by Emmett R Smith
IN Five Days in London (1999), hungarian-american historian emeritus John Lukacs argues that on 28 May 1940 newly-appointed prime minister Winston Churchill held the line in the British government against a resurgence of appeasement. This went on in the inner 'war cabinet', and it was in response to certain cryptic overtures from the Italian government. Churchill's was a coalition government, and such a key figure as his foreign secretary Lord Halifax had been intimately involved with the Hitler-negotiations of the late 1930's, under prime minister Chamberlain. Into the bargain, Lukacs shows that Churchill was not yet entirely trusted by the Tory party, and that he had a real task in hand politically, to retain control of the coalition. In this he succeeded, he brought to bear the support of the entire cabinet; and, in the light of later events (NB), Lukacs concludes that Churchill's mastery of divergent cabinet-factions was critical to the outcome of the Second World War. In toto, then, Lukacs' argument is clearly on the side of the so-called 'great man' idea of history. But, in Secret Channel to Berlin ('Casemate', Philadelphia, 2004), swiss diplomatic historian Pierre Th. Braunschweig adduces a set of points and conclusions which tell very much against the 'great man' idea, certainly to the extent that history's actors, whatever their significance, do not operate in a vacuum.
In Secret Channel, reviewed earlier by me in Bodwyn Wook, albeit not to my entire satisfaction, Braunschweig presents in lavishly attested detail the connection between swiss military intelligence chief Col Masson and SS-General Walther Schellenberg. For years it has been a commonplace of the historiography of WW II in Europe that the so-called 'Schellenberg-connection' enabled the swiss government to first of all verify that there was a real danger of German invasion in early 1943; and, that Col Masson was able to arrange a critical meeting inside Switzerland that thereby removed the danger. This happened when the nazi German and the swiss army C-in-C, General Guisan, were able to meet tete a tete in a swiss pension.
At that meeting, General Guisan let the German know in no uncertain terms that any attempt at an invasion would be fought to the death by the whole swiss people.
The great problem, says Braunschweig, is that the swiss government already had made this position clear through regular diplomatic channels. In painstaking detail Braunschweig sets forth the facts of a host of swiss-german interactions; and, in fact, he shows that there were in play a number of parallel channels. Much of this intelligence was contradictory, in fact. Indeed, a close study of the materiel, moreover, leads Braunschweig to the conclusion that Col Masson was rather roundly diddled by the Huns with 'inverted signals'; and, that the real nazi goal of the whole operation was to scare the Swiss with an invasion threat–whereby to extract further economic concessions in needed war-materiel.
Indeed, writes Braunschweig, General Guisan was censured by the swiss government for this contact with a potential enemy–and rightly so, too, not least of all from the viewpoint of the constitutional question.
WHAT I find most satisfactory about both books is that the writers draw convincing pictures of the characters of the many personalities involved; and, in both cases, character is adduced from the specific facts of actions, and the written records. Neither history is an exercise in 'psycho-history', therefore, papering over the meaning of yesterday's motives and purposes with to-day's psychological abstractions.
As Churchill said, 'the old words are best–and, the old words when short are best of all.' So, as to the undoubted sickness of soul in human affairs, we have from the islamic sufis the concept of the universal problem of anger, fear, greed and lust; and, I would add, laziness. That in fact is a more-than-adequate summary of the basis of people's common problems as individual actors, and so I think we may say safely that anything more is lily-gilding; and, it is 'psychologism'.
Now, as to the thorny problem of any interpretive idea in history-making, I think to perceive that the lesson is that no tool ought to be elevated to the status of a principle in historianship. At the same time, given the universal constant of the personal factor of individual human actors (and, historians!), it is no doubt the case that virtually everyone has, as a matter of temperament and learning, their own a priori inclinations, to certain actions, opinions and conclusions. Still more do people tend to view their own doings both as of critical importance and, as to motives and purposes, usually at least in the highest self-flattering light.
None of this, of course, is to rule out the statistical role of the sociopath; some there are so wounded by evil that they are, precisely, evil. Nevertheless, in history-making at least, to dwell over-long on this admittedly human factor is to run the whole affair all too easily into an exercise in name-calling and ad hominem (and, to-day, ad feminam!) argument; none of which tells anyone much of anything, except about the character of the writer.
So, we may say in the present case that we have an 'important individuals' idea; and, abetting this I would say, a sort of 'congeries of events' idea. We know that Churchill unabashedly viewed himself as, precisely, a great man. He said so–more than once. Hitler held the same self-view, only without a sense of humour. And, Braunschweig shows, Col Masson certainly held the idea right to the end of his life that he personally had saved Switzerland from nazi invasion. Whereas I can assure you all with equal facility that I, of course, am a great amateur historian, vastly under-appreciated and not honoured by the field.
And so it goes….
The problem is, however, at least in terms of the notion, Churchill very likely was a 'great man'; and, Hitler also, albeit on the side of the Devil in Hell. Whereas Col Masson and, very likely myself, are comparatively mere normal putterers of one sort or another. In sum, we should have never have heard of Winston Churchill had it not been for Adolf Hitler. Whereas, given the ensemble of european events in the twentieth century, someone like a Hitler seems, to me at least, to have been altogether more likely to appear; than that there should necessarily have been a Churchill to oppose him; to stop him; and, to make it possible for the world to bring him down in the end.
THE Key point about the history we make is that it is not the event, itself. It is impossible to 'know all about it'; and, what we think happened is governed by our capacity to absorb the information; and, the 'meaning' of it all is very much up to the megrims that buzz in our contemporary brains, in our own places and times. To me, then, there remains this much of objective fact about it all:
Results now of past events in all their specific detail are the consequence of the totality of all that went before. Our struggle, therefore, is to wrestle from the grasp of this cunning impossible ensemble time-for-time some little additional grain of–understanding. And, what we may hope to understand a little more of time-for-time is that history is about what people do.
The fact remains, then, that Churchill in the inner cabinet on 28 May 1940 did say to Lord Halifax that there would be no response to Italian negotiation-overtures (these were on behalf of Hitler, even though Hitler may not have welcomed them–Churchill understood this, and Halifax did not). Equally, afterward, Hitler did not have to invade Russia, the Germans 'could have' made swifter A-bomb progress, Roosevelt might have been defeated in the 1940 election; and, so forth and so on. What makes Churchill's resoluteness in the inner cabinet decisive in other words is an outcome he no more than anyone else could know. Reaching more deeply into his own mind than that (without psychologising!), we can say however that Churchill understood (NB) what he was going to do. And, to the extent that psychology has anything to say about it, he was sufficiently of one mind to do it. (Hitler we may say safely in terms of the conflicting tides in his mind, of anger, fear and greed at least, was of one mind, too; but, in a possessed way, as attested by the lack of a humour-sense, none of this being 'psychologism'–it is simply obvious.)
Equally, Col Masson did engineer a secret meeting between General Guisan and the nazi Schellenberg.
And, in my favourite vignette from Braunschweig's account, 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–did regale and blandish the rather francophile Nazi with talk of–oenology!
And, then, this round-headed small farmer from the western vales did say (when the question adroitly was brought round by a subordinate) that if anybody (NB) 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.
AT The end of the day then, to me, there remains something ineffable about all of this:
Without introducing any mystical notions whatever, the fact remains that this meeting did happen. And, because it happened, on balance and taken together with many other communications that also were made, it had to have done–in light of the results.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 18 June 2006]