would certainly have destroyed the Confederation for good. A violation of Swiss neutrality by the Swedes in Thurgau (1633) almost caused civil war. The terrible consequences of the war, however, convinced the two camps that, with their partly forced neutrality, they had escaped frightening destruction: in fact, Catholics and reformers had given up on taking sides in the European struggle, considering that the rivals would pass to the adversary, that is, the overall balance of forces would not change.

Under the impression of terrible misery beyond the borders of the country, it was persuaded that only permanent neutrality could save the Confederation. In 1647 a federal military law was created again, the so-called Defensionale di Wil, to prevent violations of territory by foreigners: 36,000 men had to assume the defense of the country.

The Grisons, due to the abandonment of Valtellina (1620), due to the internal unrest between the Veneto-Protestant faction and the Catholic Spanish faction, were dragged into struggles of many years, which provoked the appearance of foreign armies: Duke Henry of Rohan was sent in 1631 by Cardinal de Richelieu to the Grisons. In 1635 he managed to reconquer the Valtellina with the help of the Grigione Giorgio Jenatsch. When the Richelieu hesitated to give back the strategically important valley, the Jenatsch passed to the side of the enemy and forced the Rohan (1637) to capitulate and retreat. The Valtellina, which was used by the Habsburgs as a passageway for the troops and which had lost ¾ of its residents, then returned from 1639 to the Grisons where it remained until 1797.

The Confederation, on the other hand, essentially managed to preserve its territory from war devastation. Indeed, on the occasion of the negotiations for the peace of Westphalia, the burgomaster of Basel, Enrico Wettstein, even managed to obtain the constitutional separation from the Empire, at the same time as the declaration of independence for the Netherlands. The most terrible European crisis had not hit Switzerland. Consequence was the best situation during many generations in front of Germany, horribly ruined.

Still, the Confederation was not spared severe shocks. A peasant revolt in the summer of 1653 proved the difficulty of economic and social relations, without furthermore bringing about any improvement in the relations between lords and subjects. A conflict of religion, the first war of Villmergen (1655), did not even change the distribution of strength and power, which had existed since 1531 between Protestant and Catholic cantons. Only the second Villmergen War of 1712 shifted the dominance in favor of the Reformed after the defeat of the Orthodox, achieved by the Reformed at the cost of hard struggle. Shortly before the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Confederation was thus able to put an end to its great internal conflict without foreign interference. Bern had already avoided in 1707 that Louis XIV’s took possession of the principality of Neuchâtel, at the end of that dynasty. Complying with the Prussian pretensions, it was possible to keep France on the other side of the Jura. The death of the king (1715) then prevented him from interfering in favor of the defeated Catholics. Thereafter the principle of equality remained established, and the compromise of 1531 was abolished and replaced by an order that transmitted the county of Baden, as well as the northern part of Freiamt, together with Mellingen and Bremgarten to Bern and Zurich: that is, the uninterrupted connection between their two territories. The government over Rapperswil, obtained at the same time, also ensured the dominance of the Reformed over the lands around the upper part of Lake Zurich. Finally Bern was granted participation in the administration of Thurgau,

Only from then on was political power distributed in accordance with the actual importance of the cantons. The principle of religious tolerance, which was valued thereafter, certainly contributed to a new economic and spiritual flourishing of Switzerland during the eighteenth century.

If during the century XVII the country had remained under the dominion of an obscurantist orthodoxy, but now it generated a series of scholars who can be considered among the most eminent of the time: the Basel mathematicians Bernouilli and Euler, the Bern anatomist and physiologist Alberto von Haller, the Geneva naturalist Teodoro de Saussure, together with others. JJ Bodmer and Breitinger, both from Zurich, prepared the classical period of German literature by re-enforcing, at least theoretically, the rights of sentiment and fantasy. If earlier the architects, sculptors, painters, marble workers, plasterers of the northern Italian lakes region had had a surprising part in the art of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Rococo; Minnesänger, of Parsifal. The small city of Zurich had in Solomon Gessner the most famous idyllic poet of the time, in Giovanni Gaspare Lavater the writer and prophet who fascinated everyone. And it must not be forgotten that in that same century with the Genevan J.-J. Rousseau appeared a figure of worldwide resonance: a figure who had a great influence on the public life of the time, through the Contrat social, which fertilized pedagogy with the Émile and who made the tears of the sentimentals of the time shed with the Nouvelle Héloïse.

On the other hand, there is no trace of a further political development of the individual cantons or of the Confederation itself. Since the second half of the century. XVI, on the other hand, a rapidly growing exclusivism, an aristocratic pedantry, was established. While the Confederation was excluded from foreign policy, from the development of the great European states, the interior was barricaded against its neighbors. Each class sought not only to maintain its privileges, but to increase them. The gulf between rulers and ruled deepened so that soon it could no longer be a question of democracy. Here too the age of absolutism created a regime “by the grace of God”, which produced an effect all the more unbearable as the conditions of life became more precarious. Censorship oppressed the spiritual life. L’ National Assembly, a federal collective body, proved incapable of any reform. Confessional hatred had by no means disappeared, but it was spying on propitious opportunities to renew ancient claims. Similar to the Empire, the Confederation was divided into a series of completely independent individual states. While most of the European states merged internally and strengthened, the Confederacy, like the Empire, had degenerated. Nor had the cantons renounced their right of war or alliance in favor of the Confederation. Instead, the National Assembly lacked every means to force the cantons to fulfill its rare decisions. Each step had to be reported to local governments. If, as was usually the case, the instructions of the various cantonal delegates diverged, there was nothing left to do but to postpone the subject for new information or to let it drop. Any attempt to obviate the local arbitrariness in the monetary and customs system or to fix a monetary tariff, compulsory for all, had to be wrecked in the face of the obstinacy of cantonal sovereignties. The connection with the Grisons or Valais was almost gone; the federal law was defective as in the century. XV; and now the courageous spirit which had given them such admirable efficacy in the days of splendor had also disappeared from their imperfect forms.

It was therefore no wonder that the ideas of the French Revolution triumphed almost without encountering resistance. Agitations and riots during the century. XVIII in Bern, in the Leventina governed by the residents of Uri, etc., betrayed a gloomy ferment.

Rebuilding the state had become an absolute necessity. But since they were unable to carry out it with their own strength, they were forced to do so from abroad. The decline of the military art handed over these republics which were falling apart in the hands of the first aggressor. In spite of the example of the partition of Poland, in Switzerland there was at most reason for theoretical ranting. In addition, the subjects insisted on liberation: from Vaud to Lake Constance. The Confederation, whose members, to repeat an expression of Napoleon I, once each counterbalanced a duke, had collapsed. The aim of all aspirations was to maintain the existing state of affairs at all costs.

Switzerland History