This study is devoted to a systematic analysis of the state of stress of the central European Alps and northern Alpine foreland in Switzerland based on focal mechanisms of 138 earthquakes with magnitudes between 1 and 5. The most robust feature of the results is that the azimuth of the minimum compressive stress, S3, is generally well constrained for all data subsets and always lies in the NE quadrant. However, within this quadrant, the orientation of S3 changes systematically both along the structural strike of the Alpine chain and across it. The variation in stress along the mountain belt from NE to SW involves a progressive, counterclockwise rotation of S3 and is most clear in the foreland, where it amounts to 45??-50??. This pattern of rotation is compatible with the disturbance to the stress field expected from the indentation of the Adriatic Block into the central European Plate, possibly together with buoyancy forces arising from the strongly arcuate structure of the Moho to the immediate west of our study area. Across the Alps, the variation in azimuth of S3 is defined by a progressive, counterclockwise rotation of about 45?? from the foreland in the north across the Helvetic domain to the Penninic nappes in the south and is accompanied by a change from a slight predominance of strike-slip mechanisms in the foreland to a strong predominance of normal faulting in the high parts of the Alps. The observed rotation can be explained by the perturbation of the large-scale regional stress by a local uniaxial deviatoric tension with a magnitude similar to that of the regional differential stress and with an orientation perpendicular to the strike of the Alpine belt. The tensile nature and orientation of this stress is consistent with the "spreading" stress expected from lateral density changes due to a crustal root beneath the Alps. Copyright 2004 by the American Geophysical Union.