On 21 July 1943, the Italian civil affairs officer for Haute-Savoie (France) called the head of the Swiss visa bureau in Annemasse (France) into his office to warn the 63 year-old Swiss citizen that he had been denounced by an Italian Fascist living in Geneva. We’ll call the Swiss bureaucrat Mr. S. The Italian Fascist had accused Mr S of carrying intelligence over the Franco-Swiss border for the English consul in Geneva. Being a careful man, Mr S wrote up a report of this interview for his superior and left it in his office in Geneva with instructions for his son to deliver it should anything happen to him.

Nothing did happen until 9 August 1943 when a dubious individual showed up at the visa bureau in Annemasse. This person told Mr S that Lyon was in terror because the Gestapo was making mass arrests and that a certain Mr. B had had to go into hiding. He claimed that he had been sent to tell Mr S to take this message to “the people you know” and showed him a medallion with the Cross of Lorraine (the symbol of the French Resistance led by de Gaulle). Mr S. claimed he had no idea whatsoever what the man was talking about. The man left and Mr S continued with his paperwork until 1:00pm, when he went down the street to have coffee at the home of some friends.

He noticed the dubious individual lurking in the street, but continued on his way. As he was hanging up his hat at his friends’, the doorbell rang. His hostess came back saying that she’d told the men to see Mr S at his office but they’d followed her inside. The three men in civilian clothes drew their pistols and told Mr S to get into their car. Along a deserted stretch of Alpine road, all the Germans got out of the car, murmuring something about drinking lemonade. The doors were left open. Mr S had the distinct impression that they wanted him to try to escape, but, being a very careful man, he stayed where he was. The Germans finally got back into the car and took him to the prison of Mont Luc in Lyon.

In the meantime, news of Mr S’s arrest traveled fast. The Italian authorities were enraged that the Germans had dared to make an arrest in their occupation zone and demanded the return of the prisoner. The Swiss were outraged that the Germans had arrested a Swiss official without so much as a warrant and made their displeasure known along the usual diplomatic channels.

Mr S spent a couple of unpleasant weeks as a political prisoner in Mont Luc. Like other prisoners, he spent his days in a tiny, filthy cell with only a brief visit to the open latrines and cold water taps each morning. The miniscule portions of watery soup and bread served so disgusted him that Mr S preferred to eat nothing at all until the Swiss consul obtained permission to send him a package of food and underwear five days after his arrest. But unlike the other prisoners, Mr S was not beaten or tortured in any way.

This was undoubtedly because he had become a cause célèbre. The first thing the notorious Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie said to Mr S when he was finally shown into his sweltering office on 19 August was that no one talked of anything but Mr S in Switzerland. He then demanded to know all the details of his work for the British consul, warning him not to lie because he already knew everything. Mr S coolly responded that Barbie couldn’t know anything because there wasn’t anything to know. Mr S denied knowing any British people at all. He denied being a free mason. He did admit to being a democrat and defended democracy. Barbie ended by loudly wishing the Bolsheviks at the Swiss border and that Geneva would be bombed.

The next day Barbie again failed to get any confession from Mr S and told him he would release him due to his age. He threatened him with ferocious looks that if Mr S told anyone at all anything at all about his arrest or imprisonment, they would get him again – even in Switzerland.

The president of the Swiss chamber of commerce in Lyon met Mr S at the prison gates, took him to lunch and gave him the money for a train ticket back to Geneva. Mr S was warmly welcomed home, although there were some in Switzerland who frowned on anyone or any action that might compromise Swiss neutrality. An official investigation found that Mr S had illegally driven two Jewish refugees over the border into Switzerland in 1942, leading to his dismissal from the bureaucracy.

This story of the Gestapo arresting a Swiss citizen in French territory under Italian control confirms the sense of unlimited power and authority that the Gestapo felt. But it also shows that there were some faint constraints on the Gestapo’s power. The fuss being kicked up by the Italians and Swiss undoubtedly prevented the Gestapo from torturing Mr S like the other political prisoners. And without torture, they couldn’t make Mr S give them the information they wanted. Because no matter what he said to Klaus Barbie, Mr S did know about the resistance. I can’t say if he worked for the English, but I do know that he took messages over the border for Dutch-Paris.