Switzerland must have seemed like paradise to him. After one and a half years in POW camp in Germany, Jean Chopin, a twenty-five-year-old French infantryman, was allowed to leave for neutral Switzerland in the spring of 1916. At long last, after a hiatus of almost three years, he could consider to resume his studies in the autumn of 1917.
Application form for POWs looking to study in Switzerland.
(ETH-Library, ETH-Zurich University Archives, Chopins register EZ-REK 1/1/14931)
Chopin resumed his studies in pharmacy, which he had begun at the University of Dijon before the war, at ETH Zurich. He was joined by other POWs, most of whom were from Germany, but also France, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Great Britain. Around eighty POWs were granted permission to study as diploma students at ETH Zurich during the First World War; more than 1,650 POW students were enrolled at universities throughout Switzerland in all.
Although they were not forbidden from wearing their military uniforms in Zurich, the POW students were subject to military discipline. They were supposed to keep a low profile to avoid any potential hostility on the streets. Strolling along the Limmatquai, Bahnhofstrasse or even standing still was prohibited!
Excerpt from Jean Chopin’s student file. The POW/internment stamp is clearly visible.
(ETH Library, ETH-Zurich University Archives, EZ-REK 1/1/14931)
Only seriously ill or wounded POWs qualified for internment in Switzerland (along with POWs who had more than three children). The reasons for Jean Chopin’s transfer to Switzerland were neurasthenia (nervous disease), a weak heart and kidney problems. His compatriot André Ayçoberry, who had lost an eye during the war, studied mechanical engineering and served as president of the private benefit society ‘Amicale des internés alliés à Zurich’.
French officer POWs were often catered for in Zurich’s railway station restaurant (detail from the heavily processed cover photo of the Schweizer Illustrierte Zeitung, 19.2.1916, No. 8)
The Swiss government’s willingness to take on POWs was primarily based on humanitarian grounds. However, a series of other arguments supported this policy:
- The POWs were a welcome source of income for the Swiss hotel industry as tourists had tended to stay away since the outbreak of war. Now the home countries paid for their POWs’ sojourns in the holiday regions of Switzerland.
- The Swiss Federal Council used the presence of POWs in the country as leverage in negotiations with foreign governments over the quantity of food imports.
- Wounded POWs offered Swiss doctors an opportunity to research the effects of modern weapons and to develop new treatments for war injuries.
Switzerland accepted a total of 70,000 POWs from 1916 to 1918. As many were allowed to return home before the end of the war, however, there were never more than 30,000 POWs in the country at the same time. Chopin and Ayçoberry gave up their studies at ETH Zurich in the summer of 1918 after they had been granted permission to return to their native France.
Sources: the student register files for diploma students and the lists of students can be consulted in the ETH-Zurich University Archives.
Roland Gysin: “Und wir möchten helfen. Die Internierung verletzter Soldaten und Offiziere.” In: Kriegs- und Krisenzeit. Zürich während des Ersten Weltkrieges, ed. Erika Hebeisen et al., Zurich 2014, pp. 109-117.
Thomas Bürgisser: “Menschlichkeit aus Staatsräson. Die Internierung ausländischer Kriegsgefangener in der Schweiz im Ersten Weltkrieg.” In: 14/18: die Schweiz und der Grosse Krieg, ed. Roman Rossfeld et al., Zurich 2014, pp. 266-289.