officially Swiss Confederation
Country, central Europe. Area: 15,940 sq mi (41,284 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 7,519,000. Capitals: Bern (administrative), Lausanne (judicial). The population is German, French, and Italian. Languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh (all official, with Romansh used locally). Religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant); also Islam. Currency: Swiss franc. Switzerland is divided into three regions: the meadow-covered Jura Mountains; the central Mittelland, a rich agricultural and urbanized area; and the lofty crags of the Alps. It is one of the world's major financial centres; its economy is based largely on international trade and banking, as well as light and heavy industries. Manufactures include watches, precision instruments, machinery, and chemicals. Tourism and agriculture are also important; products include grains, sugar beets, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, chocolate, and wine. Despite diverse ethnic groups, religions, and languages, Switzerland has maintained the world's oldest democracy for some 700 years. It is a federal state with two legislative houses; its head of state and government is the president of the federal council. The original inhabitants were the Helvetians, who were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC. Germanic tribes penetrated the region from the 3rd to the 6th century AD, and Muslim and Magyar raiders ventured in during the 10th century. It came under the rule of the Franks in the 9th century and the medieval empire (later the Holy Roman Empire) in the 11th century. In 1291 three cantons formed an anti-Habsburg league that became the nucleus of the Swiss Confederation. It was a centre of the Reformation, which divided the confederation and led to a period of political and religious conflict. The French organized Switzerland as the Helvetic Republic in 1798. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna recognized Swiss independence and guaranteed its neutrality. A new federal state was formed in 1848 with Bern as the capital. Switzerland remained neutral in both World War I and World War II and has continued to defend this neutrality. It joined the European Free Trade Association in 1960, but it has opted against joining the European Union. It joined the United Nations in 2002.
Learn more about Switzerland with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.