A little over 200 years ago, the troops of the anti-French alliance moved into Paris and sealed the end of the Napoleonic Empire and old Europe. Shortly thereafter, the Congress of Vienna took place under the leadership of the victorious powers England, Russia, Prussia and Austria. Its aim was to reorganise Europe. For Switzerland, the Congress of Vienna is so important because it created the basis for a sovereign, federalist and, above all, neutral Switzerland.

The constitution sent a delegation to the Congress of Vienna to represent Switzerland
The constitution sent a delegation to the Congress of Vienna to represent Switzerland

The Helvetic Republic

Before that, the French had long determined the fate of Switzerland, which occupied our country in 1798. In the so-called old Confederation there were 13 independent places under international law which were full members of the Confederation. Together they administered the “Common Lordships”, subject territories such as Aargau, Vaud or Ticino, which were legally severely disadvantaged and suffered under the burden of high taxes. The only federal institution was the “Tagsatzung”, an assembly of delegates from the 13 towns. There, questions were discussed which all concerned equally.

Swiss Delegation at the Congress of Vienna

It was precisely this Constitution that sent three representatives to the Peace Congress in Vienna. But also cantons, regions and cities sent their own delegates. Because of different interests, the Swiss representatives left behind a picture of a hopelessly torn confederation.

Switzerland’s strategic position

Due to its strategic location at the foot of the Alps, Switzerland was important for the stability of Europe
Due to its strategic location at the foot of the Alps, Switzerland was important for the stability of Europe

Switzerland was a kind of buffer between France, which had to be kept in check, and Austria. All the great European powers wanted to control Switzerland, since its strategic position at the foot of the Alps ensured that France was sealed off.

The Congress of Vienna as the beginning of Swiss neutrality

It seems that the Russian tsar Alexander, the chairman of the Congress of Vienna, was the decisive factor in Switzerland becoming a neutral state. Tsar Alexander was brought up by a Swiss by the name of Frédéric-César de La Harpe and was strongly influenced by him.

De La Harpe, a native of Vaud, wanted to prevent Switzerland from being torn apart. He also feared that the Bernese would rule over his homeland, Vaud, as they did in Napoleon’s day. He therefore advocated a Swiss state in which each canton would be given its own independence.

Europe's leading powers met in Vienna in 1815 for the Peace Congress
Europe’s leading powers met in Vienna in 1815 for the Peace Congress

And that’s how it happened. Tsar Alexander, after consultation with De La Harpe, issued a decree maintaining a Switzerland of 22 cantons. At the same time, the leaders of Europe agreed that Switzerland was not in a position to guarantee stability because of its disunity. Which is why it was decided that it had to be neutral. The Swiss came to terms with this, although they themselves had not demanded neutrality. There was no project for neutrality; circumstances led the other states to impose neutrality on Switzerland, as it suited everyone. The “everlasting armed neutrality” so much invoked and celebrated today by the “Schweizerische Volkspartei” (SVP) is therefore not a Swiss invention, but was imposed on us by Europe’s great states as a condition for their continued existence as independent states.

Switzerland never had the potential to become a great power

And so the Congress of Vienna is officially regarded as the beginning of Swiss neutrality. But actually the “Tagsatzung” had already issued its first official declaration of neutrality in 1674. And the famous hermit Niklaus von der Flüe from Stans, whose wise advice in 1481 had prevented a civil war between city and country cantons, advised the Swiss 330 years before the Congress of Vienna “not to put the fence too far” and “not to interfere in foreign hands”. The fact that Switzerland would never be a great power was clear at the latest after the lost battle of Marignano in 1515. Since then, Switzerland has confined itself to self-defence.

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That’s why Switzerland became neutral
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