The “March on Bellinzona” or the failure of the Swiss fascists

Benito Mussolini during the “March on Rome” of 1922. In 1932, the Ticino fascists unsuccessfully attempted a “March on Bellinzona”. Akg-images / World History Archive

A hundred years ago, the specter of fascism hovered over the Old Continent. In Switzerland, especially in its Latin part, several movements enthusiastically welcomed the coming to power of Benito Mussolini, whose ideals they shared.

This content was posted on October 28, 2022 – 2:00 PM

Yves H. Schumacher

On October 28, 1922, hell broke out in Italy: around 50,000 fascists marched on Rome and Benito Mussolini took power. King Victor Emmanuel III is not in your way; on the contrary: appointed to form the government, the Duce inaugurated his totalitarian regime, which would last more than twenty years.

In Switzerland, several circles welcome the rise of the Duce with thunderous applause. The beating heart of Swiss fascism is in Lausanne, where in 1902 the socialist defector Mussolini made a painful living working as a worker and apprentice. Very quickly, he managed to stand out in the Italian colony of the canton of Vaud, making himself noticed thanks to incendiary speeches and scathing articles in the pages of the newspaper. The Avvenire del Lavoratore. In 1904 he left Switzerland, but his seditious machinations had a lasting effect across the country.

Discontent resulting from the First World War

But let’s go back twenty years later: since the general strike of 1918, a certain political discontent has been brewing in Switzerland. While the left admires revolutionary Russia and sees it as a model for a more just society, many liberals and right-wing Catholics see fascist Italy as a bulwark against communism. The right harbors a deep distrust of the weakness of the Swiss federal government and longs for more authoritarian conduct.

Even the liberal-conservative-minded future general Henri Guisan was deeply impressed by Mussolini’s actions, at least until he sided with Hitler. In a 1934 report to the Federal Military Department, he praises the Duce and has sweet words about him: “The merit of this brilliant man lies in the fact that he managed to impose discipline on all the forces of the nation and unite them in a flow, which he took the opportunity to make his country great”.

In January 1937, the University of Lausanne awarded Mussolini an honorary doctorate, which already sparked a flurry of strong criticism at the time.

The fascist leaders of French-speaking Switzerland

A central figure of Italian fascism with Swiss sauce is, in addition to the Genevan Georges Oltramare, the Waldensian Arthur Fonjallaz, who managed to embark on a meteoric military career and was promoted to brigadier. As early as 1922, he expressed his enthusiasm for fascism after meeting Mussolini for the first time.

Arthur Fonjallaz (1875-1944), founder and leader of the Swiss Fascist Movement, here in 1936 in Lausanne. Keystone / Str

In 1923, he resigned from the army and became a visiting professor of war science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He harbors hopes of being named full professor soon, but the coveted appointment will never come. Wounded in his pride, Fonjallaz looks for scapegoats and attributes the lack of promotion to a Masonic conspiracy.

In 1933, the Federal Council took over the case and forced him to resign. In the same year, Fonjallaz founded the Swiss Fascist Movement in Rome, which took its organizational inspiration from the National Fascist Party. Fonjallaz met Mussolini in person at least fifteen times, and the Duce gave him around 600,000 francs to support the cause.

Ticino, a special case

The Italian expansionist objectives are legitimized by a slogan: irredentism. This doctrine considers the Italian and Romansh-speaking Swiss ethnic groups as “irreducible brothers in blood and language” and future members of the Kingdom of Italy. This absurdity is rooted in some Ticino people for one reason above all: the growth of the population of German-speaking Switzerland and the Reich goes, they say, along with an intolerable contempt for Italian culture.

The weekly Le Fasciste Suisse was published in three languages ​​from 1933 to 1936. Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern

The vast majority of Ticino residents are not seduced by rampant Italian propaganda. A hard core of right-wing extremists in Ticino, however, angers the cantonal government.

Among the mentors of fascism in the canton of Ticino was the wealthy engineer Enzo Rezzonico, whom Fonjallaz appointed his deputy in Italian-speaking Switzerland on 29 October 1933 and charged with creating the Fascist Federation of Ticino, an umbrella organization.

With the intention of founding a fascio (a local chapter) with the Swiss abroad residing in Milan, Rezzonico contacted a well-known member of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Italy before the end of the year. After a strategic meeting with his local contacts, Fonjallaz, full of pride, informed the Duce of his project to create a Swiss fascio in Milan, initially composed of about fifty members.

But the project fails: the Swiss colony of Lombardy is in fact divided into two factions that are at war for political reasons. The turmoil is such that Georges Wagnière, Switzerland’s diplomatic representative in Rome, has to intervene.

“March on Bellinzona”

Rezzonico believed that just as Mussolini managed to seize power with the “March on Rome”, he would also succeed in overthrowing the Ticino government with a “March on Bellinzona”.

For the fascists, the central Alps separated the “Italian race” from the rest of Switzerland. wikicommons

On January 25, 1934, Rezzonico’s supporters gathered in Lugano, ready to march on the Ticino capital with the intention of occupying the seat of the cantonal government and demanding annexation to Italy. However, against all expectations, the irredentist action leaves the Italians of Ticino impassive and keep their distance. Eventually, only a small group of around 60 armed protesters made it to the government building. There they are greeted by about 400 anti-fascists, who stand outside the barred doors of the parliament building. Aside from a few fights, nothing else happens. The fascists’ plan to sabotage the government session comes to nothing.

After this fiasco, after some hierarchical struggles, Rezzonico was excluded from the leadership of the Fascist Federation of Ticino and retired for some time to his estate in Turin.

The Rome-Berlin Axis and the Wehrmacht’s aggression against Poland in 1er September 1939 helps open the eyes of most of Ticino’s fascists. When Italy also entered the war nine months later, the fascist spirit dissolved throughout Switzerland.

In 1941, Fonjallaz was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for espionage. At this time, Rezzonico reappears in Porza, near Lugano, and now lives in the shadows as a local politician and journalist.

Yves H. Schumacher is the author of the book “Nazis! Fascists! Fascist! Faschismus in der Schweiz 1918-1940”, published in 2019 by Orell Füssli and now out of print. The publisher will publish a revised second edition in early 2023.

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Translated from Italian by Olivier Pauchard

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