In his day, the controversial Zurich politician, railway pioneer and bank founder was so powerful that people referred to the “Escher system”. Delve back into Zurich’s past and explore fascinating documents by and about Alfred Escher.
Alfred Escher and his times
Alfred Escher was born in Zurich on 20 February 1819. The Escher zum Glas family was one of the leading dynasties in the old city. Alfred’s father, Heinrich Escher, amassed a fortune through land speculation and trading activities in the US. Returning to Zurich, he commissioned the building of the Villa Belvoir, where he lived as a gentleman of means.
It was in this sheltered environment that Heinrich’s children Clementine and Alfred Escher grew up – as, later, did their daughter Lydia. Alfred Escher passed his school-leaving exam at the cantonal grammar school in 1837 and went on to read law at the University of Zurich. While studying in Bonn, Berlin and Paris, he became committed to the liberal cause. He received the highest grade for his dissertation. Escher called for the establishment of an independent university and made public statements attacking the clergy. The “Züriputsch” of 1839 ultimately prompted a resurgence of the reactionary conservative elite, much to Escher’s displeasure.
Our Department of Prints and Drawings and Photo Archive includes a number of portraits and photos of Alfred Escher and his family. Many can be consulted online and downloaded.
Political titan and business magnate
In 1844, the radical liberal lawyer Jonas Furrer from Winterthur persuaded the 25-year-old Alfred Escher to stand for election to the Grand Council. It was the beginning of Escher’s career. The people of Zurich were soon calling him “King Alfred I”. He assiduously accumulated official positions, founded companies such as the “Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (SKA)” bank, and promoted the development of the ETH and the expansion of the railways. Above all, though, he cultivated a powerful network of influence that enabled him to combine economic and political goals. The “Escher system” made him one of the most influential men of his time, engineering Zurich’s economic ascendancy and leading Switzerland into the modern era.
You can find out more about Alfred Escher’s role in building the railways in the documentary “Gotthardtunnel – Das Jahrhundertwerk” in the SRF DOK series.
Soon, the new liberal elite of finance and industry came to resemble the supposedly defunct Ancien Régime. There was growing criticism of the “Escher system”. After the democrats’ election victory in Zurich and the approval of a cantonal constitution by voters in 1869, the “Escher system” came to an end. Escher continued to play a major role in the construction of the Gotthard railway. Problems financing the project ultimately led to a rift with Federal Councillor Emil Welti, who called on him to step down as chairman. This was the lowest point of his career. He was not invited to the tunnel breakthrough in 1880 and his name was not even mentioned. He did receive an invitation to the opening of the Gotthard railway in 1882, but by this stage he was already terminally ill. Alfred Escher died six months later, on 6 December.
The documentary “Aufstieg und Fall des Schweizer Wirtschaftspioniers” in the SRF DOK series offers an insight into an age when Switzerland was evolving from an agricultural into an industrial nation. It was also an era of profound social upheaval.
The Manuscript Department holds the Escher vom Glas and Escher vom Luchs family archives. The Escher vom Glas family archive includes part of the literary estate of Alfred Escher; the bulk of it is in the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern.
Alfred Escher in the press
If you would like to know what newspapers and periodicals have to say about Alfred Escher, consult the Zurich Bibliography.
Literature about Alfred Escher
Literature about Alfred Escher held by the Zentralbibliothek can be found in the Rechercheportal.
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