The “Great Stucki” – a Swiss negotiator with character

The “Great Stucki” – a Swiss negotiator with character

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

Who is represented by the Swiss Federal Council – Switzerland or the EU? This question was raised here recently at a media conference of the Federal Council (“Thick fog and scarce information about the plans of the Federal Council”, Current Concerns No 19/20 of 28 July 2015). Since the No of the Swiss people to a membership in the EEA on 6 December 1992, critical citizens have become ever more upset by the fact that the Swiss negotiators – from whatever motives – have little intention to achieve the best possible results for our country in negotiations with Brussels or Washington . However, everyone knows: As a small state, Switzerland can only reach its goals vis à vis a great power, if the Federal Council or its negotiators do not buckle at every imperial bluster, but meet their contractual partners on an equal footing and be certain of their strength.
One who has committed himself with all his might and his whole personality for Switzerland and often achieved amazing things, is Walter Stucki (1888–1963). This upright and courageous Swiss allowed neither the Nazi regime nor the victorious powers of World War II to frighten him, but continually represented the interests of Switzerland; but wherever he was and where it was necessary he also did what he could for people of other nationalities. Reading his biography, especially with regard to his work as the chief negotiator and ambassador in the period from the First until after the Second World War, is a special experience for today‘s readers – not only for the Swiss! (Konrad Stamm, “Der ‘Große Stucki’ Eine ­schweizerische Karriere von weltmännischem Format”, Zurich 2013).

Born in 1888 in Berne, Walter Stucki studied law, history and economic policy at the Bernese University. (pp. 27) At the age of 29, the young lawyer, who worked in a Bernese law firm, was appointed General Secretary of the FDEA (Federal Department of Economic Affairs) by Federal Councillor Edmund Schulthess. This was in the summer of 1917, i.e. towards the end of the First World War. (see p. 37)

1917–1919: First economic negotiations at home and abroad in difficult times

In the Commission for Economic Issues, whose leadership Stucki took over, for instance, maximum prices for food were fixed in consideration of the population‘s need. However, the commission also enabled many soldiers to take some days off at the time of cereal and fruit harvest, because they were indispensable on their home farms. Walter Stucki with his energetic and skilful actions gained the entire Federal Council’s trust within a short time and with only 30 years of age he was already head of economic negotiating teams at home and abroad, because it soon became clear “that he was an excellent negotiator who understood and applied all agents of negotiating tactics purposefully and usually successfully”. (p. 42)
In the following text, three of the most impressive examples of Walter Stucki‘s rich experience of interactions will be chosen, all of them taking place in extremely difficult geopolitical situations in which the “Great Stucki” – he was given this nickname by the Swiss of his time not only because of his height of 1.87 meters (!) – achieved everything that was possible. First, the economic negotiations with the Nazi Reich Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht, which were so necessary for Switzerland’s survival; secondly, how Walter Stucki became honorary citizen of Vichy and thirdly, the negotiation of the Washington Agreement of 1946.

Showdown with the national-socialist Minister of Economy Hjalmar Schacht

Some of today‘s politicians and negotiators should be recommended to read what the “Great Stucki” was able to achieve against the Nazi regime and how he did not give up one millimeter of ground in the preservation of Switzerland’s dignity and sovereignty.
Although the 1933 trade agreement between Switzerland and Germany favored German exports against the Swiss, the president of the German Reichsbank and later Reich Minister of Economics, Hjalmar Schacht accused the Federal Council in December 1933 of not realising “the signs of the times” with its allegedly anti-German policy. (see pp. 74).
Three days later Walter Stucki replied in a two and a half hour presentation, to which the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” paid tribute by publishing it on the front page as the “speech of a statesman of truly significant format” (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 14 December 1933).

“We must not run after the Germans now and we must above all not give in!”

The marathon negotiations that followed this verbal prelude, was characterized on the German side by frequent ultimatums or by abandoning negotiations, on the Swiss side by a steady weighing, how far they had to insist on what was indispensable to the Swiss population and the enterprises in the difficult times of the economic crisis, and in what points they wanted to come to an accomodation with Germany while at the same time respecting one’s own dignity and sovereignty.
Thus the German regime requested Switzerland to pay millions as a precondition for a new trade agreement. On 29 March 1935, the agreement was concluded “thanks to substantial concessions by Switzerland – including a compensation payment to the German Reichsbank amounting to 4.1 million Swiss francs.” (p. 76) The next day the German delegation said they had just received the instruction from Berlin that the agreement, negotiated the day before, was null and void: “Precondition for the resumption of talks was the increase of Swiss payments to the Reichsbank from 4.1 to 6.5 million francs.” (p. 76) Things went on that way.
Now, in the 21st century we experience similar attempts at blackmail by our northern neighbor, but also by Brussels and Washington. Walter Stucki however at the Federal Council’s session of 1 April 1935 warned: “We are facing a brutal ultimatum and cannot run after the Germans now and must not give in under no circumstances!” (p. 77)
And lo and behold, the clear stance of the Swiss government and its negotiator bore fruit: Only six days later, Walter Stucki, after five hours of negotiations with Schacht in Basel a “new decent agreement” had been achieved. (p. 78)
Conclusion: This is only a small part of the lengthy and difficult negotiations, which Walter Stucki, on behalf of the Federal Council, had with such untrustworthy contracting partners as the National Socialist government. We modern readers can only guess to a small extent the extraordinary precarious situation in which Switzerland was on the eve of World War II. Reading the book gives us an insight into the time and compels us to respect the achievements of our parents and grandparents’ generations – Walter Stucki was one of them.

How Walter Stucki became honorary citizen of Vichy

When war broke out on 1 September 1939, Walter Stucki was Swiss ambassador in Paris. In June 1940, when Paris was occupied by the Germans, he and his embassy staff moved to Vichy, the new capital of the provisionally unoccupied France. There he stayed during the German occupation until it ended in September 1944.

Neutral Switzerland takes over the representation of 20 states in occupied France

When the German tanks crossed the demarcation line between the occupied and the hitherto free France in November 1942, the majority of foreign embassies left Vichy, among them the Americans, whose free passage Stucki had successfully negotiated. After that, twenty states entrusted Switzerland with the representation of their interests, so Stucki’s embassy staff had to be enlarged. (p. 196)

June 1944 – Only a strong and well-armed Switzerland was able to successfully mediate

In June 1944 the situation in France was confusing and explosive: After the landing in Normandy, the Allied troops were advancing, while various resistance movements were active, and the Germans turned the town of Vichy into a fortress under strict surveillance, since they were daily expecting an attack by the Résistance. In this situation, Walter Stucki tirelessly endeavored to make the transfer of power happen with the least possible bloodshed. While other diplomats barricaded themselves in Vichy or continued to surreptitiously move under camouflage, Stucki drove across the highly dangerous area in his diplomatic car with his big Swiss flag on top honking all the time to attract any check-posts‘ attention in time in order to explain them the neutral position of Switzerland and also, for instance, to bluntly tell the German post that he wanted to meet with Resistance people for talks. He visibly carried his officer pistol and a machine gun with ammunition on him. (pp. 227–232)
Konrad Stamm writes, “According to Stucki’s ideas only a strong and well-armed Switzerland was able to successfully mediate. If someone revealed signs of weakness, he was not recognized as an arbitrator by the quarreling parties. Only those who held up the banner and fearlessly looked into the eyes of the gunmen from both sides had a chance to be taken seriously and his proposals to be accepted.” (p. 236)

In early September 1944, the legendary act of the “Great Stucki”

After Walter Stucki had first achieved his aim that the 88 year old Marshal Pétain (President of the French puppet government in Vichy) was arrested by the Germans in dignity and without use of violence in a mock assault (pp. 234–238), he persuaded the commanders of the German troops not to cross Vichy for their retreat route, but to steer clear of the city. He thus saved the inhabitants of a last violent affliction. (pp. 238) At the same time Stucki convinced representatives of the Résistance, in whose eyes the inhabitants of Vichy consisted of collaborators for the most part to also spare Vichy. Finally Stucki brought it about that under the shield of the Red Cross thirty severely wounded German soldiers were taken to the hospital in Vichy and well kept and treated by the French doctors and nurses. (p. 240)
In the night from 5 to 6 September 1944, the French Resistance troops took possession of Vichy without a single shot being fired. The next day, the entire diplomatic corps departed to Berne, headed by Walter Stucki.

Appreciation by the biographer:

“Stucki was the only authority that had proven functional and assertive in the capital both before and after the change of power. It was due to him that the residents of Vichy could still live in their intact homes […]. They thanked him with the honorary citizenship of the city and with a great farewell ceremony, for which on 7 September almost the entire population gathered.” (pp. 241)

What is left to be added? Maybe this: In 1961, Vichy’s town band serenaded Walter Stucki before his Berne home.

Washington 1946: Western Allies trying to lay down the law

“On March 4, the negotiations decisive for the future of Switzerland were to begin in Washington […].” Walter Stucki, “was believed to be the only one, who […] one could entrust to defy the Western victorious powers of World War II, i.e. United States, England and France.” (pp. 9)
Since the Allies had to pay their huge war debts, their urgent need of money gave them the idea to enforce the “right of the victor” not only on the losers of World War II, but also on the neutral countries. So they planned to seize German private property in Switzerland and use it to pay for their war expenses. It was as early as then that they invented the fairy tale of Switzerland having procured the foreign currencies which the Germans needed desperately to continue the war, by purchasing stolen gold. As a lever, the US had already blocked the Swiss assets in the United States in a precautionary measure, and established “black lists” of Swiss companies who would therefore no longer be able to do business on the territory of the Allies. (see pp. 13).
The whole construct lacked any basis in international law: neither the intention to make neutral Switzerland pay for World War II nor the blocking of Swiss accounts or the de facto elimination of Swiss companies were legitimate. In addition to the massive economic impact of such measures, they meant undoubtedly a serious encroachment on the sovereignty of Switzerland. Hence foreign law would have been applied by foreign judges on Swiss soil.
Let us now compare Walter Stucki’s appearance and conduct of negotiations with the nervous immediate surrender of our present Federal Council concerning inheritance tax matters in “agreements” with France or the FATCA “agreement” with the United States – both dictated from abroad.
Walter Stucki had not particularly wished to adopt the Washington mandate due to the unfavorable situation. “But when on 18 March 1946 he walked towards the lectern and opened the conference in the nation’s capital, […] he again outgrew his already striking size of 187 centimeters.” (p. 12) With this composure and his speech, he compelled the necessary respect by the delegation of the three Western powers: “We know that your official documents speak quite openly about increasing the measures of economic pressure against Switzerland even more, if that deems you necessary. You certainly have the possibility to force us to our knees, like Hitler could have done throughout the war. But we cannot believe that you have simply forgotten one of the most beautiful and important statements of your late great president.” Stucki concluded by quoting Franklin Roosevelt in 1943, “The rights of every nation, big or small, must be respected and preserved […]. The doctrine that the strong should dominate the weak is the doctrine of our enemies, and we reject it.” (pp. 12)
The tough negotiations took two months. Switzerland had no choice but to agree to a contract, otherwise it would have had to face further blackmailing in the following years. (see pp. 14) Stucki himself was not completely satisfied with the negotiated agreement, he had offered $ 100 million and now had to accept a substantially higher amount, namely 250 million.
However few years later the realization prevailed that Walter Stucki had achieved a good success for Switzerland: Following the agreement of 25 May 1946, the Swiss accounts were released in the US, the “blacklists” of Swiss companies abolished. And also according to the agreement text all the “questions related to looted gold were done with.”1
This provision of the agreement had obviously been forgotten when in the nineties the Americans demanded more billions of the major Swiss banks.

An obligation for the later generations

In his epilogue, titled “Why this biography had to be written” Konrad Stamm explains that in the 50 years since Walter Stucki’s death “not a historian, not a journalist and not a PhD student [has] dedicated the necessary attention and time to Stucki‘s exceptional and far outstanding personality for a biography”. (pp. 386)
We later generations that we have been born into and were allowed to grow in a well-kept house thanks to the hard work of those Swiss men and women living before us, it must be an obligation to show the generations of our parents and grandparents the gratitude and appreciation they deserve. Konrad Stamm has succeeded with his biography, that one of them, the “Great Stucki”, has come alive for the reader. However, there is still a wide field to plow for Swiss historians.     •

1     Washington Agreement of 25 May 1946

… always at least on equal terms

“Regardless of his vis-à-vis being a personal envoy of the President of the United States of America, a member of the Swiss Federal Government, a German Nazi General or a French Marshal, Stucki never negotiated from a position of weakness, from the position of a petitioner or representative of a second-rate small state. With clearly worded and objective arguments, with legally supported applications and proposals, with personal conviction, patience and persistence […] he always remained at least on equal terms with his negotiating partners and never let himself be pushed to a lower-rated position.” (p. 378)
“In the small state of Switzerland, in which the superiority and arrogance of the major powers and their representatives were felt ever more heavily in the inter-war period, the strong and intrepid appearance of a representative of the Swiss Confederation towards his foreign negotiating partners was greeted with enthusiasm. […] His compatriots soon realized that Stucki was a representative who did not mince words and leave the field to the representatives of states whose territory, population and military strength were several times greater than those of Switzerland when grappling with problems at the negotiating front simply because he was a member of a small state.” (pp. 379)
(Translation Current Concerns)

Trade negotiations with countries abroad as the essence and most sustainable success

“Looking for the essence, for the key point and most sustainable success of Stucki’s eventful career, we will find a straight answer after only little reflection: Without any doubt, the trade negotiations with countries abroad that Stucki led […] are to be considered as the most important events in his professional activity. The result of these negotiations was a network of agreements due to which Switzerland, at the outbreak of the World War II in 1939, was much better positioned in terms of supply with foodstuffs and sources of energy than in 1914 and a fortiori it was thanks to his negotiating skills that at the end of the war Switzerland was again supplied with coal and grain. […].” (pp. 375)
(Translation Current Concerns)

“Plain words combined with expertise are often more effective than diploma­tic pussy­footing: We could act more assertively in our dealings with other countries all the time.” (Lucius Wasescha, trade dilplomat, quoted from “Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag”, 12.8.2012)
(Translation Current Concerns)

Federal Councillor Petitpierre’s tribute to Walter Stucki

“In the history of our small country there have been one or at most two personalities in every generation that by their abilities, by their actions, and by the role that was imposed on them could alter and improve the course of Switzerland’s destiny in their life journey in a decisive way. Minister Stucki was one of those outstanding personalities. […] He devoted his best efforts to our country. For this we owe him a debt of gratitude.” (Federal Councillor Petitpierre at the funeral service for Walter Stucki on 11 October 1963).
(Translation Current Concerns)

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​