Forging new links through the Alps, linking new nations

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"Map of the Gotthard Railway"

In the new age of railway expansion, a way across the Alps began to appear as a lucrative possibility, especially to link the commercial harbors and industrial centers of Northern Italian states with cities in North and Central Europe.

Already in the 1840s, cities like Milan and Genoa had sought new links to the north, and Swiss cantons began soliciting German states for support for an Alpine link. It was on the eastern side of the Alps, however, in the Austrian Empire, that the first Alpine Tunnel, the Semmering Railway, was completed in 1854.

The first standard (Stephenson) gauge mountain railway, the Semmeringbahn, connected the imperial capital Vienna with Klagenfurt and the cities of the Mediterranean. Another Austrian tunnel through the Brenner Pass followed in 1859, and a French-Italian connection, the Mont-Cenis (or Fréjus) Tunnel, opened to connect Lyon and Turin in 1871. Once the Mont-Cenis tunnel had started in 1862, it became apparent to German Swiss cantons, as well as German states like Baden and Prussia, that they could soon be bypassed.

Having considered a number of locations for a new tunnel, the Swiss politician and railway entrepreneur Alfred Escher lent his support to a tunnel under the Gotthard Pass, connecting the German-speaking canton of Uri and the Italian speaking canton of Ticino, in the center of the Swiss Alps. Especially after Prussia's 1866 war with Austria (and shortly before its 1870 war with France), Chancellor Otto von Bismarck actively lobbied for German support, not least in order to be able to transport coal from the Ruhr to Italy.

On September 15, 1869, a treaty was signed between the Swiss confederation, an increasingly unified Italy and the German confederation. In 1871, Bismarck re-signed the treaty on behalf of the new state of Germany.

How to cite this page


Alexander Badenoch, 'Forging new links through the Alps, linking new nations', Inventing Europe,


  1. Schueler, Judith. Materialising Identity: The Co-Construction of the Gotthard Railway and Swiss National Identity. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2008

About this tour


From Network to Nation? The Gotthard Tunnel

The Gotthard Tunnel, completed in 1882, was an international project and an important symbol of Swiss national pride. This first Swiss Alpine tunnel made Switzerland a north-south passageway through Europe. But what does it mean to put a nation on the map of Europe?

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The Gotthard Railway

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