The Capital of Switzerland
When you think of Switzerland, the first cities that probably come to mind are Zürich and Geneva. Zürich is the largest Swiss city. With its predominately German speaking population, it is is hub for railways, roads, and air traffic. Geneva, the second largest city in Switzerland, is primarily French-speaking, and is both a global financial hub, and a worldwide center for diplomacy.
Given the importance of these cities, both seem like ideal places for a national capital, but that is not the case. Why not?
First, we should clear up that Switzerland doesn’t have a capital city, per se. They have a “Federal City,” which acts as the de facto capital. So is Zürich or Geneva the Federal City?
No, that title goes to Bern.
Why is Bern the Capital of Switzerland?
In the 11th century, the area that is now Switzerland became united under the Holy Roman Empire. However, the remoteness of the region, along with the gradual decline of imperial power, allowed for the rise of relatively independent territories. Administrative and judicial powers fell into the hands of feudal dynasties. The Zähringen, Savoy, Kyburg, and Habsburg families would found monasteries and new cities throughout what would become Switzerland.
One such city was Bern, which was founded in 1191 as a military post by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen. His family was at conflict with the Savoys, and Bern was chosen for its strategic position. Located in the inland frontier and on the Aare River, the site was home to an ancient castle and was easily defensible against invaders.
As time passed, Bern’s location on the Aare would make it an ideal city for facilitating transport and bringing goods in and out of Switzerland.
History of Bern as Capital
By the 13th century, the Zähringen dynasty was no more, and Bern became a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, meaning that it was subject only to the authority of the emperor.
Overtime, Bern would extend its power by acquiring surrounding territories. It became an independent state and in 1353, entered the Swiss Confederation, which it would come to lead. By the 18th century, Bern governed 52 territories, and had considerable power. This power was at the root of Bern being made the Federal City within the new Swiss federal state in 1848.
Why Not Zürich or Geneva?
As with many cities, population and economic importance are not always automatic factors in determining a capital.
When deciding to pick the Federal City, Geneva had a couple considerations against it. For one, it’s location on the western tip of Switzerland isn’t exactly a central place for a capital. Second, Geneva is primarily French speaking, while the rest of Switzerland speaks mostly German.
Located in northern Switzerland, Zürich also isn’t the most centrally located, especially compared to Bern. Zürich was also pretty well built up by the time the Federal City was picked, so Bern made sense as it could better host the yet to be constructed buildings needed to host the Federal Government.
In the end though, the selection of Bern as capital of Switzerland might have had more to do with a political concession between the two distinct cultures and languages of Zürich and Geneva. Much like in Canada, where centrally located Ottawa was selected over the larger and more important Toronto (English) and Montreal (French), Bern served as a viable compromise between two competing cities.