Letter from Europe

100 years after Zimmerwald

Issue no. 2015/28


The Zimmerwald Conference was a defining moment in European socialist history. There were stand-offs between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks; there were long and heated debates about how class struggle might bring an end to the First World War. Delegates came from a dozen countries - among them were Lenin and Trotsky.

The thread of history often breaks. Then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing in Zimmerwald.

(Leon Trotsky in Chaper XIX of ‘My Life’, 1930)


It was 100 years ago today that a group of about 40 visitors - all supposedly ornithologists - arrived in a small Swiss village in the hills south of Berne. Zimmerwald is a wee slip of a place and, but for the visit of the ornithologists, the village would surely never have found its way onto the map of European history.

Most of those visitors to Zimmerwald in September 1915 were accommodated in the Hotel Beau Séjour. Space was tight, and a handful were given rooms in a nearby guesthouse. For men and women who all professed an interest in birds, the Zimmerwald delegates spent remarkably little time in the open air. For four long days and nights, they packed into the hotel's dining room and discussed the future of socialism. Lenin was there. So was Trotsky. The 'ornithologists' story was merely a cover - a wheeze conceived by the Swiss organisers who worried that the inhabitants of Zimmerwald might refuse to accept the visitors if the true purpose of the conference was announced in advance. There was also concern that the meeting might be infiltrated by the Okhrana - the tsarist secret police.

A cornerstone of revolution

The Zimmerwald Conference was a defining moment in European socialist history. There were stand-offs between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks; there were long and heated debates about how class struggle might bring an end to the First World War. Anti-war sentiments were voiced by socialist delegates whose governments and armies were at that time engaged in bitter conflict. The clarion call of Zimmerwald was "This is not our war."

There were delegates from a dozen countries. Zimmerwald was instrumental in shaping the revolutionary direction of Russia, so much so that it is often credited as being the birthplace of the Soviet Union.

The Zimmerwald Conference took place from a Thursday to a Sunday, and during those days the villagers went about their business as normal - bemused, perhaps, by the ornithologists who shunned fresh air and never looked at the Swiss skies. On one evening, the village constable was despatched to the Beau Séjour just to ask the visitors to keep the noise down a little.

Kindling the Soviet spirit

Only after the conference did the residents of conservative Zimmerwald slowly discover what had taken place in their village. They were none too pleased, and were especially aghast that local Swiss radicals had helped in facilitating the conference. The lead organiser was Robert Grimm, a talented Swiss socialist who went on to a successful political career including a term as President of the Swiss National Council. Another key figure was Swiss communist Fritz Platten who in 1917 organised the special train which transported Lenin back from Swiss exile to St Petersburg.

Zimmerwald was critical to the future development of socialist practice. It was here that Lenin's potential as a future leader was recognised. And it was at Zimmerwald that the decisive split took place between the revolutionaries and the gradualists within the socialist camp. It was in the wake of Zimmerwald that the Bolsheviks nudged Russia closer to revolution.

Reactions in Zimmerwald

The Swiss village entered the canon of Soviet history - arguably a place as important to the Soviet narrative as Rütli is to the Swiss national story. Communist visitors to Switzerland in later years were keen to see the place where a weekend meeting shaped the destiny of Russia. But the inhabitants of Zimmerwald were having none of it and in the 1960s pulled down the Hotel Beau Séjour. A local law precluded processions or memorials with any link to the Zimmerwald Conference.

Happily, the residents of Zimmerwald are nowadays more relaxed about their community's unwitting role in history. This weekend there will be some modest celebrations, nothing too serious, and no doubt there will be one or two Lenin lookalikes strolling the streets of the Swiss village. A temporary exhibition recalls moments from the period when Zimmerwald was less than comfortable with its bit-part role in socialist history. Among the exhibits are letters and cards sent by party officials and school children in the USSR, all anxious to pass on fraternal greetings to the comrades of Zimmerwald. Older inhabitants in the village still recall the day when a serious group of Soviet engineers arrived, all eager to visit the Lenin Museum. For outsiders, it was sometimes hard to fathom why Zimmerwald so ignored its past.

That September 1915 weekend in Zimmerwald was a turning point for Lenin. When the proceedings finished, and the Zimmerwald Manifesto, written mainly by Trotsky and Grimm, was agreed (with the usual dissenting factions), most delegates left together in carriages for Berne. But not Lenin. He put on his walking boots, picked up his rucksack and left on foot. He had frayed nerves. It was only after some time in the freedom of the Swiss mountains that he began to understand the mission which lay ahead.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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