The turbulent history of anarchists in Switzerland

The bombers of Zurich: how two Russians shaped Swiss history

“Watch out! Heat will make it explode!" For many anarchists such a warning came too late Andrea Caprez

In 1889, a Russian student in Zurich accidentally blew himself up. In the aftermath of the incident, many foreigners were expelled from the country, while the manufacture or possession of explosives was made a criminal offence.

This content was published on February 25, 2019
Regula Bochsler

On March 6, 1889, a Zurich policeman told his superiors there was a rumour on the streets that two Russian students had staged a duel with bombs just outside the city the previous day. Both had been seriously wounded, and friends had taken them to hospital, he said.

Police Captain Fischer, who was familiar with the emigrant milieu, was skeptical. Yet he made his way to Petertobel, where the duel had supposedly taken place. At the scene he made a horrible discovery: great streaks of blood in the snow, traces of an explosion, a battered metal container full of a thick yellow fluid – and part of a human foot.


Fischer headed for the general hospital, where he started looking through the lists of newly-admitted patients. He soon identified Alexander Demski, a Polish aristocrat, who was studying at the Federal Institute of Technology, and a Russian named Jacob Brinstein, who was a printer working for the Arbeiterstimme (Worker’s Voice) newspaper.

Brinstein was already known to Fischer as an agitator among Russian students. When his house had been searched the year before, police had found dynamite, but it was a small amount, and they had not brought charges: possession of explosives was not (as of yet) a criminal offence.    

Though the doctor on duty met Fischer with the words “Brinstein is done for”, it didn’t stop the detective from going to interview him right away. Brinstein said nothing. Only when Fischer threatened to arrest all his Russian comrades did Brinstein admit to him he had been testing a home-made bomb. 

When Fischer produced the container he had found, Brinstein shouted: “Watch out! Heat will make it explode. Throw it in water!” Fischer threw the thing in a jug of water, and (as he later reported), there was a “terrible explosion” which broke “every window-pane” and “every chair” in the hospital room.

‘We need to do spectacular things’ 

In the course of the questioning Brinstein said he had no intention of mounting a bomb attack in Switzerland, but rather had been instructed to produce an “effective weapon” for the revolutionary struggle in Russia.

“What do you expect?” he said to Fischer. “We have no money to stir up the masses: so we need to do spectacular things to achieve the same effect. In our country we have to aim at the head to achieve any change in the body – and the head is the family of the Czar.”

“It is the destiny of the vanguard to risk their lives for the others.”

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There were details Fischer did not know: Jacob Brinstein’s real name was Isaac Dembo and even as a youth he had belonged to Narodnaja Wolja (People’s Will): a political organisation fighting for a democratic state, and whose members did not shrink from acts of terror; the bomb attack that killed Czar Alexander II in 1881 had been their handiwork. 

Dembo had played a part in another bomb attack on Czar Alexander III, after which he had been forced to flee the country. Intending to return to Russia at some point to print revolutionary tracts, he apprenticed himself to a printer in Zurich. He told the Swiss socialist Verena Conzett: “It is the destiny of the vanguard to risk their lives for the others.”

Inebriated policemen discussing “dynamiters" and “anarchist bombers” over a few drinks in a cartoon. zvg

Two days after the explosion Isaac Dembo died without telling Captain Fischer more about who he was working for. His funeral turned into a political demonstration against the Czarist regime. All the Russian and Polish student groups in Zurich and many local socialists joined the cortege; trade union representatives and other left-wing groups brought wreaths with revolutionary red ribbons and marched behind the coffin. 

The "bombing in Zurich" attracted great attention at home and abroad. The Russian ambassador demanded information about the bomb-makers and their organisations. The conservative press wanted to know if this was just an isolated incident, or if there was “method in the madness”. 

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper warned that Switzerland must not become a "training ground" for "disorder and killings in other countries." Limmat magazine went so far as to call for "the whole brood of vipers – adventurers, utopians and fanatics" to be expelled from the country without further ado.

‘We have 98 Russian students here’

Captain Fischer, described by one journalist as “very lively and intelligent-looking” with an “extraordinarily penetrating look from behind his blue-tinted glasses,” was put in charge of the investigation by the federal government.

Fischer had created something of an international outcry the previous year, when he made public on his own account the names of informers being used by the German government for surveillance of exiled German socialists. He also knew the Russian emigré community well, however, and thus seemed to be the right man to get to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on. 

“We have 98 Russian students here”, Fischer told a reporter from the Paris-based Figaro who had come to do a story on the “Zurich Nihilists”. These  Nihilists, Fischer told him, were “a dangerous lot”, who subscribed to an approach called Propaganda of the Deed, advocating revolutionary violence. 

They were lone wolves who were only concerned about their home countries, nothing else being of any interest to them. There was also great division among the community of Russian emigrés in Zurich: “all these people seem to hate each other and utter bloodcurdling threats to each other.”

The next day, Fischer had several Russians arrested, one of them being a medical student named Maria Ginsburg, who had been living with Dembo. She first claimed to be his sister and to know nothing about the matter, but eventually admitted that she had been a party to the making of the bomb.

Fischer obtained several search warrants, but all he found was revolutionary tracts and private correspondence – all legal in Switzerland. He did find out, however, that Dembo belonged to a revolutionary group that called itself the "terrorist party" and had a network of Russian emigrés in other Swiss cities. 

Laboratories of crime

Fischer accordingly extended his investigation to Geneva, where he came upon a clandestine printing works which produced revolutionary pamphlets to be sent to Russia.

The Zurich Federal Institute of Technology became part of the investigation too. Since Alexander Demski, the other bomb-maker, was studying chemistry, Fischer guessed that the explosives were being made in the laboratories of the institute. "it is an intolerable idea that the nation’s only institute should develop into a laboratory of crime", thundered the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, demanding that the production and trade in explosives be criminalised.

The Zurich bomb explosion involved only experimentation by a rather insignificant political group. But he nevertheless recommended expelling foreign anarchists.

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Indignation was also whipped up by reports in the foreign press that the explosives of the Zurich Nihilists were meant not just for the Czars of Russia but for the German Kaiser. German and Russian governments demanded to be kept informed of the investigation, and both threatened that they would no longer recognise Swiss neutrality if it was found that emigrés in this country were threatening their national security. 

Given the political pressure, Fischer took a tough approach to the investigation, by the standards of his time. He had one woman remanded in custody, had all suspects compulsorily photographed and kept them in custody for long periods. This approach won him the disapproval of journalists even in the conservative press. 

“Anarchists out!”. The satirical magazine Der neue Postillon in 1895 caricatured anarchists as a plague of May-bugs needing to be kept at bay. Der neue Postillon

It also didn’t work. Fischer was unable to bring charges of criminal activity or international conspiracy against any of the suspects. His final report admitted that he had found “no trace of a conspiracy directed against any monarch or government.” The Zurich bomb explosion involved only experimentation by a rather insignificant political group. But he nevertheless recommended expelling foreign anarchists. 

Accordingly, on May 7, 1889, the government issued deportation orders against thirteen Russians and Poles. One of them was bomb-maker Alexander Demski and another was the female partner of the late Isaac Dembo. They were given a week to leave Switzerland for the country of their choice.

Even more important historically were the political consequences of the Zurich incident. In 1894, new federal legislation was enacted to criminalise the manufacture, sale and transportation of explosives; a useful tool for federal prosecutors combating foreign anarchists in Switzerland. 

Terrorist violence in Switzerland

A look at Swiss history shows that politically motivated violence was more frequent in the past than we might imagine today. 

The first terrorist attack in this country was the assassination of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, who was stabbed to death in 1898 by an anarchist named Luigi Luccheni. “Sisi”, as she was called, was the first victim of anarchist terror in Switzerland, but she was certainly not the last. 

In the early 20th century Switzerland experienced a wave of terrorist attacks. Anarchists raided banks and even a police building in Zurich, tried to blow up trains, blackmailed industrialists, carried out bomb attacks and assassinated political opponents. Most of the attackers were foreign: Russians, Italians, Germans and Austrians who had sought political asylum in Switzerland.

The Swiss government reacted by deporting undesirables and making laws more severe. In 1894, in what became known as the “Anarchists Law”, penalties for crimes using explosives were increased, and preparing for them was made a criminal offence. But Switzerland refrained from tightening its asylum legislation, which ensured ongoing protection for people wanted by police elsewhere.

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