Swiss resistance fighters “forgotten” could be rehabilitated

In the Resistance to avoid arrest: the Bernese accountant Louis Germiquet fled to Algeria in 1942. In 1943 he enlisted in De Gaulle’s army and left to fight in Italy and France (SHD) Universal Images Group Via Getty / Photo 12

This content was published on December 12, 2021 – 09:00

More than 460 Swiss citizens fought in the French Resistance during World War II, but many were sent to prison on their return for performing their military service abroad. The rehabilitation could take the form of a parliamentary initiative.

Paul Aschwanden, born in Schwyz in 1922, was the youngest of five children. His parents separated when he was two and his mother placed him in an orphanage. After graduating from school, Paul struggled to find a job. try his hand as an apprentice painter, before working as a day laborer, factory worker and delivery man.

In 1940, shortly before the German offensive on the Western Front, he crossed the Franco-Swiss border in Basel and joined the French Foreign Legion in Mulhouse. He was only 18 years old.

After six months of basic training in Algeria, he must decide whether to fight British troops in the Middle East or build roads in the Sahara. Paul chose the second of them. In March 1943, however, after the American landings in Morocco and Algeria, he and other ex-legionaries crossed over to the Allies and joined the Free French forces of General De Gaulle.

Paul took part in the Italian campaign, and in August 1944 he landed in Provence. He was decorated with the French Military Cross of War and was appointed non-commissioned officer. But on his return to Switzerland in September 1945, he was sentenced to a suspended four-month prison sentence.


Paul Aschwanden (left) in the Sahara (Swiss Federal Archives). Federal archivio svizzero

Like Aschwanden, most of the Swiss citizens who fought in the French Resistance were former legionaries recruited from the Free French Forces of de Gaulle. Others worked in occupied France before becoming involved in armed groups opposed to the Nazis; half of them had dual nationality. In some cases, people have left Switzerland to join the resistance group in France, the French Interior Forces. Or they joined the Free French Forces, which meant moving to London or places in Africa and the Middle East.

Back in Switzerland, 200 of them were sentenced to prison terms, sometimes suspended. Others were dismissed without honor from the military or lost their citizenship rights. Suddenly, some remained in France to avoid these sanctions. Some, tried and convicted in absentia in Switzerland, were in fact killed in the fighting.

Who were the Swiss resistance fighters?

“They were not a homogeneous group”, explains Swiss historian Peter Huber, author of a book In the Resistance. Swiss volunteers from France. Published in 2020, it tells the story of the Swiss fighters of the French Resistance, their military experiences and what happened to them upon their return to Switzerland.

In most cases, the Swiss volunteers were from the working class or the lower middle class. They were young, often from broken homes, and struggled to keep jobs. Many had criminal records for offenses such as petty theft and vagrancy. But unlike the volunteers who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, they rarely had any experience of political activism.


In the Resistance to escape arrest: the Bernese accountant Louis Germiquet fled to Algeria in 1942. In 1943, he joined De Gaulle’s troops and fought in Italy and France. SHD

The motivations varied: some, but not the majority, had anti-fascist tendencies. Others, notably the dual Franco-Swiss nationality, acted out of patriotism. There were those who fled the difficulties of civilian life. And among legionaries, the decision to join the Resistance was sometimes a simple matter of survival. “In almost all of their stories, however, you find a sense of disgust at the humiliation of France and Hitler’s megalomania,” Huber explains.

work on rehabilitation

In 2006 there was a ParliamentExternal link initiative proposing the rehabilitation of Swiss anti-fascist volunteers in Spain and Swiss fighters of the French Resistance. Three years later, the Swiss Parliament rehabilitated all those who fought on the Republican side in Spain, but did not include those who had been in the French Resistance. This was due to a lack of historical information and research at the time, especially on the motivations of the volunteers.

The publication of Peter Huber’s study in 2020 provided a scientific basis for revisiting the question. Two parallel parliamentariansExternal link Initiatives, proposed by the Geneva parliamentarian of the Left Ensemble Stéfanie Prezioso and Lisa Mazzone of the Greens, have since called for the formal rehabilitation, without compensation, of Swiss volunteers of the French Resistance. As in the case of the Republican fighters of the Spanish Civil War, “the sentences handed down at the time do not correspond to current conceptions of justice”, as the wording of the initiative puts it.

Huber’s research reveals a diverse picture of the motivations of Swiss volunteers, with noble instincts often accompanied by a sort of opportunism. So what rationale is there for rehabilitation? “The Swiss fighters of the French Resistance, whatever their original motivation, contributed to the defeat of Nazism and to the preservation of Switzerland”, insists Huber.

“At a time when we are witnessing the revival of fascist-inspired visions and a tacit desire to put Nazis and resistance on the same level, it is important to point out who fought on the right side,” adds Prezioso. “It is not a question of honoring heroes, but rehabilitation is a way of reaffirming the democratic values ​​which were defended in the fight against fascism, which are today called into question.”

On October 29, the House of Representatives Legal Affairs Committee decided by a comfortable majority to support the parliamentary initiative. The volunteers of the Franco-Swiss Resistance should therefore be well on the way to receiving the same recognition as the Spanish civil war volunteers and those who helped refugees flee Nazi persecution.

The Unknown Resistance

Beyond the question of rehabilitation, Peter Huber’s book deserves to have drawn attention, at least temporarily, to the involvement of tens of thousands of non-French foreigners – including 30,000 soldiers from the French colonies of Sub-Saharan Africa – in the liberation of France.

“After 1945 in France, this contribution was conveniently forgotten due to a” nationalization “of the Resistance in terms of ethnic identity”, underlines the historian. “In Switzerland, on the other hand, the issue of volunteers in the French Resistance did not fail to draw attention amid all the mythology about General Guisan and the readiness of the Swiss army to defend the country.”


General Charles de Gaulle during the review of the Free French Forces at Wellington Barracks in London on July 14, 1942. Rue Des Archives / rda

Beyond the question of rehabilitation, Peter Huber’s book deserves to have drawn attention, at least temporarily, to the involvement of tens of thousands of non-French foreigners – including 30,000 soldiers from the French colonies of Sub-Saharan Africa – in the liberation of France.

“After 1945 in France, this contribution was conveniently forgotten due to a” nationalization “of the Resistance in terms of ethnic identity”, underlines the historian. “In Switzerland, on the other hand, the issue of volunteers in the French Resistance did not fail to draw attention amid all the mythology about General Guisan and the readiness of the Swiss army to defend the country.”

Huber’s book also sheds light on other issues, such as the involvement of women in the French Resistance. “Women, not being required to do military service, could not be charged under the military penal code. Their names are therefore not found in military justice files, but in consular service files, ”he explains. “I think there must have been more female Swiss volunteers than I found in my research.”

Born and raised in Locle, in the canton of Neuchâtel, Gabrielle Mayor married a dairyman with whom she settled in Dôle, on the French side of the Jura massif, in 1928. Two years after the occupation of France by German troops, the couple became involved with anti-fascist groups. Their farm became the command post of a Resistance network: it had two radio transmitters, used by British intelligence agents.


Gabrielle Mayor, agent of the Resistance network, deported to Ravensbrück (Swiss Federal Archives) Federal archivio svizzero

In June 1944, following an Allied weapons drop, the network was discovered. The mayor was arrested. His brother immediately informed the Swiss consulate in Besançon. In September, she was deported to Germany and ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. It was only three months after her arrest that the Swiss Embassy in Berlin questioned the German authorities about her place of detention and the charges against her.

The mayor was released on February 4, 1945 and returned to Switzerland. She suffered from serious health problems as a result of her detention and for years she lived in considerable financial need. In 1959, she received her first financial aid for the Swiss victims of Nazi Germany. However, the amount was initially lower than requested, as Gabrielle Mayor, having been a “Resistance activist”, was held responsible for what had happened to her.


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