Is Bern the capital of Switzerland?

Is Bern the capital of Switzerland?

Whether it be at a pub quiz or casual conversation with friends, the question: What is the capital of Switzerland? can be tricky to answer. While many abroad would say Bern, the truth is a lot more complicated than that.

What is the capital of Switzerland?

For most people around the world, the capital of Switzerland is Bern and has been since 1848 at the latest. However, while this answer is usually good enough to put on school tests and mass-produced globes, the most accurate answer is simple and perhaps a little confusing.

Does Switzerland have a capital?

Technically, Switzerland does not have a capital city. During the drafting of the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848 - seen by many as the foundation of modern Switzerland - the title of capital city was never assigned.

To this day, no Swiss law states that Bern is the capital of Switzerland. While it may be considered the capital by the outside world, as far as the Swiss are concerned, Bern is simply the capital of Canton Bern and the seat of the federal government.

Why does Switzerland not have an official capital city?

The reason why Switzerland has no official capital is down to the origins of the state itself. In 1291, when the first three cantons formed the Old Swiss Confederacy, the emphasis of the union was based on mutual assistance between the cantons, not a centralised nation.

Cantons dominate Swiss politics

For most of Switzerland’s history, the cantons held ultimate authority over their own affairs, instead of a centralised government. While the Federal Diet (Tagsatzung) did constitute a national government, not only was its power very limited, but it also met in many different Swiss cities over the years.

Cantons were still free to declare wars on other nations or other cantons, determine taxation and enact social policies as they saw fit. Most famously, this was seen during the Italian Wars of 1515, where groups of Swiss soldiers from each canton were free to leave the campaign if they wanted or voted to.

Federalisation and central government in Switzerland

The system of limited federal authority continued until 1848, when a civil war erupted between the cantons that wished to keep their own sovereignty and those that wanted to federalise. The federalists won and began working to adopt the First Swiss Federal Constitution that would establish the government as we know it today.

However, there was still some concern that if the new state were to select a capital, it would cause some disquiet among the cantons. Most cantons considered themselves to be among equals, meaning that choosing an official capital of Switzerland would have been a hotly debated topic, and any choice would have been divisive.

Instead, the Swiss chose to forgo the designation of a capital city. To this day, no revision of the Swiss constitution has ever said that any city was the capital of the alpine nation.

Why do we know Bern as the capital of Switzerland if it isn't?

So you may be wondering, why on maps, in international schools and in conversations is Bern always chosen as the “capital” of Switzerland? Why not base the capital in the largest Swiss city, Zurich, or in an internationally-connected city like Geneva?

The main reason why Bern is considered the "de-facto" capital is because the city is the home to most departments of the federal government. The Swiss Parliament, Federal Council and most ministries are based in Bern. While Swiss cantons do retain a large amount of power, foreign affairs, defence, motorways and emergencies are all dealt with by the government in Bern.

Why was Bern chosen as the seat of the federal government?

Much like Washington DC in the US and Canberra in Australia, the choice of Bern as the seat of federal power was a compromise between powerful states. In 1848, instead of basing the government in the much larger cities of Zurich, Geneva and Lucerne, it was decided to give the role to a city of only 29.670 residents to avoid conflict.

Situated near the Röstigraben - the language barrier between German and French speakers in Switzerland - Bern was seen as an inoffensive choice to base most federal institutions, although it must be said that the Federal Supreme Court is based in Lausanne and the Federal Criminal Court is based in the Italian speaking city of Bellinzona.

Bern remains the de-facto capital of Switzerland

Today, Bern remains the de-facto capital of Switzerland, playing host to foreign delegations, embassies and consulates despite not being the official capital. While Bern is important in its' own right, its role as the seat of the federal government has quite literally put the city on the map.

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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