Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2020-077
26 Aug. 2020
Review by Dwight S. Mears, Portland, OR
Internment in Switzerland during the First World War
By Susan Barton
New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. Pp. vii, 225. ISBN 978–1–350–03773–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 20th Century, World War I, Internment Print Version

In her new book, Susan Barton (De Montfort Univ.) expertly discusses an early permutation of Swiss internment that sought to alleviate the suffering of Belgian, British, French, and German prisoners of war, exclusively men who had sustained wartime injuries. She argues that the benefits of the model were symbiotic: wounded men were saved from near-certain death in traditional POW camps, and the host country benefited as well. Barton's previous work on winter tourism in Switzerland[1] is most relevant, given that internment was a lifeline for the industry.


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The author details how the internment regime evolved from the work of the semi-professional International Committee of the Red Cross to the direct negotiations between various belligerents. The perceived inequity of interning unequal numbers of prisoners from different nations was an early roadblock: there were far more French soldiers in captivity than Germans. Also of interest is Barton's treatment of the Swiss tourism industry, which was heavily mortgaged and suffering on account of the war. It successfully lobbied the government to send interned soldiers to empty resort towns rather than traditional internment camps, thus serving both humanitarian and local economic interests.

Internees were housed according to both their injuries and their nationalities; many were greeted so enthusiastically that "rules had to be imposed, not on the internees but on the locals" (35). Nevertheless, some interned soldiers had to be disciplined, as their sudden release from prison camps and readily available alcohol combined to loosen inhibitions. Punishments for infractions included confinement to one's room, serving on a work detail, or even being arrested and jailed. In at least twenty-two severe cases, internees were returned to belligerent POW camps as punishment. Some convalescent internees who abused alcohol were "too ill to be imprisoned" in the usual way and had to be hospitalized or sent to a special "inebriates camp" (70).

The Swiss offered work and education to keep internees gainfully occupied. A portion of the internees' pay went toward internment expenses. Some of them experienced "moral regeneration" through employment (80) and learned a trade that would pay off in their postwar lives. The Swiss economy benefited from employing internees since the labor force was in thin supply due to wartime conscription.

Various sports were available for rehabilitation. In summer and autumn, internees participated in football, cricket, baseball, tennis, and running; in winter they went skating, skiing, and tobogganing—sports entirely novel to many of them. The physical and psychological benefits of this cannot be overstated. One British internee who witnessed the improbable sight of a comrade skiing in spite of severe war injuries realized "the great debt which many an Englishman owes to the little country which rescued them from barbed wire" (122).

Other pursuits were more intellectual in nature: publishing magazines, theatrical productions, concerts, and seasonal celebrations and other parties. Such opportunities underscored a key difference between neutral and belligerent internment: the chance to interact and forge bonds with local communities. Internees' concerts even raised funds for such charities as soup kitchens or care for ailing Swiss soldiers. There were special facilities for rest and relaxation and religious worship.

A unique aspect of internment in Switzerland was the ability of close relatives to visit internees. In the case of wealthy families, this might mean that wives and children joined them indefinitely. In other cases, the Red Cross or other charitable organizations funded the travel of wives, children, or parents to see interned loved ones for brief periods. One desperate spouse wrote to the government that her husband had been mistakenly reported killed, so that visiting him "would be like seeing him back from the grave" (170). Such visits afforded a degree of normalcy altogether absent in POW camps of belligerents. Some children of internees were educated in Switzerland, and indeed several were also born there.

Susan Barton convincingly conveys the benefits of the Swiss humanitarian model for both internees and local populations. Her book should appeal to anyone interested in the effects of the Great War on Switzerland or the development of humanitarian efforts to ameliorate wartime suffering. The author barely touches on the implications of her findings for post-World War I conflicts. The Swiss model influenced later iterations of the Geneva Conventions and the design of neutral internment in World War II. But these topics lie outside the purview of Internment in Switzerland during the First World War.

[1] Healthy Living in the Alps: The Origins of Winter Tourism in Switzerland, 1860–1914 (Manchester: Univ. Pr, 2008).

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