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Railway Giants: Wilhelm von Pressel – How the Father of the Baghdad Railway Tried to Resurrect the Ottoman Empire

Railway Giants: Wilhelm von Pressel – How the Father of the Baghdad Railway Tried to Resurrect the Ottoman Empire
photo: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA/Baghdad railway
25 / 11 / 2023

The Baghdad railway is one of the most renowned in the world, yet few know the name and fate of its mastermind. Wilhelm von Pressel made significant sacrifices for his vision.

In 1821, in Stuttgart, Württemberg (an independent kingdom from 1806 until German unification in 1871), baker Johann Gottfried Pressel and his wife Friederike Elisabeth welcomed their son Wilhelm.

Wilhelm, trained as a stonemason, was born into an era of profound change in Europe, later termed the Industrial Revolution. Following the dissolution of the centuries-old Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806, German states, including Württemberg, found themselves isolated, despite the formation of the Rhenish League.

Wilhelm's perspective broadened significantly after studying abroad in France and Great Britain. Upon returning home, he met Württemberg builder Carl Etzel, who introduced him to the railway, sparking a new passion. Between 1844 and 1850, he gained his initial railway experience while working on a line between Geislingen an der Steige and Amstetten in southern Germany. In 1849, he returned to Stuttgart and, under unusual circumstances, joined the Stuttgart Polytechnic as a substitute professor of geometry.

Geschichtewiki / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

Just four years later, Wilhelm joined the Swiss railways, where he successfully managed the construction of the Hauenstein tunnel near Basel. His reputation grew, and when his friend Carl Etzel invited him to work for the Austrian Southern Railway, he eagerly accepted and was appointed director in 1865.

Wilhelm's next significant project involved connecting Innsbruck with Verona and other Tyrolean cities. Despite the challenging Alps and the Italian War of Independence, he successfully completed the project started by Etzel in 1867. However, South Tyrol, and part of this route, eventually became part of Italy. 

Afterward, Wilhelm headed east to Bosnia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to continue his impressive career in railway construction.

At the time, the Ottoman Empire was a shadow of its former glory, struggling under the weight of rigid absolutism. Burdened with debt and lacking modern advancements like the steam engine, the empire was in decline. While the Sultan's court maintained its luxurious lifestyle, the impoverished countryside, finding solace only in Islam, teetered on the brink of famine. 

In 1869, Wilhelm was appointed chief engineer at the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer Orientaux, tasked with connecting Austria-Hungary to Constantinople by rail. He achieved this by 1872 and became deeply committed to the Ottoman Empire, focusing on building a railway network to revitalize the ailing state.

Martin von Gagern / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

In the late 1870s, Wilhelm convinced Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the necessity for a grand project to link Constantinople with Baghdad, extending the existing lines from Istanbul to Vienna and Berlin.

Wilhelm immersed himself in Turkish culture, earning the admiration of the common Ottoman people while criticizing the civil servants for their fanatical interpretation of the Koran and oppression of Christian minorities.

He saw the future Baghdad railway as his life's work, advocating for it in Berlin and Constantinople and personally seeking financiers. Success seemed within reach in 1887, but the Sultan rejected the proposal, concerned about the diverse sources of funding. Undeterred, Wilhelm met with George von Siemens, director of the German Bank, and secured verbal approval from German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

However, Bismarck unexpectedly withdrew support on behalf of the German government, and Siemens bypassed Wilhelm to finance the Baghdad Railway directly with the Sultan. Betrayed and sidelined from the project he had fought for passionately, Wilhelm was deeply hurt, more than he was prepared for. His vision for the Baghdad railway, once within grasp, was snatched away by those he had trusted.

Pechristener / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

Wilhelm von Pressel was not one to surrender. Opting to spend his remaining years in the Ottoman Empire, he continued his fight for the empire to take absolute control over the construction of the Baghdad Railway. Expressing his unwavering commitment, Pressel once said, "I decided to fight for my project against the odds of my opponents as long as God gives me strength, until my last breath, like a lioness for her lion cubs. Because I have the right to call the Baghdad Railway my child.”

However, the completion of the Baghdad Railway, which was to connect Berlin with the Persian Gulf, eluded him. Pressel passed away in 1902, a year before its inauguration. His story is that of a man who sought to extend railroads eastward, earning the affection of the Ottoman people, potentially at the cost of lasting fame. But for Pressel, what was fame compared to his love for people, all people?