Background

“It was the birth of humanitarian Switzerland”

150 years ago, a foreign army marched into Switzerland. But without any hostile intentions. Encircled by their Prussian enemy, General Bourbaki’s French troops took refuge in Switzerland in 1871. Dr. Benedikt Meyer, a freelance historian and author, takes us on a short journey back to the founding act of Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition.

Ludovic Cuany

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French troops cross the Swiss border. Detail from the Borubaki Panorama in Lucerne.
Copyright: Gabriel Ammon / AURA

1 February 1871: a date that has gone down in Swiss history. On this day, the representatives of the French and Swiss armies signed the agreement that marked the start of the biggest refugee operation of its time. Besieged by the Prussian army, over 80,000 French troops from the “Armée de l’Est” crossed the border posts in the Vaud and Neuchâtel Jura to take refuge in Switzerland. Dr. Benedikt Meyer takes us on a journey back to this historic event, which also marks the first major operation performed by the Red Cross after its founding eight years earlier.

Profile of Benedikt Meyer

Mr Meyer, could you briefly outline the historical context of the time? What triggered the conflict between France and Prussia?

The question of who started the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871 is still contentious to this day. It’s believed that France declared war on Prussia over the succession to the Spanish throne. They feared German influence over Spain. So they dispatched an ambassador to the King of Prussia to dissuade him from supporting a candidate to the throne. The discussion reached the Prussian Minister President Otto von Bismarck and later appeared in the press. Enraged and humiliated, Napoleon III declared war. But the consequences of the conflict are more significant than its origins. The German side entered the war as a loose confederation of states and emerged from it as a united empire. France, meanwhile, entered the conflict as a monarchy and came out of it as a republic. And Alsace and Lorraine became a German protectorate. Most of the fighting also took place in this region.

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Why did the “Armée de l’Est” decide to seek refuge in Switzerland? How did this come about?

The “Armée de l’Est”, under the command of the French General Charles-Denis Bourbaki, was actually supposed to come to the aid of Belfort, which was besieged by the Prussians, but became entangled in a battle outside of the city and was pushed back. It retreated south to Pontarlier, where General Bourbaki attempted to take his own life on 26 January 1871. His second-in-command Justin Clinchant led the troops to the Swiss border and requested military asylum for his 87,000 men and 12,000 horses. The “Les Verrières” agreement was signed on the night of 1 February 1871 by General Herzog, the commander-in-chief of the Swiss army, and Clinchant under conditions largely determined by General Herzog. The soldiers had to lay down their weapons, and they would be provided with refuge in Switzerland until the end of the war.

Did this frighten the Swiss people?

No. Bourbaki’s troops were in a pitiful state. Those who weren’t injured were either exhausted or sick. In response, aid committees and women’s associations were founded throughout Switzerland to look after the internees. Despite these efforts, 1,700 French soldiers died in Switzerland of their wounds, illness and exhaustion.

How was the troops’ stay in Switzerland?

First of all, most of them had to regain their strength. Over time, those who were capable were also given charity work to do. But their stay was relatively short. The internment ended after six weeks, and Bourbaki’s troops returned to France in mid-March. The French government paid Switzerland 12 million francs to cover the expenses – an amount that doesn’t fully reflect the humanity and solidarity shown by the civilian population.

The Swiss civilian population looks after the exhausted troops. Detail from the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne
“The Swiss civilian population looks after the exhausted troops” – detail from the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne, Edouard Castres, 1881, oil on canvas. (Copyright: Gabriel Ammon / AURA)

Were there any instances of rebellion amongst the troops?

No. But there was tension between German exiles and French soldiers. In Zurich, there was a riot at the concert hall in March 1871. Germans living in Zurich wanted to celebrate the foundation of the German Empire, but the Bourbaki soldiers viewed this as provocation. People attacked each other with swords and chair legs. Several people were killed, and the Swiss Armed Forces were eventually called in to restore peace.

Why is the internment of these soldiers such a significant event in Swiss history?

Accommodating the Bourbaki troops was a Herculean task. The population increased by three percent overnight. These events also took place in the middle of a very severe winter. A huge effort and cooperation across cantonal borders was required to provide for these people. Almost every canton took in soldiers. They were scattered across 190 or so municipalities. The unprecedented cooperation between the civilian population, the state and charity organizations was remarkable. It was also one of the Red Cross’s first major operations and the beginning of Switzerland’s highly praised humanitarian tradition. If it weren’t for the famous Bourbaki tondo, Bourbaki’s troops would probably have been forgotten by now.

What impact did this historic event have on Switzerland’s image?

It was the birth of humanitarian Switzerland. The Red Cross was a nice idea, but it was ultimately a fringe operation. The Bourbaki crisis gave the organization the opportunity to show what it could do for the first time – and the Swiss public were all pulling in the same direction. This meant that Red Cross members, who were predominantly women, were no longer regarded as strange, because the Swiss public were able to identify with them. Switzerland and the Red Cross came together to some extent.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, go and see the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne! I’ve seen all kinds of 3D, VR and IMAX productions. So I never imagined that I’d be so blown away by a painting from the 19th century. But the experience of being surrounded by an image – of being inside it – is completely unique, especially in light of its subject. I must have stayed there for two hours, also due to the fact that the educational side of it is fantastic. When I finally stepped outside, I was overcome by a strange feeling of seasickness, maybe because our eyes and brain just aren’t used to standing in front of such a giant tondo.

Visitors on the platform, surrounded by the Bourbaki Panorama tondo
Visitors on the platform, surrounded by the Bourbaki Panorama tondo (Copyright: Emanuel Ammon / AURA)

To commemorate this anniversary, we are issuing a special stamp that pays tribute to this unprecedented humanitarian effort amongst the Swiss public. You can find it in our online shop.

Tip: scan the stamp with the Post-App to explore the incredible panoramic image.

150 years Bourbaki special stamp

written by

Ludovic Cuany