‘Swiss diplomacy supported Franco’

The Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory found the remains of 25 people who were executed in October 1936 under Franco’s rule Keystone

A new book sheds fresh light on Swiss attitudes toward the regime of General Franco in Spain, suggesting that Swiss diplomats worked with it in order to protect Switzerland’s economic and political interests – at the cost of human rights.

This content was published on April 20, 2014
Rodrigo Carrizo Couto,

Schweizer unter Franco – “Swiss under Franco” – was written by journalist and historian Ralph Hug, the author of numerous books on the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

He was also one of the sponsors of an initiative to rehabilitate the approximately 800 Swiss volunteers who fought against the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. It was not until 2009 – 70 years after the conflict – that they were completely rehabilitated. Are there still things we don't know about the Franco regime?

Ralph Hug: Definitely, and my book is only one of many examples. The most significant result of my investigation is that Swiss diplomacy was clearly pro-Franco and that the rights of our citizens who became victims of the Spanish Civil War were disregarded for political reasons. Their problems were simply ignored.

The Spanish Civil War

The war broke out on July 18, 1936.

It was fought between forces loyal to the democratically elected Spanish Republic and the right wing Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco.

Thousands of international volunteers went to Spain to fight on behalf of the Republic, which also had the support of the Soviet Union.

The Nationalists were supported by the fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi regime in Germany.

The war came to an end when Madrid fell to the Nationalists on March 31, 1939.

Franco then became the leader of Spain, ruling until his death in 1975.

End of insertion How many people are we talking about?

R.H.: Several dozen Swiss were victims of the dictatorship. Franco and those who supported him in his fight against democracy set up a regime of terror and attempted to annihilate the opposition forces.

Franco established not only a military dictatorship, but a fascist state based on that of Benito Mussolini in Italy. He destroyed all democratic instruments and incarcerated those who stood up to his regime in the more than 150 concentration camps that Spain had during those years. They were tortured, and thousands lost their lives.

Among these prisoners was Karl Brunner, who was known as Carlos Brunner in Spain. Brunner, who came from Zurich, worked as a wine merchant in Villafranca de Penedès, close to Barcelona. During the unrest of July 1936 he was active in local revolutionary committees, for which he took the minutes. What happened to him?

R.H.: After Franco’s victory someone informed on it. Franco’s police arrested him at once, and shortly afterwards he was sentenced to death by a military court. His only sin was that he had typed up the minutes!

The proceedings were a farce, with no chance of a decent defence. This case showed that the courts under Franco were not independent, but instead a pretext for liquidating enemies of the state in an ostensibly legal fashion.

Brunner was fortunate in that he was saved by the good offices of Adolf Gonzenbach, the Swiss consul in Barcelona. Gonzenbach was a liberal diplomat who was not at all in agreement with the Franco regime. However, a few months after Franco came to power he had to return to Switzerland.

His replacement was Giacomo Balli, an open Franco supporter, who did next to nothing to get Brunner released. He remained in jail until he was expelled by the Spanish authorities in 1942. It was very difficult for him to start a new life.

International Brigades

Between 1936 and 1937 about 40,000 men and women volunteers from 50 countries came to Spain to support the legal government. About half of them were killed, injured or are still unaccounted for.

The largest contingent, about 10,000, came from France, while 3350 came from Italy, and about 800 from Switzerland, including many non-Swiss nationals. Proportionally the Swiss contingent was one of the biggest. About 170 of them lost their lives.

The Swiss who returned home were charged with breaking the law banning Swiss citizens from enlisting in a foreign army without permission.

All in all, 420 were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 days to four years. The average prison term was 3.8 months. They were also deprived of their civil rights.

In 2009 the Swiss parliament agreed to fully rehabilitate the Swiss members of the brigades. However, only a handful were still alive to experience it.

End of insertion How many Swiss suffered from Franco’s crackdown?

R.H.: About 30. Their only offence was that they did not agree with the new fascist regime. To put it another way, they were persecuted and jailed because they defended democracy. The defence of democratic values was very dangerous during the Franco era and was seen as a serious offence.

My book also tells the story of 11 Swiss who fought on the Republican side during the war and then spent a lengthy period in prison. They were held in inhumane conditions for a year in a concentration camp at San Pedro de Cardena, not far from Burgos, where they were subjected to daily torture. These men were never formally sentenced in a court. Do you have other examples?

R.H.: Walter Otto Lehmann almost died because of a lack of medical care. The Swiss consul was not remotely interested in his situation or that of other Swiss. After the end of the war many criticised the passivity and lack of interest of Swiss diplomacy. How do you explain this conduct?

R.H.: Basically, the Swiss representatives felt close to the new Spain of Franco and were generally in favour of a nation that promised law and order in a patriotic and Catholic community.

Instead of protecting the human rights of Swiss citizens who were subjected to abuse and mistreatment in jail, our diplomats sympathised rather with the dictatorship. Why was that?

R.H.: The main interest of the diplomats was that Franco should look favourably on Switzerland so that they could do business and obtain advantages for Swiss enterprises in Spain: banks, insurance companies, industrial firms and multinationals.

Nestlé for example supported Franco by providing free milk powder. The three largest Swiss banks at the time – the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (today Credit Suisse), the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corporation (now merged to form UBS) – gave Franco important credits during the war, despite the fact that the Swiss government had decreed an embargo. Who was responsible on the Swiss side?

R.H.: At the highest levels in particular the Franco regime was supported by Guiseppe Motta, who was Swiss foreign minister for 20 years, and his inner circle in the ministry. Motta, who was Catholic and anti-Communist, opted for the Franco side from the very beginning. He thought Spain was in the grip of a Bolshevik revolution, although it was not.

Motta never believed in the Spanish Republic. He fraternised with the Franco representatives in Bern, even though they were not officially accredited diplomats. He never had anything to do with the official Republican diplomats.

In the autumn of 1936 Motta attempted to block the accreditation of Fabra Ribas, the new envoy of the Spanish Republic, for the sole reason that he was a socialist – not even a communist. But his plan unravelled, because contrary to the expectations of the centre-right parties in Switzerland, Franco was unable to take Madrid in November 1936. [Madrid only fell in March 1939, thus marking the end of the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of Franco’s rule.] Motta, however, was not the only one…

R.H.: We can also mention Hans Fröhlicher, who was responsible for the Spanish desk in the foreign ministry, as well as the most of the Swiss diplomats in Spain. For example, Eugène Broye, a special envoy to Franco, and his predecessor Karl Egger.

Broye said “Franco is not a dictator. The central idea of Francoism is to guarantee more social fairness and to transform Spain, which is so like Russia, into a great military and imperial power.” Other consuls too were diehard anti-communists and welcomed Franco’s coup against the Spanish democracy. And what was the position of the government?

R.H.: On February 14, 1939, Switzerland was the first democracy to officially recognise the Franco regime and to accept the general as the sole legitimate representative of the Spanish state. In fact, Switzerland recognised Franco before the Spanish Civil War was actually over.

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