Statesman Alfred Escher


He was one of the most important Zurich personalities with regard to economic policies in the 19th century. But his ideas, energy and enterprise benefited not only Zurich, but the whole of Switzerland. The Swiss railway network, for example, was competently extended thanks to his initiative and connected to Europe's traffic routes. To support this development he also took into his own hands the foundation of important institutions of the financial, insurance and educational systems. Alfred Escher is meant here, to whom this video pays tribute with a brief homage.



Alfred Escher was born in Zurich in 1819 and died in Enge in 1882, which was then a village and is now part of the city. However, his life’s work shone beyond his home town. During the second half of the 19th century he was the predominant personality in Switzerland’s economic policy. The then still young, federal state owes him its increasing international reputation and respect.


No other Swiss politician in the 19th century has left such a strong mark on the country as Alfred Escher. As promoter and organizer, he built landmark projects like the Gotthard railroad, the Northeast-Railway, the Swiss credit bank, now known as Credit Suisse, and the Swiss pension bank, renamed SwissLife. He was one of the chief founders of the ETH Zurich.


  • But, what can we learn from Alfred Escher today? What would have become of Switzerland if there had never been an Alfred Escher?


Without a personality like him, many important national developments would have been delayed and most probably, our whole economic structure would look different.


The railroad pioneer and promoter of the Swiss banking system, Alfred Escher, was neither an engineer nor a banking expert. He was a great visionary with enormous power to put things into practise. He was fascinated not only by technology but also by the idea of networking various forces for the common good and making them more productive. In that respect, he was one of the forerunners of globalization.


However, in Alfred Escher’s times, steam trains were no longer a novelty. They were puffing and panting through England, North America, and large parts of Europe. Yet Switzerland was in danger of being bypassed by the important distributor on the north-southern axis. The topography, the lack of heavy industry, and federalism hindered the realization of the railroad project. The country was falling behind its neighbours. But thanks to Alfred Escher’s initiative and risk taking, it caught up in no time at all.


Alfred Escher thought in terms of networks, and he was an expert in forming synergies between politics, banking, the railroad and the education systems. He managed to push through great innovations of the 19th century against all the odds, above all the construction of the Swiss railroad system and the Gotthard tunnel, the founding of the Swiss credit and pension bank as well as establishing the Confederate Polytechnic College at Zurich, now the ETH. Through all these things, he helped Zurich as well as all of Switzerland to an unexpected upturn.


In short: men like Alfred Escher were then – and still are – much wanted in politics as well as in economics. They lay the foundations for developments whose time has come, despite all opposition. As hard as it may be, we need to put up with men like Alfred Escher, who on his journey to big success tended to overrun anything in his way.


  • What was Alfred Escher’s relationship to money?


His relationship to power and money was probably shaped by his family. Alfred Escher’s family, a branch of the Eschers vom Glas, was one of the most distinguished families in old Zurich. From the 16th to the 18th century, they had contributed to the upturn and prosperity of Zurich’s economy like few others. In the middle of the 18th century, the Eschers vom Glas were at their political, social and economic height. But then a series of tragic events led to the dissociation of the Escher family from the Zurich society: Alfred’s great-grandfather, Hans Caspar Escher-Werthmüller, committed adultery, was divorced, disinherited and left Switzerland for Germany. His grandfather, Hans Caspar Escher-Keller, went bankrupt and brought the city of Zurich on the brink of ruin. His father, Heinrich Escher, who had gained new wealth in America, violated the code of honor by not paying off the debts of the former generation. These events would continue to affect the next generations.


The social dissociation of the Escher family from old Zurich was exemplified by Alfred’s father, Heinrich. He distanced himself from the city geographically by building Belvoir, a grand villa by the lake, surrounded by large grounds, in the village of Enge. It’s no surprise that this public exhibition of wealth provoked Zurich’s upper class. That was the atmosphere in which Alfred Escher grew up – distant from Zurich’s established circles, for whom he would later have neither sympathy nor time.


However, his merits for Zurich and all of Switzerland remain undisputable. Alfred Escher was a visionary, and great visions call for consequences that involve the dismissal of old standards. Change often comes from people outside the prevailing system.


  • But was that man happy?

That was the question Professor Alexander Schweizer asked in his funeral speech in 1882. His answer was: “Not in the sense that it is commonly understood. But yes, the way he understood it. Despite his lack of recognition, he said: ‘The best things in life are effort and hard work.’”


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