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He called himself Surava

(Er nannte sich Surava)

Texts about the film

Erich Schmid, Pio Corradi, Richard Dindo
Erich Schmid, Pio Corradi, Richard Dindo: Montage

Introduction to: «Er nannte sich Surava» by Erich Schmid

By Dagmar C. G. Lorenz
Interim Head and Professor of Germanic Studies, The University of Illinois at Chicago

Erich Schmid’s film Er nannte sich Surava tells the story of an extraordinary man in extraordinary times at an extraordinary place, Switzerland. Like Austria, the little country in the heart of Europe prides itself of its idyllic alpine landscape, its resort towns and hospitality industry, its multicultural traditions, and its neutrality. Similar to its no less charming neighbor, also Switzerland became the subject of scrutiny toward the end of the 20th century. Since the end of World War II, National Socialism, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism were associated with Germany. Up until the Waldheim election in 1986 and the related political scandal, Austria had succeeded fairly well to cover up its close ties to Nazi Germany, and the fact that Hitler was Austrian by birth had been all but forgotten. In the case of Switzerland, the myth of neutrality was by and large upheld even longer, up until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and German unification. Only at that time was it no longer possible to avoid or downplay questions about Jewish owned bank assets and Switzerland’s reprehensible attitude toward Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

Er nannte sich Surava—He called himself Surava explores the life and times of a courageous pioneering journalist who paid dearly for his determination to expose Switzerland’s support for its genocidal neighbor Germany and the widespread penchant for Nazi ideology. Hans-Werner Hirsch, alias Peter Surava, alias Ernst Steiger had to use numerous aliases to protect his career which ultimately failed, not during the Nazi era, but shortly thereafter because the very persons who had lent Hitler their support remained in power after 1945.

This is by no means a unique situation. Also in both Germanies and in Austria many former perpetrators and Nazi supporters continued to play important public roles while their opponents never recovered from the blows they had been dealt. Only in 1991, at the age of 81, did Surava publish his autobiography under his original name Hirsch. At the beginning of widespread controversies concerning Switzerland’s role during the Nazi era the time was finally ripe for the account of a dissenter who had been vilified and made the object of shame and ridicule.

Schmid’s film provides shocking insights into the collaboration between the Swiss police and the Gestapo, the Swiss and the Nazi German media. Even more disturbing, it shows the continuity between pre- and post-war Switzerland. The interviewee, Peter Surava, first appears on screen during a radio report about anti-Semitic and xenophobic activities in Germany and Switzerland around 1990. A few facts shall further illuminate the connection between past and present:

Few countries have had such a great number of extreme right-wing associations per capita and size of their geographical territory as had Switzerland during the Nazi era. Compared to the perhaps ten such groups today, there were well over three dozen in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of these organizations and societies published their own bulletins, newspapers, or magazines, pamphlets, and books. Anti-Semitism was the most fundamental tie between them. Today there exists a significant number of openly anti-Semitic, rightwing organizations, including CENTRE CULTUREL EXCALIBUR founded in 1993, with approximately one thousand members in Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany. The organization sells books, photos, magazines, cult objects, cassettes and shirts celebrating militancy and the New Order. The FRONT PATRIQUE was founded in September 1988. It is an off-shoot of the KKK. A combined Swiss Cross and Nazi swastika serve as its emblem. HAMMERSKIN, founded in 1991, is also based on American models. JEUNESSE NATIONALE SUISSE, Swiss National Youth, was created in 1992 and is comprised of skinheads. The self-proclaimed fascist Gaston-Armand Amaudruz, who publishes its newspaper, Courrier du Continent, attacking Jews, immigrants and capitalism, founded NOUVELLE ORDRE EUROPÉEN, or New European Order, in 1951. PARTI EUROPÉEN, European Party, was founded in 1970 and publishes a bulletin, Le Pays Réel, The Real Switzerland. PARTI NATIONAL RÉVOLUTIONAIRE was founded in 1989. It has as its motto: "Opposition to Capitalism, Imperialism and Marxism," using the traditional slogans to express anti-Semitism. TROISIÈME, A Third Way, was established on its French model at Geneva in the 1980s and supports radical nationalist ideas.

When in the film Peter Surava comments that people do not learn from history, some of these and other neo fascist groups were active in Switzerland.

Surava’s life and his writings document a different Switzerland, one that honors diversity and democratic traditions. Swiss German, spoken by Surava, marks this spirit of tolerance and democracy as authentically Swiss and sets an immediate signal to underscore its national significance.

Surava’s efforts to inform his compatriots about the crimes of the Nazi regime in occupied France and about the Holocaust were met by the Swiss police by harsh censorship and surveillance. The police records, “fiches,” appear to today’s reader as pathetic as do similar documents of the Gestapo, the Stasi, and the FBI records about German refugees from Nazi Germany in the USA and in Mexico. They were damaging nonetheless, and the controversial author and editor-in-chief of an oppositional paper, Die Nation, had to hide behind different names in his attempt to reveal the truth.  Of the slanderous attacks on the part of government officials and the police the mistaken suspicion that the author and social critic was a Jew, perhaps even a Jewish immigrant, proved particularly damaging.

Surava’s work and Schmid’s film represent a strong indictment of the highest government officials, including Presidents of the Swiss Federation, notably Marcel Pilet-Golaz, Guiseppe Motta, and Eduard von Steiger as well as members of the POLITICAL DEPARTMENT (FOREIGN MINISTRY, the INTERIOR DEPARTMENT (HOME SECRETARY), and the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE AND POLICE.  Schmid’s film also reveals the weakening of the beleaguered opposition faced by censorship, harassment and arrest. Having documented National Socialist atrocities, criticized Swiss immigration and refugee policies, and revealed anti-Semitism that extended to children threatened by the Nazi genocide and the exploitation of Swiss youth in Die Nation Surava became more and more endangered and a liability to his paper. In 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated, he left the paper, which promptly met its demise. Since no significant personnel change had taken place in Switzerland, Surava’s set of opponents did not change either.

The opportunism of those who had taken the pro-Nazi course is likewise documented in Schmid’s film. Von Steiger is quick to adapt to Germany’s defeat, now turning to humanitarian themes and activities. Surava, like other members of the critical intelligentsia, focused on the unaddressed social ills in their country such as the political oppression of women and the working class. Now the editor of the socialist paper Vorwaerts, Surava eventually found himself between the fronts. Neither could he acquiesce himself to the old-new Switzerland, nor keep quiet about the problems surfacing in the Soviet Union, which were often downplayed by the Left.

The final important turning point is Surava’s arrest, accompanied by a vicious media campaign by former Nazi supporters. His and his wife’s suicide attempt, their withdrawal from public life, and his continued persecution reveal significant political and social troubles in post-1945 Switzerland, a widespread denial and an ultimately failed white-wash.

Erich Schmid’s documentary film calls to mind the work of the Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who began her career in 1983 with a documentary film about the Austrian journalist Franz Weintraub-West, who returned from exile and became the editor of the Volksstimme. Like Surava, West stood between the ideological lines. He left the communist paper when the Soviet Union occupied Dubczek’s Czechoslovakia, unwilling to become a pawn for Stalinism, and was almost forgotten at the beginning of the 1980s.  Both these government critics would have been easy to dismiss had they been ideologues in the service of a foreign regime. Since this was not the case, their respective public sentenced them to oblivion. In an era when the discussions about the Nazi past surfaced once again, these marginalized, almost forgotten men were remembered because they could be invoked as representatives of an honest and upright tradition, a lost integrity.

Dagmar C. G. Lorenz

Interim Head and Professor of Germanic Studies
Department of Germanic Studies (MC 189)
The University of Illinois at Chicago
1500 University Hall
601 South Morgan Street
Chicago, IL 60607-7115

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