Zürich : some history
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Although there’s evidence of settlement around Zürich from the Bronze Age and before, the Romans were the first to fortify the site, turning the Lindenhof into a customs post in the first century BC and naming it Turicum. The legend of the city’s foundation dates from the martyrdom of Felix and Regula, deserters from a Roman legion based in Valais. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Zürich’s traders built up fabulous wealth, mainly from textiles such as wool and silk. In 1336, however, a visionary burgomaster, Rudolf Brun, shuffled the merchant nobility out of power, handing control instead to workers’ guilds (which were to keep a hold on the city until the nineteenth century). Shortly after, still under Brun’s direction, Zürich joined the nascent Swiss Confederation.

The thriving city experienced its zenith of power and prestige in the sixteenth century, when it became the first Swiss city to embrace the Reformation. The city’s spiritual father, Huldrych Zwingli (see box p.385), preached in the Grossmünster from 1519 until his death in 1531. With the abolition of the Catholic Mass in 1525, Zürich became a centre for dissident intellectuals from all over Europe. After 1549, when Calvinist doctrine was adopted over Zwinglian, the city experienced a slow fading in its fortunes. The French Revolution of 1789 sparked pro-libertarian demonstrations at Stäfa, south of Zürich, but the city itself remained a backwater. A city councillor, Alfred Escher, is credited with reinventing Zürich as the economic capital of Switzerland, by his legislative innovations boosting tourism, banking and local manufacturing industry in the late nineteenth century. Strict neutrality during World War I again made Zürich a refuge for dissidents, and for some months in 1916 and 1917, the city was home to Lenin, mulling over the future Russian Revolution, James Joyce, holed up near the university writing Ulysses, and a band of emigré artists calling themselves “Dada”, who spent their evenings lampooning Western culture at the famous Cabaret Voltaire.

With the recent revelations about Switzerland’s economic and material complicity with the Nazis, Zürich’s exact role during and after World War II hasn’t yet been pinpointed, but the city emerged post-war to flourish, becoming one of the world’s leading financial centres; by the 1960s its foreign exchange speculators had become so powerful and secretive that they were dubbed “the gnomes of Zürich” by British Labour Ministers during the 1964 sterling crisis. Today, Zürich is the single most important market for gold and precious metals, and boasts the world’s fourth-largest stock market after New York, London and Tokyo. This exceptional affluence tends to define the city these days and yet, despite its wealth, Zürich is not a flashy place at all. The ghost of Zwingli still stands at the shoulder of the super-discreet bankers, industrialists and business people who live and breathe the city’s ingrained Protestant work ethic, but it’s in fact the individualism that Zwingli encouraged which continually bubbles to the surface.

Most recently, following a relaxation of licensing laws, Zürich is discovering a new will to party. Alongside all its sights and its breathtaking lakeside beauty, Zürich is reinventing itself again, and a gritty and engaging subculture has begun to flow beneath its slick, monied surface.

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