1798 - 1803

The Helvetic Republic (French: République Hélvetique, German: Helvetische Republik, Italian: Repubblica Elvetica, Russian: Гельветическая республика) was a sister republic of France that existed between 1798 and 1803, during the French Revolutionary Wars. It was created following the French invasion and the consequent dissolution of the Old Swiss Confederacy, marking the end of the old regime in Switzerland. During its short existence, the republic incorporated most of the territory of modern Switzerland, with the exception of the cantons of Geneva and Neuchâtel and the old Prince-Bishopric of Basel.

During the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s, the French Republican armies expanded eastward. The French Republican armies enveloped Switzerland on the grounds of "liberating" the Swiss people, whose own system of government was deemed as feudal, especially for annexed territories such as Vaud.

Some Swiss nationals, including Frédéric-César de La Harpe, had called for French intervention on these grounds. The invasion proceeded largely peacefully since the Swiss people failed to respond to the calls of their politicians to take up arms.

On 5 March 1798, French troops completely overran Switzerland and the Old Swiss Confederation collapsed. On 12 April 1798, 121 cantonal deputies proclaimed the Helvetic Republic, "One and Indivisible". On 14 April 1798, a cantonal assembly was called in the canton of Zürich, but most of the politicians from the previous assembly were re-elected. The new régime abolished cantonal sovereignty and feudal rights. The occupying forces established a centralised state based on the ideas of the French Revolution.

Many Swiss citizens resisted these "progressive" ideas, particularly in the central areas of the country. Some of the more controversial aspects of the new regime limited freedom of worship, which outraged many of the more devout citizens.

In response, the Cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden raised an army of about 10,000 men led by Alois von Reding to fight the French. This army was deployed along the defensive line from Napf to Rapperswil. Reding besieged French-controlled Lucerne and marched across the Brünig pass into the Berner Oberland to support the armies of Bern. At the same time, the French General Balthasar Alexis Henri Antoine of Schauenburg marched out of occupied Zürich to attack Zug, Lucerne and the Sattel pass. Even though Reding's army won victories at Rothenthurm and Morgarten, Schauenburg's victory near Sattel allowed him to threaten the town of Schwyz. On 4 May 1798, the town council of Schwyz surrendered.

On 13 May, Reding and Schauenburg agreed to a cease-fire, the terms of which included the rebel cantons merging into a single one, thus limiting their effectiveness in the central government. However, the French failed to keep their promises in respecting religious matters and before the year was out there was another uprising in Nidwalden which the authorities crushed, with towns and villages burnt down by French troops.

No general agreement existed about the future of Switzerland. Leading groups split into the Unitaires, who wanted a united republic, and the Federalists, who represented the old aristocracy and demanded a return to cantonal sovereignty. Coup-attempts became frequent, and the new régime had to rely on the French to survive. Furthermore, the occupying forces insisted that the accommodation and feeding of the soldiers be paid for by the local populace, which drained the economy. The treaty of alliance with France also broke the tradition of neutrality established by the Confederation. All this made it difficult to establish a new working state.

In 1799, Switzerland became a virtual battle-zone between the French, Austrian, and Imperial Russian armies, with the locals supporting mainly the latter two, rejecting calls to fight with the French armies in the name of the Helvetic Republic.

Instability in the Republic reached its peak in 1802–1803, which included the Bourla-papey uprising and the Stecklikrieg civil war of 1802. By then, it was 12 million francs in debt having started with a treasury of 6 million francs. This, together with local resistance, caused the Helvetic Republic to collapse, and its government took refuge in Lausanne.

At that time, Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, summoned representatives of both sides to Paris in order to negotiate a solution. Although the Federalist representatives formed a minority at the conciliation conference, known as the "Helvetic Consulta", Bonaparte characterised Switzerland as federal "by nature" and considered it unwise to force the country into any other constitutional framework.

On 19 February 1803, the Act of Mediation restored the cantons. With the abolition of the centralized state, Switzerland became a confederation once again.

Swiss History Timeline - Helvetic Republic
Helvetic Republic coat-of-arms