In a legendary act that seemed almost Biblical in magnitude, Albrecht Gessler, the Austrian bailiff of the Alpine town of Altdorf, set his hat atop a pole in the center of town. He ordered the townspeople to bow before it in recognition of the Austrian emperor (although, as it was his own hat and thus “crown”, they may have been bowing to him). The Alps had been under the influence of various foreign ruling houses such as Savoy and Kyburg who maintained key passes for military supremacy. In 1264, Kyburg toppled, and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph I claimed the Swiss territory as his own.
After decades of rule, local Swiss grumbled, and Gessler was dispatched to quell them. Many suspected that the emperor sent him there to provoke the Swiss so that an Austrian invasion would seem a peacekeeping force, but such secrets would remain behind closed doors. Gessler conducted government business with a heavy hand, staging rules to find naysayers and execute them before the rabble was roused.
While other townsfolk bowed to the hat, a hunter named William Tell walked through the square and refused to bow. Gessler had him arrested and gave him a choice: be executed outright or use his crossbow to knock an apple from his son Walter's head. Tell, an expert marksman, chose the apple. Surrounded by Austrian troops, Tell would trust his skills and play the overlord's game. If he missed, both he and his son would be executed. If he struck true, as he felt certain he would, they would be given freedom.
During the attempt, a man coughed behind Tell, breaking his concentration enough to have the arrow bury itself several inches below the apple. As Walter fell dead, Tell turned on Gessler and fired a second arrow, killing the Austrian instantly. Guards seized Tell and nearly beat him to death before their captain stopped them. Tell would be sent back to Austria and put on trial for murder.
The case at court would prove instrumental in establishing political jurisdiction over Switzerland for Austria. While the Swiss balked at their lack of freedom, the Austrian crown gradually began to assert control by giving sway in the competition for Holy Roman Emperor against the Luxembourgs. Rather than a crackdown militarily, the Austrians offered pacts to the various Alpine communities such as Uri and Berne, creating a confederation that would evolve into Austrian domination by the fifteenth century.
The uproar of the Reformation broke apart the Holy Roman Empire and spilled southward into the Alps, led before his death by Huldrych Zwingli. Seizing freedom of religion as an opportunity to seek political freedom as well, the confederation shattered and set about militarized valleys among the mountains. Guerrilla warfare pitted communities against one another and, especially, against Austrian influence. With such interruption in the south, the Swedish-backed northern Germans were able to free themselves from Roman authority early in the Twenty-five Years' War.
Switzerland would come under heavy sway in the Counter-Reformation following those violent years. Ideals of religious freedom were cast aside as heresy and disunity, and great significance was put into building up cathedrals and Catholic institutions, even to the cost of economic growth. Much of Europe would pass by Switzerland in this time, but the resilience would be recognized as the key to halting French invasion in 1798. Empowered by victories during the growth of Nationalism, Switzerland would seek independence in 1870 from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, gaining great military support from Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose unification of Italy also fought against Austrian imperialism. Finally standing as its own free republic, Switzerland would follow Italy and its neighbor Bavaria into Fascism in the early twentieth century. After the war defeated fascist thought, Switzerland would be occupied by French and American troops, eventually returned to its own elections. In 1997, Switzerland joined the European Union, hoping to gain much of the economic and technological improvement it had missed for so many years.
In reality, or so the legend goes, William Tell struck the apple cleanly from his son's head. Gessler had Tell arrested again, going against his word of freedom, and transported across Lake Lucerne, where a sudden storm allowed Tell to escape. Tell would later kill Gessler, giving the Swiss a step to begin its struggle toward the independent Swiss Confederation. Forged through the troubled days of the Thirty Years' War, Switzerland holds its neutrality and defense as important aspects to this day in its economically rigorous and developed land.