French Genève , German Genf , Italian Ginevra city, capital of Genève canton, in the far southwestern corner of Switzerland that juts into France. One of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, Geneva has served as a model for republican government and owes its preeminence to the triumph of human, rather than geographic, factors. It developed its unique character from the 16th century, when, as the centre of the Calvinist Reformation, it became the “Protestant Rome.”

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The canton of Geneva has a total area of 109 square miles (282 square kilometres), of which seven square miles constitute the city proper. Territorial isolation has been a basic feature of this region, which did not establish its definitive frontiers until 1815. Cut off politically and culturally after the Reformation from its natural geographic surroundings in Roman Catholic France and Savoy, Geneva was forced to establish an attenuated but powerful network of intellectual and economic relationships with the rest of Europe and with nations overseas.

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A city-state transformed after many vicissitudes into a democratic Swiss canton, Geneva has functioned primarily as a centre of commerce, in contact with both Germanic and Mediterranean countries. Contemporary Geneva is, above all, a service metropolis, retaining its financial importance and housing the headquarters of many public and private international organizations.

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Physical and human geography

The landscape


Geneva is located at the southwestern end of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) at its junction with the Rhône River. The city lies at an elevation of 1,230 feet (375 metres) in the centre of a natural basin encircled by mountains. This excellent site, besides commanding the important Swiss corridor between the Alps and the Jura Mountains, is also the focus of Alpine passes leading into Italy and, along the Saône–Rhône axis, of routes to the Mediterranean.

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The local climate is tempered by the presence of the lake, while the Jura create a screen that diminishes rainfall. Average temperatures in Geneva are about 32° F (0° C) in January and about 64° F (18° C) in July. Geneva is thus neither disagreeably hot in summer nor cold in winter, but it must sometimes endure the harsh north wind known as the bise. Annual precipitation averages about 37 inches (930 millimetres).


Bisected by the lower lake basin and the river, Geneva exhibits the classic pattern of old European cities, with neighbourhoods lying in belts around the original nucleus. The Haute-ville, or upper city, centred on the city’s original hill site at the Plateau des Tranchées and dominated by the Cathedral of St. Peter, is the historic heart of Geneva. The typical medieval and Renaissance houses are crowded together along narrow streets. This neighbourhood has undergone relative depopulation as housing has given way to government buildings and art, antiques, and interior furnishings businesses.

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At the foot of the hill an area reclaimed from the lake and the Rhône forms a low-lying shopping district. On the site of the old fortifications—mostly to the south of the Rhône—lie suburbs dating from the 19th century. Beyond is an irregular belt of working-class residential areas, near the railway stations and industrial zones.

International agencies such as the Red Cross and the World Health Organization are found on the old patrician properties north of the Rhône. In this section, too, is the Palais des Nations, now the European home of the United Nations. At the lake’s edge the Jet d’Eau—reputedly the world’s tallest fountain, with a jet of water rising 476 feet (145 metres)—provides a familiar symbol of the city.

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The people

It was not until after 1945 that the city’s population began to register rapid growth, with the influx of other Swiss citizens and foreigners attracted by Geneva’s international institutions and financial, chemical, and construction industries. By the late 1980s the population was approximately one-third foreign, one-third Swiss from other cantons, and only one-third native Genevese. Immigration to Geneva has consisted not only of the traditional contingents from Italy, France, and the Iberian Peninsula but also of a rising number from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Although the large foreign presence is one of the constants of the city’s demography, French remains the first language of Geneva.

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Among the native population and in the professional classes, Protestants are in the majority, but within the population as a whole, Geneva is no longer the “Protestant Rome.” Roman Catholics, in fact, make up slightly more than half the population.

The economy


Manufacturing is handicapped by lack of space and raw materials, but Geneva, as one of the oldest banking centres in Europe, has profited from an early start in capital accumulation. It benefits from a skilled labour force and managers who are international in outlook. Certain older activities, such as cotton textile manufacture, have disappeared, but watchmaking has a continuing tradition of precision and quality. Industrial production is diversified and is, above all, designed for export. The largest industry is the manufacture of instruments and precision machinery. Principal specialties are equipment for hydraulic plants (turbines and alternators), electrical equipment, machine tools, and measuring devices.

The chemical industry is the second largest in Switzerland, after that of Basel. It supplies luxury items—such as fragrances and bases for perfume—as well as medicines. The food-processing industry is important, and Geneva also manufactures almost half of all Swiss-made cigarettes. Agriculture supplies such commodities as wheat, rapeseed, dairy products, and wine. Only about 1 percent of the canton’s people are employed in farming.

Commerce and finance

Service industries employ more than two-thirds of the population. Wholesale and retail trade, banking, tourism, insurance, and the stock exchange are among the principal employers. Although nationally Geneva is second to Zürich in total volume of financial transactions, it has retained a position of worldwide significance. Geneva is one of the world’s leading sanctuaries for capital, and it has been estimated that its banks hold more than half the total amount of foreign capital in Switzerland. A wide variety of international institutions have also found a home in the city as a result of its geographic location at a crossroads of Europe and the security brought by Swiss political neutrality.

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In the area of transport, success came late. It was said that Geneva lost to Lausanne the battle to become a leading railroad centre in the 19th century, but since World War II the city has acquired a large international airport at Cointrin. Multilane expressways have linked Geneva with Lausanne and with the rest of the Swiss highway system since 1964 and with the French system since 1970. In addition, the city contributed labour and financing for the construction of the highway tunnel beneath Mont Blanc and the Route-Blanche (White Way) to Italy. Since 1984 Geneva has enjoyed a high-speed railway system, the trains à grande vitesse (TGV), providing a three-hour connection with Paris. Local transportation is provided by an extensive bus, trolley, and streetcar system.

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The canton of Geneva, which still calls itself La Republique du Genève, is governed by the Constitution of 1848 (as amended). Cantonal government is exercised by an executive power, the Council of State, consisting of seven members who are elected for four-year terms, and by a legislature, the Great Council, composed of 100 deputies who are also elected for four-year terms by proportional ballot.

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The canton is divided into communes, each of which has its own assembly, administrative council, and mayor. Citizens have the rights of legislative initiative and referendum at both the communal and cantonal levels. To represent it in the federal government, the canton elects two deputies to the Council of States and a varying number of representatives to the National Council.

Cultural life

Geneva has an ancient cultural tradition. A scholarly elite long cultivated theology, philosophy, literature, and, especially since the 17th century, the natural and applied sciences. Numerous scientific organizations are based in Geneva, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a leader in subnuclear physics research, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The Geneva City Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is a major botanical research centre. In 1872 the Academy, in existence since the 16th century, became a university, and it has acquired an outstanding reputation. Other aspects of Geneva’s active cultural life revolve around its museums, the Grand Théâtre (the city’s opera house), and the proceedings of international meetings held there. The music conservatory and international performance competitions attract large numbers of musicians, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is renowned worldwide. There are a number of distinguished small publishing houses in Geneva, and the city contributes substantially to the French-language services of the Swiss television and radio system, which is supplemented by broadcasts from France. The Journal de Genève, long the city’s leading French-language newspaper and one of the premier papers in the world, merged with Le Nouveau Quotidien to become Le Temps in 1998.

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The lake provides many recreational opportunities for swimming, sailing, and fishing. Winter sports such as skiing and skating are popular, and rock climbing and mountaineering are pursued for both science and sport.


Foundation and medieval growth

The original site of the city was an easily defended hill dominating the outlet of the lake. Human occupation began in the Paleolithic Period and further developed in the Neolithic, which was marked by the growth of a vast lake-dwelling community with habitations built on piles. The original name of Genava (or Geneva) undoubtedly dates back to the pre-Celtic Ligurian peoples. In about 500 BC Geneva was a fortified settlement of the Allobrogian Celts, and as early as 58 BC it served as a departure point in the campaign of the Helvetians and the Romans for Gaul. By AD 379 Geneva was the seat of a bishop and was within the Roman Empire, but when it had been Christianized and when it became a Roman city are uncertain. After the Germanic invasions Geneva became part of the Burgundian kingdom and served as its first capital from 443 to 534.

For a time Geneva belonged to Lotharingia and then again to Burgundy (888–1032). During the early feudal period the city formed the hub of the lands belonging to the Genevese counts. With the final extinction of their line in 1401, the bishop, who was a direct vassal of the Holy Roman emperor and invested with temporal power, vied for control with the neighbouring counts of Savoy.

The 15th to 18th century

In the 15th century the counts of Savoy rose to the status of dukes and made strenuous efforts to assert their sovereignty in Geneva at the expense of the bishops, who made correspondingly generous offers to the burghers to win their support against the dukes. But the burghers were slow to forsake the dukes, from whom they secured a contract recognizing their General Council—the public assembly to which every citizen belonged—as the central legislative body of the city.

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Geneva and Savoy

The dukes of Savoy were ambitious and successful rulers who in time assumed a kingly title. They continued to assert their claims to Geneva, even when it lost to Lyon its preeminence as a centre of international trade fairs, with the result that its prosperity and population declined. The dukes used cunning as well as force to uphold their sovereignty, and from 1449 until 1522 they had members of their own family enthroned as bishop of Geneva.

The last ruling bishop, Pierre de La Baume, fled from Geneva in July 1533, and a year later the burghers declared the see vacant. Thus they rid themselves at once of their bishop and their allegiance to Savoy, and proclaimed themselves a state. When the Savoyards threatened invasion a year later, the Bernese offered to incorporate Geneva under their government. Having no wish to exchange the domination of Savoy for that of Bern, the Genevans refused. Because they desperately needed Bernese troops, however, they could not safely object to a rapprochement with Protestant Bern in the matter of religion; so in 1536 they declared themselves Protestant, a move that also served to justify the permanent exclusion of the bishop. As a result, they alienated the Roman Catholic Swiss cantons, so that Geneva’s adhesion to the confederation was vetoed for generations to come.

John Calvin

Protestantism did not appeal immediately to everyone in Geneva. Some felt closer to French-speaking, Roman Catholic Fribourg than to relatively patrician, German-speaking Bern; and for many the theology of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli was altogether foreign. This situation was resolved by John Calvin, a French theologian and practical visionary who transformed Geneva into a modern city-state and reconciled its people to the Reformed religion. Adapting traditional institutions to serve new purposes, Calvin was remarkably successful in presiding over Geneva’s formative years as an autonomous state. He owed his success in part to the continuing presence of the Protestant Bernese troops. He was thus able to reorganize Geneva without hostile intervention by the Roman Catholic Savoyards, whose forces at other times stood on the frontiers of the city.

Calvin was also fortunate in that the persecution of Protestants in France brought into Geneva refugees sympathetic to his purposes. This enabled him to replenish with immigrants a citizen roll diminished by his own harsh policy of expelling all those who resisted conversion to the Reformed religion. The immigrants brought new trades, industries, and wealth, and Geneva became an industrial, financial, and commercial metropolis. Calvin’s academies and seminaries attracted scholars from all over Europe.

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A few such visitors found that they had only exchanged one form of persecution for another. The Spanish-born physician and theological writer Michael Servetus and Jacques Gruet, an apostate Protestant, were put to death for heresy. As Geneva grew and prospered, however, religious fanaticism died down.

The Savoyards made a final abortive attempt to recapture Geneva with a surprise attack led by the Duke on the night of Dec. 11–12, 1602, but they were driven out in a brief skirmish. This event, known as the Escalade, is still commemorated annually in Geneva.

Class conflicts

Between the mid-16th and early 18th centuries, the powers of the aristocratic Council of Twenty-five were systematically enlarged at the expense of the General Council, which eventually was summoned only to rubber-stamp the decisions of the magistrates.

Social changes added a further dimension to these developments. Among the French and Italian Protestants who found refuge in Geneva were several from noble families who brought with them not only their wealth but also their assumed right to lead and rule. These families grew to monopolize the Council of Twenty-five and to set up what was in fact the rule of a hereditary nobility, but one veiled by the ceremonies, styles, and language of republicanism.

Social change of another kind was taking place as well. The number of residents of Geneva who were able to qualify as citizens became proportionately smaller as the population grew from about 13,000 to 25,000. In the 16th century the great majority of male residents were citizens; by 1700 the citizens constituted a minority—only about 1,500 of Geneva’s 5,000 adult males. The other inhabitants were not only excluded from many civil rights and privileges but also were denied access to all the most lucrative trades and professions.

For reasons such as these, discontented factions multiplied behind the tranquil facade of Genevan life. There were citizens who opposed the domination of the patrician families, and there were unenfranchised residents who opposed the monopoly of rights and privileges by the citizens. Opposition to the ruling clique developed among the citizens at the end of the 17th century, asserting the rights of the General Council against the usurpations of the Council of Twenty-five.

Despite these currents of political opposition, Geneva in the 18th century was at the zenith of its prosperity. Material wealth stimulated a burst of culture and artistic creativity. As the birthplace of Rousseau and the sanctuary of Voltaire, Geneva attracted the elite of the Enlightenment and helped to foster the development of the new political science, derived from natural law.

In 1798, with the aid of local Jacobins, Geneva was annexed to France. The city was reduced to a subservient role and submitted, in 1802, to the protection of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Emperor distrusted Geneva, “that city where they know English too well” (it was indeed harbouring a secret liberal and Anglophile opposition), and the French period became an era of stagnation and recession.

The 19th and 20th centuries

Swiss Geneva

As early as 1813 Geneva threw in its lot with France’s enemies and was thus able to claim indemnities upon the fall of the empire. The aristocratic republic was restored and undertook negotiations to join the Swiss Confederation. On Sept. 12, 1814, the Genevan republic was admitted to the ranks of the Swiss cantons. Through the cession of 12 Savoyard communes by the Second Treaty of Paris (Nov. 20, 1815), it rounded out its territories into a single block.

Geneva’s aristocrats were again in power, and gradually the bourgeoisie and the common people began once more to challenge openly the patrician regime. On Oct. 7, 1846, the working-class suburb of Saint-Gervais revolted, and the conservative government was overthrown. Opposition by the Swiss Diet to the Sonderbund (a league of seven Roman Catholic cantons) and the 1847 civil war between federal forces and the rebellious cantons permitted the radicals, led by James Fazy, to take the offensive. The radicals, who drew up the new Constitution of 1848, were thereafter masters of Geneva, and Fazy dominated the political scene until 1861. In many ways the founder of modern Geneva, he opened the canton to railway lines, created the Bank of Geneva, and, above all, made widespread urban expansion possible by demolishing the city’s outer fortifications.

In 1860 the Savoyards voted to accept the sovereignty of France, and a free zone was created for Geneva by agreement with the French. The city regained, and until 1914 held, its role as a regional economic capital. It also continued to assert its international influence. The Red Cross was founded in Geneva in 1864; the Geneva conventions for the protection of prisoners of war were signed there; and the League of Nations was installed in the city in 1919.

The city since 1945

The history of Geneva since World War II has been marked by steady economic growth, halted only temporarily by the oil crisis of the early 1970s. The population of the canton increased from 187,000 in 1945 to more than 350,000 by the mid-1980s, and revenues rose from 660,000,000 Swiss francs to more than 9,000,000,000 during the same period. This prosperity was experienced almost entirely in the commercial and financial sectors; industry declined radically, affording employment to only 20 percent of the work force in 1980, as opposed to more than 36 percent in 1950. Building alone among Geneva’s industries flourished after the war, as offices, houses, and shops—indeed whole new suburbs—had to be provided for the ever-increasing population.

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In keeping with its cosmopolitan traditions, Geneva attracted international bodies seeking a location for their headquarters. The United Nations took over the old League of Nations buildings; the International Labour Organisation, the World Council of Churches, and other institutions resumed their operations in Geneva; and the city became a favoured neutral meeting place for diplomatic initiatives.

In 1960 Geneva was one of the first Swiss cantons to extend the vote to women, but participation in elections and referendums remained unusually low. Genevese political parties were generally to the left of their counterparts in the Confederation, but they continued to maintain consensus politics and coalition government; this occurred despite the challenge of the communists, legalized as the Workers’ Party (Parti du Travail) in 1944, and the right-wing nationalists, or Vigilantes, who had some success in the elections of 1965. In the federal government at Bern, representatives of Geneva failed to attain much prominence, and political life in Geneva tended to be centred more on the canton than on the nation.

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For most of the post-World War II era, Geneva experienced continuous economic growth as international organizations and companies built headquarters in the city. However, during the late 1980s and early ’90s the city began to stagnate as some international organizations left and the real-estate bubble, which had fueled a dramatic increase in property prices, burst. Throughout much of the 1990s the city’s economy lagged behind the rest of Switzerland, and the unemployment rate, which hitherto had been negligible, was among the highest in the country. By the end of the 1990s, the economy had begun to recover.

Despite increasing competition from other cities, Geneva maintained its reputation as an international city throughout the last decades of the 20th century. In 1979 Geneva became the permanent headquarters for the international Disarmament Conference, involving more than 60 countries. A nuclear test ban treaty and an agreement to prohibit the production of antipersonnel mines were among the conference’s breakthroughs. Geneva was also the site of the historic initial summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Although the meeting did not produce any firm commitments, it was the first time the leaders had discussed nuclear arms reductions and paved the way for later agreements and the eventual end of the Cold War. Under the auspices of the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Convention on the Rights of Children was negotiated in Geneva in 1994. In 1995 the World Trade Organization was established with Geneva as its headquarters. The city is also the headquarters for CERN, which is commonly credited with developing the World Wide Web. By the beginning of the 21st century, international organizations based in Geneva had been selected as Nobel Prize winners more than 40 times. With Switzerland’s neutral foreign policy, Geneva was expected to continue its central international role well into the 21st century.

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Lake Geneva

French Lac Léman , or Lac de Genève , German Genfersee largest Alpine lake in Europe (area 224 square miles [581 square km]), lying between southwestern Switzerland and Haute-Savoie département, southeastern France. About 134 square miles (347 square km) of the lake’s area are Swiss, and 90 square miles (234 square km) are French. Crescent in shape, the lake is formed by the Rhône River, which enters it at the east end between Villeneuve, Switz., and Saint-Gingolph, France, and leaves it at the west end through the city of Geneva. The only important tributaries are the Dranse (south) and the Venoge (north). Lying at an elevation of 1,220 feet (372 m), the lake is 45 miles (72 km) long, with a maximum width of 8.5 miles (13.5 km) and an average width of 5 miles (8 km). The maximum depth is 1,017 feet (310 m), the mean depth 262 feet (80 m). The strait of Promenthoux, or Nernier, separates the lake into two well-marked divisions, the Grand Lac (east) and the Petit Lac, the special Genevese portion. The water, unusually blue and transparent, is subject to remarkable fluctuations of level known as seiches, in which the whole fluid mass in the lake rhythmically swings from shore to shore. The lake is not as rich in fish as the other Swiss lakes; there are known to be 20 indigenous species and 6 that were introduced in the 19th century.

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Prehistoric lake dwellings have been found on the shores. The Lacus Lemanus of classical Latin writers, it was known from the 16th century as the Lac de Genève, but the name Lac Léman was revived from the end of the 18th century.

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The north shore forms a fertile wine-producing hinterland rising to the Jura Mountains, whereas the south and east shores are bordered by the Savoy and Valaisan Alps. Geneva and Lausanne are the largest lakeside cities, and there are numerous resorts, including Montreux and Vevey in Switzerland and Thonon-les-Bains and Évian-les-Bains in France.