Thousands of Swiss people helped liberate France from German occupation. Hundreds of them were punished by Switzerland. They shall now be rehabilitated.
Guido Balmer is the communications officer for the department of regional planning, environment, mobility and infrastruture of the canton of Fribourg and a freelance communications professional.
The liberation of France during World War II also involved the efforts of countless, often nameless Swiss men and women. 1,730 people who were born in Switzerland are recorded in the personnel files of the Resistance, which can now be found in the archives of the Service historique de la Défense (SHD) of France’s Ministry of Defence and its armed forces. These Swiss citizens had supported the Resistance as volunteers in France and in other places where French resistance movements were fighting against the Germans, notably in the Middle East and Africa. Then there are all those who supported the French resistance from Swiss soil. Understandably, these people had no desire to leave behind evidence of their secret work in any archive, so there are no figures on this.
Geneva as a hub
Geneva was a nerve centre for support activities of all kinds. Because of its location, the city was a real hub through which information, agents and money were moved with the help of countless residents. Also operating out of Geneva, the Allies of course actively helped push forward the French struggle for liberation. And naturally, this covert work also involved supplying the resistance organisations with weapons, explosives and medicines.
The Resistance actually had a kind of official representation in Geneva, the Délégation générale de la Résistance en Suisse (DGRS). And in October 1943, the city even hosted a conference of leading representatives of the resistance movement – an event which historians say played a key role in the move from propaganda and sabotage tactics to fighting by close-formation guerrilla groups.
But it wasn’t just Geneva – many scores of people in places like Saint-Gingolph at the other end of Lake Geneva, in Vevey and in the Jura Arc also did their bit in one way or another to support the resistance on the other side of the border. It was rarely talked about or reported on, even after the war had ended. For decades, the topic was largely left out of the history books. Even today there is little literature on it, and the number of contemporary witnesses is dwindling.
In 1995 a documentary on Swiss television gave a lot of these people the chance to speak about their activities. Among them was an officer of the Swiss intelligence service who openly recounted what he did for the Resistance in Geneva during the war, without the knowledge of his superiors: issued identity papers, facilitated secret border crossings, arranged clandestine meetings. In the film we also hear from a Geneva woman who, as a girl, ran errands for the movement. She says: ‘We would have done anything for the Resistance because we wanted to get the Germans out of France.’
Documentary about Swiss nationals in the Resistance, September 1995 (in German).SRF
An August 1944 report by the Fribourg police shows how strong the attraction of the resistance movement must have been at that time, especially in western Switzerland. Almost every day, the report says, young people between the ages of 14 and 18 could be found on the Schützenmatte in the centre of Fribourg, rhapsodising about joining the heroes of the Maquis and living a life of adventure at their side. They were ‘influenced by the cinema and cheap novels’. And: ‘The propaganda that is being spread surrounding the activities of the Maquis seems to have turned their heads completely.’
Great fear, tough sentences
But there must also have been a very real fear that this ‘propaganda’ could stir things up to an extent that could be dangerous for Switzerland – as a result of punitive action by the Germans, for instance, or by undermining military strength. For that reason, the provision of Swiss law under which ‘foreign military service’ had been banned since 1929 was stringently applied, with harsh consequences for those who took part in military resistance in the ranks of the Resistance organisations.
These cases are well documented: the Federal Archives contain files on 466 people who were called to account by the Swiss authorities. Historian Peter Huber culled these files from the records of military justice rulings for his recently published work In der Résistance. Schweizer Freiwillige auf der Seite Frankreichs (1940-1945) (In the Resistance. Swiss volunteers on the side of France (1940-1945)). These records reveal that the military justice system imposed some draconian punishments. In one case it was five years in prison. Many of the case files bespeak a lack of understanding, and sometimes contempt.
But there was also the opposite. In a trial before the Neuchâtel divisional court, one examining magistrate showed a certain empathy for the accused, a corporal from Neuchâtel, who had worked in Africa for three years before joining the Resistance in Cameroon in 1940. In setting out the reasons for his actions, the corporal stated in his letter to the examining magistrate: ‘Because of the trust and esteem that France and the French have shown me, I found myself faced with an undeniable duty.’ But his actions had not changed his love for his own country. Switzerland too had been threatened by France’s enemy. So the corporal had felt his commitment was actually a dual obligation.
For his part, the examining magistrate remarked in his proposal that the fact that Switzerland had manufactured weapons for the Germans was reason enough to refrain from ‘puritanical severity’ and to stop viewing the Resistance as a crime. With his efforts in the war the corporal had been honouring Switzerland, plain and simple.
Move to vindicate
A political initiative that has been presented in the Swiss Parliament is now seeking to pay tribute to the Swiss volunteers in the French Resistance. The initiative calls for these people to be rehabilitated. They would have put their lives at risk, and ultimately they contributed to Switzerland’s survival. The penalties against them should therefore be revoked. The preliminary advisory committees of the National Council and Council of States have already followed up on the proposal.
It’s not the first initiative of this kind. So far, however, these moves have resulted in little more than a few tokens of recognition. In Neuchâtel there is a commemorative plaque on the house where a Swiss man killed in southern France in 1944 was born. And in Geneva, a memorial plaque has hung opposite the French Consulate General since 2003. The city has dedicated this plaque to all those Geneva residents who fought against Nazism and played a part in France’s liberation.
After the Second World War, young survivors of Nazi concentration camps were brought to Switzerland to recover. The Burg Zug Museum is exhibiting drawings by the so-called “Buchenwald children” for the very first time.
Even today Henry Dunant is revered as the father of the Red Cross. People happily forget the fact that the man from Geneva spent many years living in poverty and ignored by society – and that Dunant actually pursued colonial objectives.