Book Review by Emmett R Smith
Secret Channel to Berlin, by Pierre Th. Braunschweig, translated by Karl Vonlanthen and Frances Stirnemann-Lewis
(‘Casemate’, Philadelphia, 2004)
AT The height of World War II, the Swiss Confederation was surrounded on every hand by european states and populations altogether possessed; by fascist and nazi passions of racial fear and dread of communism; or, by stark terror and the frantic need to flee the ‘hygienic’ murderers of the SS. Beginning in the Autumn of 1942, the swiss diplomatic and intelligence organs began to report the strong plausability of a nazi invasion of their homeland. This was in the wake of the german occupation of Vichy France, after the allied invasion of North Africa; Hitler not-unreasonably stood to gain much by securing unbroken control of the entire alpine range, a wall against the growing menace from the South. At last, in March of 1943, a monstrous swoop seemed imminent; and, the Swiss Army at great cost had to consider the need to go on full alert.
Soon thereafter the threat evaporated–and, seemingly, it were as much as anything a means to try to compel the government of Switzerland to make further economic concessions, to the pretensions of the doomed Third Realm of the austrian ravine-German, Hitler….
DR Braunschweig, a swiss diplomatic historian, has produced a detailed history of this critical stage in the foreign relations of neutral Switzerland during World War II. And, a close reading will reinforce amply the dictum that it is critical for understanding for historians to shun monocausal explanations of historical problems.
In the present case, it is a matter of better understanding why the german Nazis did not ever attempt to invade Switzerland during the second part of the 1914-1945 World War. For a certainty, Hitler vacillated on the matter; and, equally, there was a faction especially among the senior SS and the Gestapo who wanted to mount such an operation. Their mania for murdering Jews and Communists ever-outweighed sense and reason at every point of the compass.
Dr Braunschweig analyses the complex interactions of a number of personalities in both the swiss and german governments; and, he shows quite clearly that the final result was a distillation of the net effect of these interactions. As to the motives of individual players, they were as many-layered as are human motives in all phases of life. Nevertheless, Dr Braunschweig has written no mere ‘psycho-history’; his is not a personalist account. Rather, he presents the facts of the behaviour of different personalities and shows how, out of the universal mix of low and high individual motives, the swiss government nonetheless was agreed consciously enough in its collective purpose (to avoid war by fulfilling stubbornly the obligations [NB] of neutrality) that it in fact realised that purpose.
And this is so in spite of the fact that there was the usual amount of professionalist vanity and self-adorative nincompoopery in the minds and actions of all-too-many sometimes otherwise-admirable men.
DR Braunschweig, who has studied at the Sorbonne and Geneva, is a scholar of contemporary diplomatic history. He specialises in intelligence-studies and strategic problems. Accordingly, he opens his account of the problematical relationship between the head of nazi german SS Foreign Intelligence, SS-General Walter Schellenberg, and swiss intelligence-chief, Colonel Roger Masson, by summarising the problems in the late-modern age, of military intelligence. He is especially clear on the difficulties of sorting signals from noise; and, of distinguishing real (sic) information from deliberately circulated inverted signals. Ultimately, the thorny problem of the relations between a nation’s diplomacy and military intelligence is his theme.
Thus, Secret Channel is a fascinating account, written in a low-key; there are no lurid passages featuring mistresses and the besotted guzzling of absinthe. Nevertheless, the account reaches its conclusion in an entirely instructive way. Thus, the reader realises a renewed perception of the ineluctable role in history, of human passion, vanity, idealism and conceit.
Dr Braunschweig reaches his goal in a complex narrative, which (despite some technical problems with the translation) presents the facts of character quite strictly in terms of the actions of individuals. And for the Swiss, certainly, these actions altogether were critical:
SOME Key players in the account (among many others) are Col Masson, SS-General Schellenberg, and a swiss writer of detective fiction and amateur diplomatist called variously Meyer and Meyer-Schwertenbach. Between themselves, they forged a semi-formal link to Berlin that, at least Masson remained convinced for twenty years after the war, had enabled them to prevent a german invasion. This, it was claimed, was done by convincing the Nazis that the Swiss would fight to the bitter end; blow up the bernese Oberland sky-high in pieces no bigger than your hat; and, dynamite the St Gotthard and Simplon tunnels, walling up Germany in her european prison for all time and forever and ever, until the Allies could bomb and cook these ‘aryan’ scorpions at their leisure.
The great difficulty is that the swiss position was already clear.
And, there are inevitably thorny problems created for the professionalist diplomatic classes by parallel sub rosa efforts; even a careless word may be construed a promise–and, then, everyone is in the soap-kettle for sure (as my swiss-german Great-Aunty Leona Magly used remark in the 1950’s on our family-farm in southern Minnesota, whenever I pulled some boyhood prank)!
Even whilst Masson and his associates were fetching themselves on romantic outings to Berlin, SS-General Schellenberg was preening himself a true friend of the Swiss–and, as often, he was being received in camera in Switzerland. Out of this all, it becomes clear that Col Masson (in many ways a gifted intelligence-officer) got away with himself; and, that the rather cosmopolitan Schellenberg, by claiming to have done more for Switzerland at the Hitler-headquarters than ever really he did, managed to wangle enough re-insurance for himself to be sentenced after the war to only six years in the hen-house.
As to other figures, the swiss political class (foreign-affairs department-head Pilet-Golaz et al) would appear to present the usual mingle of patriotic loyalty, professionalist egotism, and sometimes the common-enough psychological blindness that leads people to enter into automatic and, hence, uncritical likes and dis-likes. That Masson was an irksome subordinate is attested by the sort of correspondence cited by Dr Braunschweiger, in which such approximate things are said as although Col Masson is a fine person…and despite his real professionalism…. These caveats are almost always the dead give-away of someone trying to cultivate their own persona; and, intended to give the impression of fairness and psychological maturity.
ON Balance, then, the Nazis would appear to have cooked up a lot of inverted signals with which they played these Swiss of mine, in pursuit of economic and other, personal, advantages. Still, it was not wrong in such a crisis for the Swiss to have taken this stuff seriously; that they did so frequently at cross-purposes is the usual human thing. What is critical is that their avowed common purpose–their agreed and shared ‘narrative’, as a languid postmoderne of ‘deconstruction’ without end should put it–held good to a degree strong enough to overcome the centrifugacity of mingled and individual, complex always, motives. This attests something in history about the lifetime of societies and states; please let me say this:
There is always an interval in which whatever may be said to be ‘good’ about a collective is alive enough and powerful enough that social, economic and political ‘effectiveness’ (not to mention military survival) for all practical purposes is assured. As to the Swiss, there were knaves among them as well as fools. Some, indeed, was nazi-sympathisers. For the rest, in the government, some conservatives of a certain temperament advocated (and, sometimes, put into play) for instance a ruthless closing of the borders against all refugees, arguing not without merit that the ‘lifeboat’ at least was in danger of becoming full. And, yet, as to what I can only call the moral health of the swiss body-politic, it must be kept in mind that the Swiss per capita rescued more human beings from Hitler than any other people and government in the terrible world of the 1930’s and the 1940’s.
Finally, my own favourite vignette from Dr Braunschweig’s endlessly-referenced and well-documented account is of swiss army-commander General Guisan–a French-Swiss from Canton Vaud–smoking cigars and grinning affably around with SS-General Schellenberg in an hotel inside Switzerland:
FIRST, He regaled and blandished the rather francophile Nazi with talk of–oenology! And, then, this round-headed small farmer from the western vales said (when the question adroitly was brought round by a subordinate) that if anybody invaded Switzerland, why of course the Swiss should fight. And they would fight hard. And, all the Nazis could hope to do was to occupy at every point of the compass–a ruin.
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(THE Above speculations by the reviewer [writing as he is in my half-blinded ‘Emmett R Smith-farmer’ embodiment–the result of a bungled re-incarnation experiment!], about the nature of societies and their ‘moral lifetimes’, may be carried further:
(As the democratic age receded over the horizon of the past, at the beginning of the post-modern [or, at last, galactic] age, it became increasingly easier for historians–at first only those amateurs outside of an ever-politicised academy–to see clearly what democracy formerly had been, notably as a process unfolding in all of its phases; and, culminating in the exhausted decadence of state-liberalism.
(Many things became clear that formerly had been obscured, especially by wishful thinking; and, an important point not adduced by your reviewer is the matter of population-numbers. It was seen actually early in the post mortem studies that democracies historically were most successful on the scale of the ancient greek city-states and the icelandic farmer-republic of the early-mediaeval period on Old Earth; and, in the time of the Renascence-civilisation, and the succeeding high modern age, political success by democracy was attained by populations up to [but not exceeding!] ca four millions. In no case was the franchise ‘universal’; and, the reasons for the political success of democracy are rooted in sociology and psychology.
(In any population, there is a more-or-less fixed, statistical, proportion of sociopaths:
(At up to four millions, the formal and informal networks of society synergise, allowing all individuals temperamentally most political by nature to have an accurate idea of who are these defectives–whether participants choose to be thus aware, or not. The grim corollary is that nowhere else better in all of preceding human history than in the hyper-states of the late twentieth century could criminals and dionysians disguise themselves; usually behind gaudy displays of ‘inverted information’ about themselves; and, their filthy and stick-at-nothing, actual, egotism.
(Until the population-crisis that wiped out fully eighty per cent of humanity through global epidemics and famine in the second decade of the twenty-first century, there had been for over one hundred years no frontier on Old Earth, to which democratically-gifted personalities could repair; not least in order to escape the ‘regulatory’ propensities of their mentally- and, hence, semantically-ill friends, neighbours and relations. That democracy was an authentic discovery by human beings, of their innate social nature at its ‘best’, is attested by the fact that, after the die-back, and especially when space-travel at first haltingly was resumed at the end of the twenty-second [NB] century, democracy became the preferred form of human and post-human government, by a factor of 4:1. This pattern asserted itself first of all among the new governments that proliferated all along the re-created frontiers on a suddenly-depopulated Earth; and, consequently, all throughout the human-inhabited worlds of the Gaean Reach. BW)
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 27 May 2006]