Stalin’s long shadow

Around 200 Swiss emigrated to the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, inspired by the Russian Revolution to create the ideal Communist state.

This content was published on May 7, 2004 - 18:42

Many of them were kicked out of the country on suspicion of spying. Others ended up in Stalin’s prison camps or were shot, according to the Swiss historian, Peter Huber.

“About 20 or 25 Swiss were sent to Gulags where they disappeared or were shot,” Huber told swissinfo.

Many of the Swiss who were persecuted under Stalin had been highly regarded by Communist headquarters in Moscow before the dictator seized power, says Huber, who recounts the story of many Swiss Communists in his book, “Stalins Schatten in die Schweiz” (“Stalin’s shadow in Switzerland”).

“After Stalin took over in 1927, he became increasingly suspicious of his own party members and foreigners. This reached a new level in 1936 with the show trials, when Stalin tried well-known party leaders and had them executed.”

Swiss victims

One high-profile victim of Stalin’s purges was the Swiss Communist, Fritz Platten.

A personal friend of Lenin, Platten had famously organised the Soviet leader’s return to Petrograd (St Petersburg) from Zurich in 1917, and had saved him from an assassination attempt a year later.

Platten, a prominent member of the Communist Party during Lenin’s rule, stayed on in the party after Stalin’s takeover, even though his position became increasingly precarious.

In 1937 his wife, Berta Zimmermann, a non-party member, was tried as a spy and shot.

All of Platten’s activities, such as his speeches in Moscow’s German club, were rigorously monitored and were later used as evidence again him. He was sentenced to hard labour in a Gulag, and was shot by a camp officer in 1942.

Secret police

Platten was one of at least eight Swiss to be executed or disappear after their imprisonment.

But the fate of dozens of other Swiss is still unknown because of Moscow’s policy of restricting access to archives.

“All the archives from the Gulags were opened during the Gorbachev era but access to the KGB [secret police] files is once again becoming very restricted,” Huber says.

“But details of the horrific life in the Gulags are emerging. Prisoners had no rights and were completely shut off from the world.

“Many of those imprisoned were Communists and could not understand why they had been arrested, so they lost all their orientation.”

Many of the prisoners who survived the camps were rehabilitated in the 1980s during the Gorbachev era.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Key facts

The system of forced labour camps, or Gulags, was established during the first years of Stalin’s Communist regime (1927-1953) to speed up industrialisation.
Prisoner numbers swelled to 2 million by 1937 as a result of Stalin’s mass arrests or Great Purges.
At least 2 million people died in the camps over a 20-year period.

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In brief

Around 200 Swiss Communists emigrated to the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 30s.

Many were expelled in the 1930s on suspicion of being spies, others were sent to the Gulags.

At least 12 Swiss died in the camps or were tried and shot by the secret police.

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