Jakob Leonhard allegedly fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was convicted in Switzerland on this count. Illustration by Marco Heer.
Jakob Leonhard allegedly fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was convicted in Switzerland on this count. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Allow me to introduce myself: Leonhard, war hero…

Jakob Leonhard fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Or did he? The strange story of a Zurich taxi driver who slipped away mysteriously, only to return a hero.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

Around 850 Swiss people, both men and women, voluntarily joined in the fighting in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Although essentially a national conflict, the dispute quickly turned into an international problem. Led by General Francisco Franco, the military coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government split Spain and all of Europe into two camps: a conservative right and a socialist-communist left. While the right was vigorously supported by fascists from Italy and Germany, the left was able, in addition to a great deal of ideological and in some cases also financial backing, to mobilise a force composed primarily of volunteers. Among these volunteers was Jakob Leonhard from Zurich.
TV documentary on the Spanish Civil War. YouTube / British Pathé
Jakob Leonhard was born in Zurich in 1897. He had ten siblings, and grew up in Zurich. After completing his compulsory schooling, he served an apprenticeship as a mechanic. He later worked as a chauffeur and taxi driver. In 1919 Jakob Leonhard married Frieda Stähli, and the couple had a daughter. But because his wife was constantly running up debts, they divorced in 1931. He remarried soon after but his second marriage, to Jda Keller, didn’t last long either. The pair soon fell out. Another divorce loomed. Was Leonhard always going after the wrong women? Perhaps. However, it seems Jakob Leonhard wasn’t exactly a saint himself. He had regular dealings with the police. His file listed numerous offences: intentional and negligent bodily harm, brawling, driving too fast, delinquency… Jakob Leonhard also seemed to find it difficult dealing with workmates. ‘He wasn’t well liked by his colleagues. He had more enemies than friends,’ recalls Hans Raus, for whose taxi company Leonhard worked for nearly three years. He was concerned only about his own advantage. Still, ‘as a driver I was happy with him’.
Portrait of Jakob Leonhard in the 1930s.
Portrait of Jakob Leonhard in the 1930s. by courtesy
What prompted this taxi driver from Zurich to take off to Spain in January 1937? Was he fleeing from his second marriage, which was going down the drain? Was Jakob Leonhard no longer able to cope with his life in Switzerland? Was he running from the law? Running away from his lonely worklife? He saw himself as an adventurer and staunch anti-fascist. In any case, that’s how Jakob Leonhard presented himself in a newspaper article years later. ‘It all happened in the utmost secrecy: Geneva-Paris-Cebreros-Barcelona, and straight to the Huesca Front in Catalonia. There I went through my baptism of fire. I was soon entrusted with a machine gun company, with which I was required to engage in skirmishes, combat and quite often fierce battles on an almost daily basis.’ When he returned to Switzerland in 1937, he was tried before a military tribunal, barred from the army and sentenced to eight months in prison. His prison term was later reduced by one month. Leonhard was deeply humiliated, having fought in Spain for freedom and democracy… ‘When I tried one day to return to Spain from Berlin via Lindau, I was arrested in Romanshorn, tried for “undermining Switzerland’s military strength” and subjected to seven months in prison. A wonderful object lesson! I was itching to show that a ‘Spanienfahrer’ (a person who volunteered to fight in Spain) need not be a bad Swiss citizen — on the contrary! It was more my political convictions than a thirst for adventure that drove me to Spain.’
The ‘hero’ of Spain told his story in Weltwoche magazine in 1945.
The ‘hero’ of Spain told his story in Weltwoche magazine in 1945. Swiss Federal Archives
The brutality of the war was particularly evident at the Battle of Guadalajara in 1937.
The brutality of the war was particularly evident at the Battle of Guadalajara in 1937. Wikimedia
However, the files on the court case paint a different picture. In a number of interrogations, the ‘anti-fascist freedom fighter’ vehemently denied that he had had any part in the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes he was looking for work in the south. Sometimes he was just there for a relaxing break. Sometimes he had fled his broken marriage in Switzerland. Sometimes he was touring the country. ‘I have never been wounded. I never even had a rifle in my hands. I didn’t want to do driver service in the army either. I didn’t want to do any service in Spain at all.’ He even feigned illness to avoid having to join the fighting. ‘At the beginning of March, when the atmosphere in Barcelona was becoming increasingly heavy with revolution, I went to a doctor, told him my whole story and asked his advice. He admitted me to the Cattalena general hospital for appendicitis. I was there continuously from 25 March until 6 July. In reality there was nothing wrong with me.’
Leonhard refused to accept the verdict. In a second trial, his sentence was reduced by one month to a total of seven months.
Leonhard refused to accept the verdict. In a second trial, his sentence was reduced by one month to a total of seven months. Swiss Federal Archives
Jakob Leonhard was a trickster and a fraud. He wanted to impress the ladies, and the war in Spain was the perfect platform. Everyone was talking about the conflict, and yet in 1937 it was impossible to verify the truth of Leonhard’s statements. ‘I wrote 2 or 3 letters from Spain to Fräulein Künzler. Certainly 1 or 2 from the hospital. I wrote to her that I was in hospital wounded, shot in the stomach. I wrote the same to my wife. Immediately after a bombing raid on Barcelona, I wrote to her that I had been in the fighting in Madrid and that I was now on holiday in Barcelona.’

Postcard as evidence

The authorities generally believed Jakob Leonhard’s claims that he had not been in the war. Nevertheless, he was convicted of ‘entering foreign military service’. A postcard he had sent to his wife Jda was sufficient evidence. The card showed him in uniform. On the back, the Swiss man bragged that he was off to join the war the following day: ‘Tomorrow we go to the front. Here I am as a militia man. Greetings, Scheggi.’ He chose not to mention that he only spent a few days in the barracks. His ‘talent’ for lying landed him in prison in 1937. In the 1940s he nearly ended up being executed for it. But that’s another story…
In 1937 Leonhard wrote a postcard to his wife, Jda, on which he presented himself as a militiaman.
In 1937 Leonhard wrote a postcard to his wife, Jda, on which he presented himself as a militiaman. Swiss Federal Archives
In the second part you’ll find out how fraudster Jakob Leonhard became a double agent who supplied the Nazis with false information, and was sentenced to death for it. For weeks, his life hung by a thread…

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