Switzerland Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Switzerland is a major European nation, but there's actually a lot that most people don't know about it. In this lesson, we'll talk about ethnicity in Switzerland, and see how this reflects the nation's history.

Switzerland

Switzerland is famous for certain things. The Alps. Chocolate. Neutrality. But what about diversity? This European nation's official name is the Swiss Confederation, because it was historically founded as an alliance amongst smaller states. To this day, Switzerland is home to 26 cantons, or political states within the greater nation. The government today is much more centralized than the original confederation was, but the divisions between cantons still mean that strong regional identities exist throughout the nation. This may be partly why there is no such thing as a Swiss ethnicity. The term 'Swiss' refers to any citizen of Switzerland, so it's a nationalist, not ethnic term. The canton system is native to Switzerland. Maybe it deserves a little fame for that too.

The Swiss cantons
Map of Switzerland

German Ethnicity in Switzerland

Thanks to the history of the confederation and current regional identities maintained by the cantons, many Swiss people have strong ethnic identities as well. The majority of Swiss, about 65%, ethnically identify as German. The Germanic tribes were major forces in the Alps for a long time, and when the first Swiss Confederacy was formed it was technically part of the German-controlled Holy Roman Empire. So, there are many historical reasons for Switzerland to have such a high German population. German is also one of the official languages of Switzerland, and is spoken by over half of the population. Many Swiss speak a distinct local dialect of German called, simply enough, Swiss German.

German (or Swiss German) is the most widely-spoken language in Switzerland
German sign

French Ethnicity in Switzerland

The second largest ethnic group in Switzerland, and the largest ethnic minority, are the French. Roughly 18% of Swiss citizens identify as ethnically French. Like Germany, France borders Switzerland, and open border policies across the centuries have allowed for a great amount of cultural exchange. In fact, parts of Switzerland and France were historically contested between the two nations, and there has been some alterations to this border over the years. French is also an official language of Switzerland, spoken by about 20% of the population.

Italian Ethnicity in Switzerland

To the south of Switzerland lies the nation of Italy, so it should be unsurprising that the Italians make up the next largest ethnic category of the nation. About 10% of Swiss people identify as ethnically Italian. As with France, parts of the regions around this border have been contested over history, at times belonging to Milan, at times being Swiss, and at times being part of the Holy Roman Empire, along with much of Northern Italy. It should be noted that most Italians in Switzerland are ancestrally from Northern Italy, which is significant since this part of Italy tends to be much more ethnically connected to Northern Europe than the people of central and southern Italy, which is more culturally and ethnically Mediterranean. Due to the high number of Italians in Switzerland, however, this too is an official language of the nation.

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