See also the article "Construction of the first railway routes through the Alps (1848-1882)" in the EHNE.
Border Region, Transit Region, Living Space
Johann Heinrich Zedler (1706–1751) noted in his Universal-Lexikon published in 1732 that the Alps are the highest mountains in Italy, France and Germany:
Sie sind gleichsam eine von der Natur angelegte Mauer, welche Jtalien von Franckreich und Deutschland scheiden. Sie erstrecken sich sehr weit, indem sie von dem Ligustischen Meer an über Nizza, die Provence, Dauphine, Savoyen, Walliser-Land, Schweitz, Graubündten, Tyrol, Trient, Brixen, Saltzburg, Kärnthen, Crain, ein Theil von Meyland und dem Venetianischen Gebiethe; ja sie scheinen gar bis in Servien zu gehen...
The Alps had been perceived in a similar way by Italian humanists – including Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) in the 14th century – as a barrier or wall that protected Italy against the north. Martin Luther (1483–1546), on the other hand, subsequently noted that the mountain range separates Germania from Italy. This separating function of the European Alps remained a prominent concept up to the Enlightenment and was highlighted two decades after Zedler by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) in his Encyclopédie.1
In the 19th and particularly the 20th century, academics and politicians repeatedly emphasized the role of the Alps as a transit region. This mountainous country was now described as a "cultural bridge between the Mediterranean and northern Europe", and its function as a wall and a border was now played down. For example, a study on transport history states that "it is a considerable paradox of the Alps that this colossal mountain range never formed an insurmountable barrier, but rather a connector between east and west, south and north, a contact zone, a node point of economies, ideas and forms." The background to this new perspective was primarily the development of modern means of transportation in the mountain range and the enormous increase in transit traffic across it compared with the early modern period.2
The regionalism of the post-war period ultimately articulated a third concept: the Alps as a living space for the population resident there. Thus, participants at a congress on the "Future of the Alps" in 1974 noted that the Alps must be described as "European heritage" and as a "natürliche, geschichtliche, kulturelle und soziale Einheit von lebenswichtiger Bedeutung", as they had separated, transformed and connected the great currents of civilization:
Aber trotz der manchmal schwierigen Beziehungen und Verbindungen zwischen den Völkern und den politischen Systemen hat sich eine eigenständige Alpenkultur herausgebildet, und obgleich die Alpen nie eine politische Einheit gekannt haben, lassen Lebensweise und Tätigkeiten ihrer Bevölkerungen Eigenschaften von auffallender Ähnlichkeit erkennen.3
Regardless of the composition of this culture and way of life, it is clear that the Alps had a constantly growing resident population. If one takes the territory defined by the Alpine Convention of 1991, the population in 1500 consisted of around 3.1 million people and grew to 8.5 million by 1900. In 2000, there were already 13.9 million people living in the Alps.4 While the three functions associated with the Alps which were listed above have to be viewed in the context of their respective historical backdrops, at the same time they also indicate different aspects and perspectives. From the outside, the Alps appear more as a dividing or connecting natural space, from the inside they appear more as a cultural or living space.
From Religion to Language
Religious and linguistic developments are also an indication of the role of the Alps in European history. During the Reformation, the Alps developed into a border and conflict zone between the Roman church in southern Europe and the Protestant territories in the north. In the Alpine region itself almost all areas remained Catholic or were re-Catholicized after a period of multi-confessionalism. The Reformation only succeeded at the official level in the Bernese Oberland and in eastern Switzerland (parts of the Grisons, Glarus, St. Gallen and Appenzell). This religious geography was the result of hard confrontations in the era of confessionalism in the 16th and 17th centuries.5
To counteract the spread of Reformation thought, the Roman Curia convened a great council in Trent in 1545. This Alpine town on the Brenner Pass route was chosen because Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) wanted to have the gathering inside the Holy Roman Empire and Pope Paul III (1468–1549) wanted it to be as far south as possible. The council discussed not only the church's clear rejection of Protestantism, but also possible reforms of the Catholic church. The resulting clarification and hardening of confessional positions then led to a long series of conflicts. For example, fighting raged in the western Alps in the late-16th century between Catholics and Calvinist Huguenots, and subsequently repeatedly flared up again.
Also in the Valtellina, a southern Alpine valley, a religious conflict that was discussed throughout Europe broke out in the early-17th century. From 1512 onward, the Valtellina belonged to the predominantly Reformed Grisons, but in terms of church administration it belonged to the diocese of Como, and Rome sought to establish a "bulwark against heresy" there. The Habsburg territory of Milan, on the other hand, used the conflict between the predominantly Catholic inhabitants and their Protestant rulers to bring the strategically important valley under its influence. In 1620, the Valtellina was occupied by Spain, but was soon transferred back to the Habsburgs, until it was ultimately incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy, which was founded in 1861.6 In the eastern Alps – more specifically in the prince-archbishopric of Salzburg – the last big religiously motivated mass expulsion in European history occurred in 1731. The government of the staunchly Catholic archbishopric expelled from its territory about 20,000 people who secretly adhered to the Protestant faith; most of them fled to Prussia.7
While religion gradually lost its power to shape identities, language became more politically loaded during the course of the emergence of nation-states from the 18th century onward. The Alpine region was (and is) a linguistic zone of contact, in which the three great language families that dominate Europe meet: the Romance, the Germanic and the Slavic families. Each family experienced its own macro- and micro-linguistic developments, which in this contact zone resulted in a richly diverse linguistic geography. Parallel to the romantic nationalist ambitions of many minorities, from the late-19th century linguists began to identify the many dialects of the Alpine region, for example Provençal and Franco- Provençal in the western Alps, Italo-Romansh in Lombardy and the Venetian region of the Alps, as well as Romansh in parts of the Grisons, in the Dolomites and in Friuli.8
The struggle to assert the rights of languages with varying distributions often featured historical and geographical arguments. In the Alpine region, tensions involving language arose in many places. These tensions increased from the late-19th century onward in the context of Italian Irredentism, which laid claim to so-called "unredeemed" regions of the Alps on behalf of the "fatherland" established in 1861. After the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Tyrol was divided at the Brenner Pass in 1919. This created a very tense situation in South Tirol, which fell to Italy even though it was German-speaking. The situation also became difficult in southern Carinthia, as the Slovenian-speaking population there suffered from 1918 as a result of tensions between the young Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Austrian federal state of Carinthia.9
State Formation and Regionalism
Political space formation in Europe can be described as a concentration process, during the course of which an ever smaller number of states were left with ever larger territories. In the case of the Alpine region, we can trace this development in the encyclopaedias. Zedler, for example, listed more than a dozen political entities in the Alps in 1732, from Nice in the west to Carinthia in the east. These were a patchwork of counties, dukedoms, provinces and republics. By 1900 the encyclopaedias no longer listed these small entities, but instead named the states which had a share of the Alps to which they now belonged: the Austrian Monarchy, the Kingdom of Italy, the French Republic and the Swiss Confederation. In spite of, or perhaps because of this reduction, the Alps had become a region with a high concentration of borders in the political sense also.10
Fundamental to this was the uneven distribution of larger cities and power centres in Europe. From the beginning of the process of state formation in the late-medieval period, the political centres were situated at the periphery of, or outside the Alpine region. However, this distance from the centres of power also brought a relatively high degree of regional and local autonomy. Examples of this can be found in large parts of the mountain range, from the west to the east, on the southern slopes as well as on the northern side. The increasing interdependence between states, the intensification of administration and the emergence of nationalism in the 18th and particularly the 19th century brought the mountain regions politically closer to the power centres of the surrounding territories, but also increased their dependence on the latter.
This dual process can be easily traced in the process of border formation. The nationalization of the Alps resulted on the one hand in local and regional divides losing significance and the small territories becoming increasingly integrated into larger regions. On the other hand, the borders between the nation-states now became serious barriers for the first time, as they were now supported by new fervent collective ideologies and an increasing militarization. This international militarization manifested itself most dramatically during the First World War, during which Italy and Austria-Hungary engaged in bloody static warfare in the Alps. The front line, which was several hundred kilometres long, ran right along the mountain range, much of it above 2,000 metres in altitude, so that the climate and the dangerous terrain alone resulted in numerous casualties.11
There were also significant border changes during this period. From the late-medieval period onward, the French-speaking Savoy-Piedmont developed into a transalpine state with its centre in Turin. In the 19th century, it became the starting point of the movement for Italian unification, but in 1860 it had to cede the Savoy part to France. As already referred to, the Tyrol was also divided at the Brenner Pass after the First World War, and the south was transferred to the Kingdom of Italy. This meant that the state borders ran along the ridge of the range almost everywhere. The only exception was Switzerland, which remained transalpine with the retention of the southern valleys of the Grisons and Ticino. This was due not least to the localism of the country, which resisted the centralization of the modern period and the correspondent separatist tendencies, and which is reflected in the multilingualism which remains a feature of Switzerland right up to the present.12
After the Second World War, the remoteness of the regions of the Alps was viewed more that ever as a problem. There was a view that the region was not a high priority and was neglected by the centres. European integration created for the first time the possibility of renegotiating the relationship with these centres. Regionalism emerged particularly strongly in the Alpine region with its high concentration of borders and expressed itself between 1972 and 1982 in the foundation of three cross-border working groups at the regional level. In 1991, the framework agreement for the "Alpine Convention" was signed at the state level. In it the states together with the European Community committed to pursuing special environmental and development policies in the Alpine region.13
Terribly Beautiful Alps
Laßt uns GOTT ein Opfer bringen / Und, Sein Allmacht zu erhöhn, / Auch der Berge Bau besingen, / Die so ungeheuer schön, / Daß sie uns zugleich ergetzen / Und auch in Erstaunen setzen, / Ihre Größ erregt uns Lust / Ihre Gähe schreckt die Brust.
This poem is contained in the nine-volume collection of poetry entitled Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott by the Hamburg writer Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680–1747), who crossed the Alps on a journey to Italy shortly after 1700. This text is just one of many dealing with the Alps – during the transition to the modern period, the European elites developed a cultural and intellectual interest in the mountains, as evidenced by a series of famous publications: Josias Simler (1530–1576), De Alpibus Commentarius (Commentary on the Alps, 1574); Marc Lescarbot (ca. 1570–1642), Tableau de la Suisse (1618); Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), Die Alpen (1732); Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Julie ou la nouvelle Heloïse (Julie or the New Heloïse, 1761); Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), Wilhelm Tell (1804).14
The Alps gained real prominence as a literary theme with the publication of Rousseau's romantic novel Julie ou la nouvelle Heloïse, one of the highest selling novels of the pre-revolutionary period. The novel's original title Lettres de deux amans, Habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes (Letters of two Lovers Living in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps) indicates that the Alps are not a randomly chosen setting in the novel, but serve instead as a dramatic natural backdrop and an echo chamber of emotions. This sudden increase in the attention that the Alps received in broader society prompted contemporaries and subsequently academics to divide the history of the perception of the Alps into two qualitatively different periods. In the older, "dark" phase, mountains and particularly the Alps were viewed as terrifying, abhorrent and ugly, it was claimed. In the second, "bright" phase, by contrast, they were viewed as an attractive, sublime, romantic place. More recent research has revised this simplistic view by pointing to the numerous positive representations in the older period and to the persistence of negative representations in the 19th and 20th centuries. The change thus consisted primarily of a dramatic increase in attention.15
A similar trend occurred in painting as in literature. From the transition to the modern period and particularly from the 18th century onward, the Alps were repeatedly drawn and painted by artists. The great landscape painting of the 19th century also took a keen interest in the mountain range, often depicting it in a dramatic form and sometimes with a spiritual message. Parallel to this, a vocabulary entered common usage which came from the liminal areas of aesthetic and religious experience. People spoke of the feeling of "delightful horror", the concept of the "sublime" became central, and the mountains became "cathedrals of the earth". Thus, in general terms a medialized, that is, literarized and visualized landscape emerged.16
This emphatic turning towards the Alps expressed itself in various spatial and temporal variants. The interest of the Enlightenment in the 18th century concentrated to a large degree on Switzerland and the neighbouring Mont Blanc region. This Philhelvetism was motivated in particular by the political idea that the mountainous regions of Switzerland possessed exemplary liberties. The Austrian Alps were just as easily accessible from many German cities, but the real "discovery" of the eastern Alps did not occur until after 1800 in the romantic period, and international interest appears to have played less of a role in this than in the case of Switzerland. In Italy, by contrast, national unification in the 1860s was an important factor in the turning towards the Alps, which now formed a common border and thus a unifying bond of the country.17
A Playground of Europe
The modern interest in the world of the mountains was an expression of a changed understanding of nature and was connected with a whole series of economic, political and cultural factors: urbanization and the intensification of agriculture, as well as the increasing scarcity of uncultivated land; improvements in communication and transportation; the search for national identity with reference to natural spaces; scientific and religious developments; social differentiation by means of new styles. While travellers in the early modern period had primarily visited cities, courts and ancient monuments on their "grand tours", the Alps with its spectacular views of nature now also became a travel destination of societal significance. This is reflected by the number of accounts of travels in Switzerland that were published, which rose from 65 in the first half of the 18th century to 460 in the second half of the century. The words "tourist" and "tourism" appeared in the English language for the first time in the years around 1800. A short time later, they were already in use in various languages.18
Mount Rigi, a mountain massif of the Alps with a view of the higher peaks and the lakelands around the city of Lucerne, became a meeting place for the European elites. From 1871, a cog railway, a much admired innovation of modern technology, ran up to the summit, where a range of tourist accommodation soon became available. The gentrified hotel life on Mount Rigi with its obligatory admiration of nature soon gave rise to satire (for example by Mark Twain (1835–1910) in A Tramp Abroad in 1880). The town of Bad Ischl in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, which from the mid-19th century was the Alpine summer residence of the Austrian imperial family and its entourage, also gained an illustrious reputation. While in the 18th and early-19th centuries the Alps had primarily been a symbol of republican freedom, they now also acquired a monarchist and nationalist aspect.19
The daring assault on the highest peaks of the range by naturalists and mountain climbers from the European urban centres also attracted much attention. While the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 had had a scientific motivation, during the course of the 19th century mountaineering developed into a sport, whose participants began to refer to themselves as "alpinists" to distinguish themselves from the growing hordes of "tourists". Characteristic of this new trend was the publication in 1871 of a collection of articles on mountain expeditions by Leslie Stephen (1832–1904) under the title The Playground of Europe. Among the competitive, macho mountaineering milieu, the first ascent of a peak was not acknowledged unless it was documented. In the first half of the 19th century, 210 such first ascents were made, in the second half of the century it was more than 1,000. This boom was driven by the Alpine clubs which came into being in all European countries from 1857 onward.20
Subsequently, this affluent, confident milieu of mountain enthusiasts also developed sports which made use of the snow and ice of the Alps: ice skating, curling, tobogganing, bobsleighing, skiing and others. Skiing became particularly popular as it was promoted by the Alpine clubs and the military and it often symbolized a new lifestyle and a new body culture. In the interwar period, the system of ski lifts necessary for skiing was developed in the mountains. With the emergence of these sports, there was a general shift from summer to winter in Alpine tourism.21
Transfer Processes – Material and Conceptual
The fact that there were cities on both sides of the mountain range whose economies continued to grow over the longer term created a necessary prerequisite for transalpine trade. Estimates of the volume of this trade assume that the Brenner Pass was always the main route for this trade. It was possible to cross the mountains via the Brenner Pass with a horse-drawn carriage as early as the 15th century, while the Gotthard Pass, for example, did not have a road for carriages until 1830. The annual volume of goods transported through the Brenner Pass around 1500 is estimated at 5,000 tonnes; it is estimated at 12,000–14,000 tonnes around 1734 and 100,000 tonnes around 1840. As the first train drove over the Brenner Pass in 1867, about 50 freight wagons would have been enough to carry the entire annual transport volume of 1500.22 In addition to trade across the Alps, there were also numerous other kinds of mobility and exchange, which all contributed to an extent to cultural change.23 The special popularity which the Alps enjoyed from the 18th century onward facilitated new forms of cultural transfer in both directions, of which the following are just some examples:
- The "grand hotel": This type of building spread throughout Europe in the first half of the 19th century, first in the larger cities and famous spa resorts, and it subsequently also conquered various regions of the Alps. The grand hotel was based on aristocratic models, and was characterized by an emphasis on grandeur and expensive infrastructure. Upper Engadine and, in particular, St Moritz became famous upmarket tourist destinations. The latter had been a village of 228 inhabitants in 1850, but had grown to more than ten times that size by the eve of the First World War. In the intervening period, more than 30 hotels had been built there. Like the upper-class tourism that it benefitted from, there was also an international flavour to its architecture. For example, Badrutt's Palace Hotel, which was completed in St. Moritz in 1896, had battlements, turrets and pointed arches in the English neo-Gothic style.24
- The "chalet Suisse": While the grand hotel was imported into the Alps, the "chalet Suisse" was exported from the Alps during the same period. By combining various elements of the traditional block-style house of the Bernese Oberland and of the Vaud, architects constructed a new traditionalist style of house. In the second half of the 19th century, a veritable chalet industry emerged, which sold prefabricated building components to clients throughout Europe. The rapid growth of exhibitions contributed to this form of cultural transfer. In addition to the "modern" advances of the western world, numerous international exhibitions also presented "traditional" and "exotic" topics. The Alps often featured in these exhibitions in the form of the "village Suisse".25
- A landscape model: From the Enlightenment onward, the Alps and in particular Switzerland became an aesthetic model, which established itself as the standard by which landscapes were evaluated. Anyone who wanted to draw attention to the beauty of a region had to compare it with Switzerland. This cultural transfer was made particularly apparent by toponymical coinages such as the sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland) and the fränkische Schweiz (Franconian Switzerland). At present, there are about two hundred places around the world in almost sixty countries on all continents named after Switzerland, from the "Argentinian Switzerland" in the area of San Carlos de Bariloche to the "Siberian Switzerland" in the Altai Mountains. However, one third of these "Switzerlands" are in Germany and another third are in the rest of Europe. Most of these coinages came about between the late-18th and the early-20th centuries; after that "Switzerland" became less attractive as a sobriquet.26
"Alps" around the Globe
From the transition to the modern period onward, the Alps with their special environment were also an important research landscape. In many cases it was naturalists who awakened interest in the region, preceding the writers and painters in this regard. Among the famous Alpine explorers were Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733) from Zurich, who published his Itinera alpina tria (Three Alpine Journeys) in 1708, and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740–1799) from Geneva, who became famous through the publication of his Voyages dans les Alpes (Travels in the Alps) between 1779 and 1796. Among his admirers was Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose work clearly demonstrates the prominent position which the Alps held in nature studies. Before Humboldt undertook his voyage to South America (1799–1804), he spent three separate periods in the Alps. After his return from the New World, he published a list of 125 mountains whose heights had been measured, which was viewed as an indicator of advanced research. One third of these were in the Alpine region, which in terms of area only constitutes a tiny portion of all the mountainous regions worldwide.27
This model-like function that the Alps performed in western culture is confirmed by other indicators. For example, Humboldt and his contemporaries often made comparisons with the Alpine range when attempting to describe the mountain ranges of other continents. Like the use of "Switzerland" as a sobriquet for other regions, in the 18th and 19th century the name "Alps" was exported worldwide, resulting in the Japanese Alp, the Szechuan Alps in China, the Australian Alps, the Southern Alp in New Zealand, the Canadian Alps, the Pontic Alps, the Transylvanian Alps and others. Some of these name transfers were short-lived, while others have remained in use up to the present.28
When after the First World War the modern Olympic Games were supplemented by the addition of the new winter sports, the same pattern emerged in the 20th century. Officially, these sports consisted of disciplines that were conducted "on snow and ice". However, this required special natural and technological prerequisites that existed in very few regions outside the Alps. This did not accord with the universalist ambitions of the Olympic movement, which partly explains why the Winter Games were not placed on a firm institutional footing until after the Summer Games had become established. The first Winter Olympics took place in 1924 in Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc. Between then and mid-century, they took place in St. Moritz (1928 and 1948) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (1936). The committee only opted for a venue outside of the European Alpine region once during this period, Lake Placid in the USA (1932).29
As a result of its accentuated relief, the Alpine region formed an obstacle to travel flows and communication processes between northern and southern Europe. This manifested itself particularly in the prevalence of borders – religious, linguistic and state borders. From the 18th century onward, the Alpine region also attracted interest in the context of a growing enthusiasm for nature. This resulted in the established transfer processes being supplemented and overlaid by others. The examples of architectural exchange and landscape aesthetics are discussed above. Toponymical coinages using "Switzerland" and "Alps" demonstrate that in the era of colonial-imperialist globalization this process exerted an influence far beyond the borders of Europe, such that the Alps have been described as "an exceptional mountain range" (une montagne exceptionelle).30 In view of the Alpine population and the interest in the Alps described above, one can certainly agree with this. However, the reason for this lay not only in the spectacular landscape of this mountainous region, but also in its unusual location in the midst of densely populated countries of a continent in flux.