1932: The Geneva Massacre

Communist paper headline from the time

An account of the shooting of over 100 people by the Swiss army at an anti-fascist demonstration.

In 1932, the sympathisers of the Union Nationale fascist party led by Georges Oltramare planned to assemble on 9th November at the Salle Communale of Plainpalais in Geneva to publicly accuse the Socialist leaders Nicole and Dicker. The Socialist Party called a counter-demonstration. Fearing trouble, the Conseil d’Etat (the Swiss government) called out the army. 610 soldiers were sent, first being told that revolution was about to break out in Geneva.

Blank cartridges were replaced with live rounds. Soldiers deemed susceptible to fraternising with the demonstrators were kept back.

This was in a situation where as a result of the economic crisis of 1929, there were 8,000 unemployed in a population of 180,000 in Geneva. It was “the period then was revolutionary, the class struggle a reality,” according to Swiss anarchist André Boesiger.

From the end of the afternoon the police barred the Rue de Carouge with chains. Trams were stopped at Plainpalais. Only the Union Nationale fascists were allowed to get to the Salle Communale. From 7pm the counter-demonstrators took up position in the neighbouring streets and cafes. 300 whistles were distributed. The Internationale was sung. Leon Nicole called for the taking of the streets. Soon the barriers were broken down. The troops were called in. The 1st Company of 108 men marched towards the Rue de Carouge. They were overwhelmed and 18 of them disarmed.

“In a moment, the soldiers began to mix with the crowd in Indian file, rifle on shoulder instead of bayonet on barrel. Certain of them let their rifles be confiscated, others even gave them voluntarily…” (Souvenirs d’un Rebelle, Boesiger).

Suddenly the order was given to fire, resulting in 13 dead and 100 wounded.150 shots were fired in 10 seconds. Most of the victims were sympathisers, bystanders or curious people, who had not taken an active role. “My buddy Melchior Alleman died in my arms”, Boesiger was to say.

“At the time I lived in the Rue Pichet-de-Bock just by the demonstration. There was an important crowd of 6,000-7,000 people. I remember Lucien Tronchet had just finished his speech when we heard the shots”.

For Boesiger the demonstration was not just to deal with the fascists but to defend workers’ rights and to recruit to the FOBB (Federation of Wood and Construction Workers).

The left was blamed by the government for the disturbances and Nicole was sent to prison for 6 months. In the following elections Nicole and 3 other socialists were elected. Boesiger voted for the first and last time.

“Leon Nicole totally disillusioned me. He became an imbecile. He went from one party to another and became a Bolshevik. He didn’t know how to work with the union organisations and with the workers’ movement. In the end no one wanted anything to do with him.”
“Once upon a time we struggled to suppress wage slavery and the bosses. Nowadays no-one talks about that”.

Nick Heath