NSDAP membership badge.
NSDAP membership badge. Wikimedia

The Geneva NSDAP

At the beginning of the 1930s, Geneva was deeply divided between right and left. These were ideal conditions for the formation of a local branch of the NSDAP.

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier is a historian and board member of the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte (Swiss Historical Society). He has published a number of articles on 17th and 20th century Swiss history.

On 12 December 1932, the streets of Geneva remained quiet. No drums and whistles, no Escalade parade. The celebration had been cancelled following the dramatic events of 9 November. Thirteen people died at a workers’ demonstration against a gathering of fascists. Fearful that clashes would break out, the authorities had called in the army for assistance. Around 600 soldiers, most of them recruits, were brought in to keep order. As the situation escalated, they fired into the crowd. In addition to the 13 dead, dozens were injured. It was a black day in Geneva’s history.
Protest rally against fascism in Geneva, 9 November 1932.
Protest rally against fascism in Geneva, 9 November 1932. Keystone / STR
Did Eugen Link deliberately choose Geneva’s most patriotic day for his letter just a month after the bloodbath? The envoy from Berlin had lived in the city for a number of weeks and witnessed the massacre at first hand. Link had come to assess whether Geneva would be fertile ground for a new section of the NSDAP. The city was deeply divided. On one side were the leftists, led by popular leaders such as Léon Nicole. On the other side, there was a conservative right whose extreme wing was quite open to National Socialist ideas. This seemed to convince the German. On 12 December 1932 he applied to the State Council for approval for political activities, such as the leasing of premises for the purpose of holding meetings in German exclusively for Germans living in Geneva. He also sought permission to advertise these meetings in the local press. In actual fact, these were the activities of any ordinary association.
Léon Nicole in a 1933 photograph.
Léon Nicole in a 1933 photograph. Wikimedia
Link didn’t have to wait long for the answer: on 11 January 1933, the State Council approved the Nazi’s various requests. The Geneva branch of the NSDAP took shape. That same week Link’s secretary, Hellmuth von Hasperg, a German student who lived in Cologny, rented a basement flat at Rue des Charmilles 5. On the door of the headquarters of the ‘association’ officially known as the ‘Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei Og. Genf’ (National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Geneva branch), a placard with the party name and a swastika was put up. Naturally, the founding of the party didn’t escape the notice of the left-wing campaigners surrounding Léon Nicole. Some lodged protests with the gendarmerie. On 18 February 1933, the Saint-Jean gendarmerie reported that communists had covered the swastika with a Soviet propaganda poster and that the door of the party premises was often daubed with paint and spat on. From then on, the contentious location was put under observation. The gendarmes kept a record of the comings and goings of men and women in brown clothing with Nazi insignia on their arms. Switzerland wasn’t fooled by the shifting of the balance of power in Germany. Some were reminded of the state of civil war that had rocked their northern neighbour 14 years earlier, at the end of World War I. There were fears that a whole section of the German population would be radicalised. The Public Prosecutor of the Federal Supreme Court was particularly concerned by the nascency of National Socialist movements from Germany. On 2 March 1933, three days before the Reichstag elections, in which the National Socialist Party would emerge victorious, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s office therefore informed all cantons that any public gathering in connection with foreign elections was prohibited.
Aviation pioneer Walter Mittelholzer’s view of Geneva, 1934.
Aviation pioneer Walter Mittelholzer’s view of Geneva, 1934. ETH Library Zurich

Geneva NSDAP keeps the pressure on

Immediately after the NSDAP’s election victory on 5 March 1933, the Federal Prosecutor’s office, which was well aware of the symbolic significance of the Nazi emblems, sent an express telegram asking the cantons to take action. The aim was to prevent the rallies planned by the German consulates in the wake of the election result, particularly the raising of the Nazi flag, from causing disturbances. Significant clashes were thus avoided. But the Geneva NSDAP didn’t give up: on 11 March, the branch submitted a new application to the authorities. The members proposed to wear the Nazi uniform and to also display the colours of Switzerland and the flag of Geneva, in addition to the swastika. At a loss as to what to do, the Geneva State Council asked the Federal Council what position to take, whereupon the Federal Public Prosecutor reminded them of the ban on the brown Hitler shirt, as set forth in the Federation’s official journal (Amtsblatt des Bundes) of 1932. He also asked the State Council to closely monitor the activities of the Geneva Nazi Party, which it subsequently did. In the first report, for example, it is mentioned that the central committee of the Swiss NSDAP group, led by the German Wilhelm Gustloff, met in Davos.
Eugen Link’s activities were meticulously monitored. Swiss Federal Archives
As part of the monitoring, the number, identity and profiles of the local group members were also to be recorded. In March 1933 the group consisted of 16 members aged between 20 and 25, all of them from Germany, apart from one Romanian. Among the eight women in the local group were a League of Nations official and a student. The other women were domestic servants. The male members included Eugen Link, who worked in an office, three students, two League of Nations officials and a hairdresser. Students, League of Nations officials, domestic workers – all profiles that Allen Dulles, who worked as an OSS envoy in Bern during the war and later took over as director of the CIA, could easily have interpreted as secret service agents. After all, who was better placed to listen in on conversations than a chambermaid in a prominent household? And who could steal documents concerning disarmament talks more easily than an office clerk? The following April the branch recruited new members, including two German consular staff members who had only recently come to Geneva and, as political officers, reported to Berlin on activities in the consulates.
Enquiry to the Geneva police concerning the signage on the association’s premises on the Rue des Charmilles.
Enquiry to the Geneva police concerning the signage on the association’s premises on the Rue des Charmilles. Archives of Geneva
Meanwhile, the party continued to develop at an impressive pace. At the gatherings of the cell every Thursday evening, Germans and guests from other countries, such as Italian fascists, were always welcome, according to the police reports. At the meetings the party members wore their swastika armbands openly and demonstrated a ‘very strong military spirit’, as was documented in the course of ongoing surveillance. Police attention was also focused on a certain Heinrich Anton August Schneider, a former League of Nations official under Reichsminister Goebbels, whom the cantonal police described as an ‘influential element in Hitler’s circles in our city’. At the conference hosted by the German consulate at the Hotel Métropole on 23 June 1933, Schneider delivered a long talk on the advantages of the new German order. Around 150 people, all members of the German community in Geneva, including the Consul General of Germany, attended this conference. An eloquent, assertive and cool speaker, Schneider criticised Swiss and Genevan authorities for tolerating Jews expelled from Germany on their territory, and portrayed the League of Nations as too weak and too ineffectual. His speech was well received. In October 1933 Schneider replaced Eugen Link as chair of the NSDAP’s Geneva branch. The party and Goebbels, who had travelled to Geneva the previous month to deliver a speech to the League of Nations, considered Link too soft.
Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (centre) in Geneva in 1933 at the World Disarmament Conference, which took place under the aegis of the League of Nations.
Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (centre) in Geneva in 1933 at the World Disarmament Conference, which took place under the aegis of the League of Nations. Wikimedia
New party leader, new decisions: on 1 October 1933 the National Socialist association moved its headquarters from the Rue des Charmilles to Rue de la Coulouvrenière 44. Not only were the premises larger but, in particular, they offered the advantage that they belonged to André Balland, a senior member of the frontist party Union Nationale, whose fascist views were advocated by the sombre-looking Georges Oltramare. The relocation did not go unnoticed: the same month, the Federal Prosecutor asked the Geneva State Council whether the German National Socialist association in Geneva had contacts with the Union Nationale. The Berner Tagwacht had only recently published an article entitled ‘Oltramare as an agent of Hitler’. The federal judge would subsequently be given further grounds for concern in the form of the conference concerning the annexation of Switzerland by Germany, which was held in the presence of 80 Nazis in Balland’s premises and concluded with the singing of the Horst Wessel Song, which was used as the Nazi party anthem. The Nazis, of course, denied any connection. The investigations by the cantonal authorities concluded that there was no link between the Union Nationale and the NSDAP; rather, the accusations were a personal attack by Léon Nicole on Georges Oltramare as leader of the Union Nationale. Had the Berner Tagwacht’s sources got it wrong? Decades later, historians confirmed that Georges Oltramare had indeed been an agent of the Abwehr, thus reviving the claims made by the Berner Tagwacht.
Portrait of Georges Oltramare, 1931.
Portrait of Georges Oltramare, 1931. notrehistoire.ch / Bibliothèque de Genève
The Geneva police observed the activities of the local NSDAP group very closely.
The Geneva police observed the activities of the local NSDAP group very closely. Swiss Federal Archives
In the years that followed, the Geneva branch of the NSDAP continued to grow, particularly as a result of the resources with which the Gestapo leadership supported Hitler’s operations in Switzerland from autumn 1934 onwards. With this money, the party gained control over the Deutsche Heim in the Rue du Rhône, the place where the German community in Geneva – both members and non-members of the NSDAP – gathered to socialise, and gradually repurposed it into a Nazi forum. The party achieved additional reinforcement and organisation in the form of a leader for the female Hitler Youth, and for the Deutsche Hilfsverein. The Geneva branch of the NSDAP, which followed the policies and propaganda of Goebbels, carried out continuous surveillance and gathered information on the Germans living in Geneva, was vacated in 1945 when the State Council expelled from the country the Nazis living in Geneva.

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