Exchange Ships: A Paradigm in Global Diplomacy by Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch

Cross-posted from https://swiss-diplo.ch/projekt/exchange-ships/

Research Project by Prof. Dr. Madeleine Herren-Oesch

Swiss Diplomacy of «Good Offices» in Asia during World War II

In diplomatic history, the so called «good offices’ diplomacy» is a well-known but still under-investigated characteristic instrument of Swiss diplomacy. Historiography usually understands practices of mediation as related to cases of emergency. Most notably, they are utilized when diplomatic relations have ended under the conditions of war. From such a moment onward, war parties depend on the mediation of a neutral third party when bilateral questions arise which require some form of negotiations. This approach is useful for understanding intergovernmental communication during wars. However, this project uses the practices of Swiss mediation in Asia during World War II in a different way: it argues that the practice of «good offices» serves as an analytical lens to elucidate the development and impact of global expertise. Following this approach, we emphasize that Swiss mediation presented an opportunity to overstep formal bilateral conversations between warring parties based on normative diplomatic rules.

This approach creates three newly shaped research perspectives:

Most of the Swiss diplomatic representatives were local residents. Therefore, they were part of the community of foreigners who came under pressure during Japanese occupation. Through the eyes of the Swiss representatives, the complex networks of fugitives, foreigners, prisoners, and allies in its various forms of (dis)entanglement gain visibility in global history. At the end of World War II, Switzerland had become the representative of an immense variety of states on a global scale. The transformation of these multi-layered networks from documenting colonialism into forced migration under the condition of war allows to critically ask about concepts of transculturality and transformations of colonial societies.

The Swiss practice of «good offices» appear as consequence of an early industrialized and export-oriented society. The early presence of Swiss in Asia left their imprints in form of a specific understanding of global presence, demands of markets, and expertise, documenting global opportunities of small and neutral states in the wake of great powers. In this research project, this approach is discussed with the metaphor of Switzerland as a «global nation».

We argue that the new reading of the Swiss «good offices» unfolds hidden parts of the global history of World War II. One of the most spectacular but little-known activities during the war in the Pacific gets into view: the exchange of «enemy nationals» through neutral ships. These exchange activities offer a crucial and new understanding of the question to what extent the multiple layers of globality shaped the theatre of war with long lasting consequences for the postwar period.

Exchange operations

During World War II, the warring parties imprisoned civilians whom they declared as «enemy nationals» in internment camps in Asia, Europe, and the US. From 1942 onwards, a number of complex agreements between the warring parties resulted in activities of «repatriation».. Such activities aimed to include diplomatic personnel, but mainly civilians. Some of them had lived over years in places which now were called «abroad» in reference to their nationality, although the expressions «enemy alien» and «repatriation» did not correspond to the people’s self-understanding. In many cases, the «repatriation» was an act of forced migration. It took place on ships which were especially chartered for this purpose. Marked with the emblem of the ICRC and sometimes even more explicitly with the word «diplomat» at the long side, the ships started in American, British and Asian ports and travelled for the so-called exchange to Portuguese neutral ports in Goa or Mozambique. A Swiss representative was always on board, observing the negotiated conditions of exchange – e.g. the checking of passengers’ lists, the handling of luggage, freight, and money. Since the Swiss delegates received all information from both sides, the source material available in Swiss Archives allows a unique view into one of the most spectacular, but under-investigated operations the Pacific War had to offer.

Ships as neutral space: The example of the Teia Maru

© ICRC. Rapatriement des ressortissants américains sur

«Teia Maru», navire japonais de 15’000 tonnes (Shanghai).

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