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A brief history

Early pointers

Thousands of years ago, people were already living in the region that was later to become the Canton of Schwyz. The most recent information tells us that the biggest settlements were in the Freienbach-Hurden area. Many finds indicate that these „original“ Schwyzers were living and working there 4-5000 years ago. Their tools were made of stone at first; soon it would become bronze, as a veritable plethora of finds throughout the Canton indicate. Evidence from the Ice Age, which followed, is rarer. In Roman times the preferred settlement sites were on the shores of lakes and convenient slopes.

The Alemanii arrived about 1400 years ago and introduced their own ways of life and economic habits to the old settlement regions. The population grew and the land needed to be developed. Christianity gained ground, and the church buildings in Tuggen and Schwyz enable us to date this back to the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Major settlements can be identified near Lake Zürich and in the deep circular valleys of Schwyz and Arth.

A strong valley community

A few centuries later and there is more evidence. Written sources, which had been rare up to that time, begin to be more plentiful. In the 10th century the monastery at Einsiedeln, richly endowed by the German Kings, quickly gained in importance. For centuries the monastery and the people of Schwyz fought over alps, forests and grazing rights near the frontier, and the Schwyzers, organised into their valley community, increasingly made a name for themselves. As their power and self-confidence grew they came to rival the foreign landlords in what was later to become the canton.

At Faenza in 1240 the Schwyzers were granted ‘immediacy’, self-government in direct subordination to the Emperor, by Emperor Frederick II and attempted to exploit this position to combat the claims of the Habsburgs who had become the strongest power in the region. The Schwyzers’ political and economic aims were as one. Their farming customs were undergoing radical change and they began to farm heavy livestock on a large scale. They needed markets and trade, and the new Gotthard route pointed the way South.

With the alliance of early August 1291 the original Swiss confederation became a political reality. Difficult times were not long in coming, the Morgarten war (Battle of Morgarten, 1315) and many anxious years followed for the state.

Schwyz began to break out of its narrow boundaries. A compromise was reached with the monastery at Einsiedeln in 1350 and the Schwyzers soon took over from the old Habsburg patrons. The March came under cantonal law as a free state and the common path towards a partnership which was to experience many vicissitudes began. A similar decision in favour of the Schwyzers’ leadership was taken in Küssnacht. The Höfe followed soon afterwards, and after the „Old Zürich War“ they joined Schwyz as a bailiwick. Every one of these developments formed the internal Cantonal structures which continue to this day; the old districts are still independent.

Old Schwyz with its political centre in the parish of St Martin, the pilgrimage monastery of Einsiedeln, which is renowned in Europe, and its old Confederates round Lake Lucerne, joined with further neighbours. The complex entity that is the Confederation became a historically significant and unique federal system. Wars and political quarrels accompanied the towns and rural communities down the centuries. In time, Schwyz’s strong position as a culturally and economically developed region was overtaken by the rapidly expanding and wealthy towns in the foothills of the Alps.

More recent times

Schwyz continued to benefit from its reputation as one of the original founders and from its expansive power. It supported democratic movements in Eastern Switzerland and led campaigns against privilege. With its fellow Confederates, however, it was also part of the conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries and dominion over the subjugated regions.

Swiss men were much in demand as mercenaries for foreign warlords. Schwyz made a significant contribution to this trade and a real military enterprise grew up over the years. The manors in Schwyz owe their existence in no small measure to this trade, which is not without its seamy side. The cultural links associated with these foreign commissions, chiefly from France and Italy, should not be underestimated. Ultimately the agents of this trade in mercenaries were the country’s leaders too, and conflicts of interest were common.

The Schwyzers’ self-assurance was largely due to religion. The Church was powerful, Christian Schwyz a reality. The Schwyzers’ and Märchlers’ „Great Prayer“ and the mystic cult of the canton’s blood-red banner were an expression of this outlook. Despite a number of reformational attempts, Schwyz remained true to the Catholic Church at the Reformation, so it is no surprise that the Catholic reforms after the Council of Trent fell on fertile ground. The entire canton was then seized by the powerful Baroque movement which found its principal forms of expression in magnificent churches and chapels, at Arth, Lachen, Schwyz, for example, and above all at Einsiedeln.

The works of native and foreign artists have responded to religious needs since time immemorial. The most famous Schwyz artist of all time, the engraver Johann Carl Hedlinger, lived and worked abroad, however, at the courts of Europe. The main exponents of these cultural, economic and political forms developed increasing aristocratic tendencies. The canton’s sovereign body, the Assembly which had been in existence since the 13th century, felt increasingly restricted. The 18th century witnessed expressions of popular dissent and upheaval: the stormy signs of an era whose time was passing! Even though the Enlightenment was mainly an elite movement and had only marginal impact in Schwyz, unrest and a desire for change persisted. Resistance to Schwyz’s increasingly overbearing rule grew up in the associated territories.

Troubled times and restoration

After the French Revolution of 1789, Europe was destabilised and decades of war and unrest followed. Nor was the Confederation of the XIII Cantons equal to the storm. Supporters of the new order were at work everywhere, the ideas of the Enlightenment were now bearing fruit. Schwyz believed it had little to gain from the new order and opposed the creation of a „Helvetian Republic“ and the French troops who were supporting it. Despite fierce fighting and a number of victories against the superior French forces, capitulation could not be avoided.

After the fall of Napoleon, from 1814 onwards the situation prior to 1798 was largely restored in Schwyz but it was not long before tensions arose between the old canton, the region which once ruled and the outer territories. A new group of leaders was formed in the March, Einsiedeln and Küssnacht, and their demands were for a modern and just constitution for the entire canton. The then free Gersau republic also met its fate at that time: in 1817 the Diet decided that it would be added to the Canton of Schwyz .

Disputes within the canton escalated in about 1830 and the „outer territory of the Canton of Schwyz“ was formed. In 1833, however, the Federal Diet decided on re-unification again, sent troops into Schwyz and ordered a modern constitution to be drafted.

Political activities should not be viewed in isolation from economic and social developments. Even in the olden days, „schappe“ spinning had begun to spread out from Schwyz and then from Gersau. People worked for the Zürich textile industry in the March; and there was some activity in Einsiedeln. After the political crisis at the turn of the century Gersau’s silk industry reached its apogee in the first 30 years of the 19th century. The March established its own textile factories in the 1830s. The farming communities and the old families were still predominant but were joined by an increasing number of workers, employees and craftsmen. The gradual re-structuring of the economy was accompanied by the progressive and hard-fought achievement of basic rights.

The new Canton

Despite a new, liberal constitution and notable progress towards industrialisation in some parts of Schwyz, the canton tended to remain rooted in pre-revolutionary ideas. The Catholic Church’s influence on politics and everyday life continued. The views held by leading Schwyzers and most of the population about the future of the Confederation differed from those of the majority of the Swiss and the large cantons, which were seeking a strong federal state, and the inner cantons with Valais and Fribourg believed a confederation of states in the old style to be indispensable. To protect their own interests and as a bulwark against military action from radical cantons they set up the ‘Sonderbund’, a separatist league. The last armed conflict in the Confederation took place in 1847, when the Sonderbund, which was inferior in both men and equipment, was defeated by the troops representing the majority of the Diet and led by General Dufour. The way was clear for the Federal state of 1848.

At that time, the Canton of Schwyz was demoralised and bedevilled by war debts but had the good fortune to possess statesmen of stature with the skill to lead it out of the worst of its isolation. A new constitution formed the basis of political and economic life. In the most difficult circumstances and despite being constantly short of funds, a road system was constructed and popular education was promoted, as can be clearly seen from the many school buildings which date from that decade. The beauty of the countryside and the multitude of links with the history and foundation of the original Confederation provided attractive destinations for foreign tourists who came to visit in increasing numbers.

The coming of the railways in the late 19th century was a real breakthrough. Industrial output, trade and tourism increased dramatically. A great deal of diversification took place, but the lowland and Alpine economy continued to occupy a significant position in social and public life.

Well-balanced political structures were gradually created, through the constitution of 1898 or thereabouts and its subsequent amendments. The Canton’s districts and the 30 communes remain powerful lower-tier bodies which still make political decisions. On the other hand the Canton’s supreme executive body, the Cantonal government, was given genuine central powers.

The almost unbelievable acceleration of technical and social development since the Second World War did not stop at the frontiers of Canton Schwyz. The neighbouring major centres, particularly Zürich, have influenced circumstances in the canton. The increase in the population and the growth of economic power in more recent times are positive factors, of that there is no doubt. The ability of the communes and villages, and the entire canton of Schwyz, has been, and will continue to be, increasingly called upon to meet new challenges.

Dr. Josef Wiget
Government Archivist, Canton of Schwyz