When Switzerland had its own ‘king’

This bronze sculpture of Alfred Escher can be found, as is fitting for a railways pioneer, at Zurich's main station Keystone

Alfred Escher ‘ruled’ Switzerland for over 30 years, overseeing its modernisation and the Gotthard Tunnel. A digitalised archive of letters offers an intriguing insight into the mind of this unique politician-entrepreneur, whose life ended in tragedy.

This content was published on December 15, 2015 - 11:00
Isobel Leybold-Johnson, Zurich,

The archiveExternal link, which opened in summer 2015, took around 100 full and part-time staff working on the project for almost ten years to complete.

Delving into the online archive, in which you find a transcription as well as a digital copy of the original letter, it is possible to come up with some real nuggets. They tell us much about the man and his legacy.

“These 5,018 letters to and from Alfred Escher were not all known, and were not scientifically researched and were scattered in many archives in Switzerland and also outside Switzerland,” Joseph Jung, head of the Alfred Escher FoundationExternal link, told

External Content

Meteoric rise

Escher’s rise through cantonal and national politics was meteoric. By the age of 30, he was president of the House of Representatives, a position he held an unprecedented four times. He sat on more than 200 national and cantonal parliamentary committees. He was a workaholic – and he was well aware of this.

“I won’t complain about the fact that I have to work from early morning to late at night; I know that I have to put myself to use - and be used up,” Escher wrote to a friend in 1846.

Jung says you have to delve into Escher’s family history to understand what drove the man. Escher came from an old Zurich family, with international connections - his father had been in America for many years. But there was a rift between the Eschers and the other Zurich families, not least because Escher senior had built a splendid house to show his wealth, something which did not go down well in staid Reformation-era Zurich.

“Another reason was Alfred Escher was not on the conservative side of politics; he was a liberal. The liberals wanted a progressive, modern Switzerland and the conservatives didn’t,” explained Jung.

“Escher wanted to show the conservatives that he, Alfred Escher, who wanted a modern Switzerland, was going to take his own path.”

Turning point

The Swiss constitutionExternal link, which unified the country in 1848, was a turning point. Before that, Jung said, there was no common Swiss economic area or currency, with the cantons operating like independent states. “The greatest enemy of a liberal Switzerland is the cantonal and Swiss disorganisation,” despaired Escher in a letter of 1844.

Although there was a flourishing international trade in some areas, like watches, the country was mainly rural, poor and lagging behind in terms of infrastructure.

Post-1848 saw a modernisation take-off phase. And key to it all was the railways. In the first half of the 19th century, there were just 23 kilometres of tracks in Switzerland, between Zurich and Baden. In contrast, the United Kingdom was already well advanced with its rail network, as were neighbouring Germany and France.

 “Switzerland is thus in danger of being completely bypassed and as a result, in future, projecting the sad image of a European hermitage,” decried Escher in a speech to parliament in 1849.

ETHZ, Credit Suisse…

Escher played a decisive role in putting railway construction into private hands, which led to race between rail companies to build tracks.

Alfred Escher in 1878 Alfred Escher Foundation

The Escher System, which united key figures in politics, administration and business – he was a consummate networker – proved invaluable. By the end of the 1850s, the mid region of Switzerland was covered in railway lines.

“The railways were key for the success story Switzerland because if you want to build railways you need engineers, mathematicians and physicists. You couldn’t study this at the time in Switzerland, so Escher founded the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ)External link. You also need risk capital for the railways and insurance, hence the founding of Credit SuisseExternal link, which was originally an investment bank, and insurer Swiss Life,” Jung said.

The Gotthard

Escher’s greatest success came, however, in the 1870s, with the building of the Gotthard Tunnel, making a crucial rail link from the north to the south.

Working on the Gotthard Tunnel, picture from 1875 akg-images

“My main motive lies in my conviction that the Gotthard offers us the shorter route to Italy and that it secures us a huge part of the transit from Germany to Italy, and vice versa,” wrote Escher in 1863.

Hailed as a masterpiece, the Gotthard was the largest building site worldwide of the time, Jung said. Up to 5,000 men worked on it every day, boring through 15 kilometres of granite in the mountainside, without the aid of modern lasers and drilling machines.

But the Gotthard was also Escher’s downfall. The tunnel went over budget and Escher was forced to step down as managing director of the Gotthard Company.“This was very painful for Alfred Escher and a real tragedy in the end because he never went through the tunnel. It opened in 1882, when he was already terminally ill,” Jung said.

In addition, the era of unfettered Swiss economic liberalism had come to an end. From 1874 there was a new Switzerland, with direct democracy and pressure groups and unions. This was not Escher’s Switzerland. Such power as he had wielded - he was sometimes compared to a king ruling Switzerland from Zurich - was no longer possible.

Tragic end

Escher died in 1882, having suffered from bouts of ill health his entire life.  His only daughter Lydia, to whom he was very attached – his young wife died in 1864 and his other daughter two years before that – was at his side.

Escher’s motivation was always the good of Switzerland, said Jung. This was not always appreciated by his enemies, towards whom Escher could be harsh. They regarded him as a controversial figure, but his “rough edges”, were his strength and allowed him to get the job done, said the professor.

Escher’s worldview is aptly summed up in a 1877 letter from a political acquaintance, who praises Escher for his fight against “envy, selfishness and petty politics”.

“Keep up your work, in the interest of your lovely home canton and the whole of Switzerland. Our fatherland,” it exhorts. “It is a great aim to which you apply yourself and one which requires a life of toil, [and] continuous creativity and activity.”

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