Nonexistent Switzerland

La Suisse n’existe pas (French for Switzerland doesn't exist) was once used as the title for the Swiss exhibit at a World Exhibition. It set the Swiss media aflame with outraged indignation; despite that, it was nothing but a statement of fact: There is no country going by the name of Switzerland.




It is a curious fact that there is no country in the world that goes by the name of Switzerland. The clue to this seeming contradiction to what you think you know lies in the international abbreviation used as CH or CHE. The official name of the country everybody, including the Swiss, refer to as Switzerland stands for Confoederatio Helvetica (Helvetian Confederation). Once you know that the country doesn't exist, you no longer wonder why the Swiss government quite cavalierly presents the head of government as head of state while someone else is actually filling the post (the President of the National Parliament in fact). 


The confederation as a unified state started life in 1848 when the hitherto independent Republics and Principalities joined in the building of a federal state. The process was by no means straightforward and was only resolved in a civil war whereby the dissident states were pressured into the union. Americans know how that one works. In Switzerland, the process was definitely less bloody and rather resolved by strategic movement of forces. 


In the act of union, Bern was designated as the seat of the government. No, there is no capital in Switzerland, the careful balanced power between the individual states would not allow such a thing. It probably makes perverse sense that an nonexistent country has no capital. The new constitution named the country as Confoederatio Helvetica. No mention of Switzerland though. Switzerland in fact is nothing but a nickname derived from one of its central states: Schwyz. When the confederate states of medieval times exported halberdiers by the thousands to battlefields all over Europe, they were all referred to as coming from the land of the Switzers. A remnant of these mercenaries is still stationed today at the Vatican as the Swiss Guard. 


The country referred to as Switzerland was a poor country. Its main problem was the total lack of natural resources. But the Swiss made good on that and Swiss came to be synonymous with quality and the Swiss cross an eye catching advertisement. In time, the government took the extraordinary step to protect the name Switzerland, the acclamation Swiss, and the Swiss cross from being used for advertisement by companies by law. Exceptions were and are made, though, e.g. for Victorinox or Swiss International Airlines. 


It is quite interesting that a country that doesn't exist has had quite some impact on language. The Swiss had to adopt a permanent policy of neutrality in the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna when Europe was reorganized after the Napoleonic Wars. As a result, Switzerland has become a byword for neutrality, or sitting the fence if you want to say it succinctly. As a fact, Switzerland has gone Twilight and you may even buy t-shirts for Team Switzerland. A most fitting fictional connection, I think.


Further reading
William Tell and the Apple: National Treasures
How Migrants Save a Dying Language
Good Queen Berta in Switzerland