Allied POW 'walking wounded' in Mürren during World War I.

Internment in Switzerland During World War One is my second book relating to Swiss history. My first, Healthy Living in the Alps, was about the search for a cure from TB and the subsequent development of winter sports before 1914. Many histories end at this date while others begin after 1918, leaving a wartime gap.

It was this historical lacuna that aroused my curiosity. During the 1900s increasing visitor numbers led many Swiss hotels to rebuild or extend their facilities, often funded by loans and mortgages. The First World War, however, left hotels devoid of guests and income. Unable to repay their debts they faced ruin. But Swiss negotiations with the warring nations to exchange some of their wounded prisoners of war, insufficiently incapacitated to repatriate, offered the hotels a lifeline. By transferring them from prison camps to Switzerland for internment, the tourism industry lobbied for internees to occupy empty hotels – and at a charge.

Between January 1916 and August 1919, nearly 68,000 wounded or sick officers and men were interned in Switzerland; 37,515 French, 4,326 Belgians, 21,000 Germans and 4,081 British, enlivened otherwise deserted resorts. Germans were interned in German-speaking regions. particularly around Davos. French and Belgians were scattered mainly throughout the francophone areas. When the British soldiers arrived, at the end of May 1916, they were concentrated in areas popular with English speaking tourists before the war, the main centres being Chateau d’Oex and Mürren but with smaller groups in other communities according to employment, education and medical needs.

Swiss citizens and hotel staff welcoming British POWs during World War I in Mürren.

An overwhelming welcome by the Swiss

National groupings also comprised troops from the colonies: Canadians, Australians, Africans, South Asians and Arabs. Host communities were selected because of their pre-war economic dependence on tourism, thanks to lobbying by the hotel industry. Hotel bills and medical expenses were reimbursed by the governments of the internees’ homelands.

Wounded soldiers arriving by train in Switzerland were overwhelmed by the welcome of the Swiss who crowded into railway stations to greet them, showering them with flowers, chocolate and cigarettes. What surprises most people is the relative freedom enjoyed by internees. Officers who could afford to do so could rent a chalet or apartment privately and have their families join them.

For poorer soldiers, charitable collections back home paid for mothers, wives or fiancées to visit for a holiday transported on special trains through France and Germany. Visiting fiancées were expected to marry during their stay, so brides carried a wedding dress in their luggage. Many stories of courtship, weddings and new babies appear in the internees’ magazines. One heart-warming story is that of a mother, Mrs Stock, grieving the loss of her son for a year until she received a letter from him in Switzerland. Her local Northamptonshire community raised the funds for her to visit him.  Female visitors added to the income of hotels and other businesses such as cafés and shops.

Sport was vital to internment life, particularly for rehabilitation and relieving boredom. Football was the favourite, with hotel teams in resort leagues. Teams could travel to away matches against other internees or Swiss teams such as Young Boys of Bern and Servette of Geneva. Boxing was popular, too. British internees in Mürren were the first to be assessed using the new tests of the Ski Club GB, instructed by ski-pioneer Arnold Lunn. Cultural activities also figured prominently in the routines of the internees. With donated musical instruments, musicians formed orchestras to entertain their colleagues and local people. As well as music there were theatrical groups whose performances provided outlets for creativity, an antidote to boredom, and a few hours of escapism for audiences.

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Medical care, education and rehabilitation: all part of the deal

Many internees had unhealed wounds or needed further treatment. Medical facilities were provided in every internment centre. Hospitals for more serious cases, needing surgery or corrective treatment, were situated in Lucerne, initially shared but later for Germans only, and in Fribourg for the Allies. Work or education was compulsory for non-officers in sufficiently good health. Men worked in agriculture, industry or local businesses. Officers were exempt from work. Training courses allowed those with life-changing injuries and disabilities to learn new trades, such as book-keeping, motor mechanics, driving, carpentry and book-binding. Those academically qualified could study in Swiss universities, something difficult for British internees but eagerly taken up by French and German speakers. 

For the Swiss, internment helped bring together the different language groups in a common cause, building community cohesion and a national identity based on humanitarianism and neutrality. It helped keep the borders open for coal, food and other trade, as well as helping the tourism industry.

During World War Two, 104,000 soldiers from 38 nations were interned across Switzerland, no longer with POW status. There were 30,000 French, 21,000 Italians, 13,000 Polish, 7,000 former POWs after the surrender of Italy, 3,000 Germans and 1,500 German deserters, all providing incomes for empty hotels. From each other nation, there were fewer than 1,000 internees. There were internment centres in 768 Swiss communities. (Basically, ordinary soldiers, such as Polish or Soviet whose governments would not pay, were interned in camps).

In 1941, an agreement was reached for sick POWs imprisoned in Germany to come to Switzerland, assisted by the Red Cross. While soldiers, particularly Allied officers, were expected to respect their hotel internments, many escaped, some of them in coordination with their embassies, but usually on their own and in spring along ‘underground railways’ to Spain or Portugal. Those who were captured were interned in camps, such as Wauwilermoos.

Good care for POWs, but harsh internment for attempted escapees

Some 10,000 tuberculosis sufferers transferred to Leysin sanatoria overlooking Lake Geneva, where 500 internees a week were treated. Americans, whose aircraft had violated Swiss neutrality, were interned in Andermatt. As numbers grew, more US airforce officers were sent to Davos and Wengen. Internees of various nationalities in Arosa worked on infrastructure projects, such as improving footpaths and ski facilities, helping prepare for tourism’s post-war resumption.

At Diablerets, Egolzwil and the notorious Wauwilermoos were punishment camps. (Editorial note: the latter was described in various reports as ‘disgraceful’, ‘harsh’ and ‘unacceptable’.) Like their World War One counterparts, internees played sport, learnt to ski with local instructors, enjoyed musical concerts and formed orchestras. They brought life to the resorts spending their pay in cinemas, cafes and shops. With peace, leave for American soldiers helped kick-start post-war tourism. In St Moritz alone, between 1945 and 1946, 500 to 600 G.I.s arrived every 5 days for 10 days of relaxation.

Despite the shameful conditions in the Wauwilermoos punishment camp, which have poisoned the legacy of World War Two internment, most internees preferred internment in Switzerland to incarceration in an enemy POW camp, an arrangement that proved the salvation of Swiss tourism during both world wars.

Editorial note: One unique legacy of this was the internment of at least 12 Soviet POWs captured by the mujahideen (Afghan ‘holy warriors’ or guerrillas) and negotiated by the ICRC during the 1980s. Technically prisoners of the ICRC, they were held at a mountain villa by Swiss soldiers for two years, or the duration of the war, whichever came first. Some eventually returned to the Soviet Union, while others opted for exile in Canada and other countries.

Dr Susan Barton is a visiting research fellow at De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom.

Internment in Switzerland during the First World War by Susan Barton can be obtained here.

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  1. Do the swiss discuss the morality of placing an avowed Nazi over American prisoners during WWII? Treatment was truly barbaric and inhumane for some.

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