Valeria Stucki has chosen to tell the hidden history of Zimmerwald through a group of secondary school students. The teenagers refer to their home village as the «backwaters» of Switzerland, and they are very surprised to find that a significant historical event played out in Zimmerwald during World War I.
In September 1915, a very secret assembly occurred here, with 38 representatives of socialist parties arriving from 11 conflicting countries embroiled in the war. They rode in on horseback from Bern, pretending to be ornithologists while arranging the first international socialist convention, calling for a need for a united anti-war stand among all the socialist parties. The «Zimmerwald Conference» was unique because it managed to collect socialist representatives from all the rival European nations in order to make direct criticism of the socialist parties for standing behind their nations in the war. They requested an immediate demilitarisation of the respective nations.
Zimmerwald follows the students in considerable detail and leisurely as they visit the local library, browse through archives and search for subjects that still might have something relevant to say. It doesn’t help that they look quite bored and unengaged throughout their efforts. About halfway through the film, the students unveil that the local authorities have diligently erased every sign that could bear witness to this unique historical event. On the contrary, the clips from the BBC documentary The Age of Uncertainty – 5: Lenin and The Great Ungluing (1977) are entertaining with pranks, funny reconstructions, and lively interviews in the noisy village pub. In general, it feels as if the village Zimmerwald has, in totality, lost its charm.
Even the gem of the village, a beautiful 17th-century inn where the conference took place, was demolished in 1971 to make way for a parking lot for the new administration building. So when the Council of Bern named the building as an important cultural heritage, it was already too late. From one of the letters the students find on the dusty shelves of the municipality building, a member of the Great Council of Bern writes in protest, «What is considered outside the historical value of the community? Was it really necessary to demolish a beautiful, historically significant building to build a new bus station?”
A local historian admits that no one in the village seemed to regret the demolition of the guest house, which they called the «Lenin’s House.» In the spirit of the time of the Cold War, the locals saw it as an efficient way to dismiss a part of history that they did not want to promote. Back then, ideology played a much higher role in the decision-making of the locals than the thought of the potential revenues one could harvest from a sought-after tourist site. Also, one must remember that no ordinary Russian could have received travel permission at this time. The Russian visitors must have been rather ardent Soviet socialists or prominent party members. Requests made from Moscow to erect a memorial plate and the claim that such an event had ever occurred in this area were successfully disregarded.
it feels as if the village Zimmerwald has, in totality, lost its charm
Part of the story
In my opinion, Zimmerwald is missing part of the story that is rather essential. Whereas Western socialists saw the conference as a first attempt at establishing a pacifist movement, the communists of the Eastern Block reinterpreted «Zimmerwald Conference» as the first international event controlled by a Soviet organisation that encouraged world communism.
Socialism, in its original theoretical form, was always defined as internationalist and anti-war in its principles. During the outbreak of World War I, the socialist party of Great Britain and the Balkans were the only parties that never gave up their original pacifist stand. On the contrary, the socialist parties of all other nations openly supported their respective nations in their war efforts. The manifesto signed by both Trotsky and Lenin made a clear appeal to bring pacifism back to the core of socialism. An attempt that they both directly undermined two years later by taking prominent roles in the tumultuous October Revolution. Trotsky, who passionately called for the demilitarisation of all nations, was appointed as the leader of the Red Army. A false interpretation was then laced on the Zimmerwald Conference, claiming it was the inspiration for the Russian Revolution.
To this day
Unfortunately, this disinformation persists to this day. Valeria Stucki does not delve into this dilemma, yet she incorporates a town council meeting at the end of her movie. This council comprises three male members and one mute secretary to consider the students’ appeal to install a commemorative plaque at the site. With the same conservatism as their fathers, they, in the end, refuse even to set up the simplest information plaque. Rather than educating the local population and prospective guests about the initial aim of the «Zimmerwald Movement», they have accepted the inaccurate interpretation propagated to them by the aged Moscow bureaucrats. Thus, more out of dread than anything else, they rather obscure their history rather than confront the truth.