General Henri Guisan as culture bearer

by Dr Jürg Stüssi-Lauterburg

General Henri Guisan still lives in the hearts of many Swiss people. The choice of this exceptional personality as “Romand du siecle” by the clear majority of 20,000 television viewers in the French-speaking part of Switzerland in 2011, was no coincidence.

From 1939 to 1945,Switzerland was spared from war. There is no doubt about it: the memory of this exceptional achievement resonates.

The three strategic phases 1939–1945

Henri Guisan shaped the three strategic phases: First he ordered the army position. It stretched from Sargans via Zurich to the plateau of Gempen (SO/BL). The idea was to fight together with France, the last great democracy among our neighbours, against an attack by the Nazis. But France collapsed in 1940. Now it was a matter of fighting away from the border, but above all, to retain Gotthard, Lötschberg and Simplon as long as possible. As a measure of last resort, the transalpine routes were to be destroyed. For months this decision prevented the Nazis from sending coal and steel to the Italian fascists via Switzerland.
Four years after Guisan’s decision to withdraw the army into the reduit, the Allies landed on the European mainland in June 1944. Then, in the third strategic phase, the general sent most of the army out of the reduit to the border to prevent neutrality violations. Time-wise, the three phases corresponded approximately to Guisan’s headquarters Spiez and Gümligen (1st phase), Interlaken (2nd phase) and Jegenstorf (3rd phase).

Guisan, an exceptional figure

All this is part of the great history of the country. Guisan was as competent as the other three generals of the federal state, Dufour, Herzog and Wille. However, Guisan was not only the wise strategic decision-maker. Much more, Guisan embodied something like the soul of the country and assumed a position that was completely exceptional for Switzerland.

Defence through moral power and material force

The fact that Guisan was able to achieve such a position and maintain his reputation is due to his role as a culture representativ. The Commander-in-Chief embodied values and way of life in the eyes of a large part of the Swiss. The man from Vaud was perceived to be genuine, otherwise his image could not have been maintained. This image was also carefully cultivated by himself and his environment. For example, through a series of public lectures which shared a clear-cut common key: “Our people and its army”1 This lecture always started with the following sentences:
“A people can defend itself in two ways: through the moral power inherent in its patriotism and through the material force depicted in its army. The army built by this people is itself subject to two values, namely moral and material.” The conclusion corresponded to the beginning: “The oldest nation of soldiers in Europe must know neither weakness nor fear! Its dignity forbids this! Life alone is nothing, but living for one’s country is everything.”

General’s credibility as a basic requirement

Not victory, but dignity: This significant priority presupposed credibility on the part of the speaker to be not only true, but also to be considered as true. Credibility was not compatible under any circumstances with indiscretions from the environment, but presupposed a reliable close environment of the commander-in-chief of the army.
Guisan was sufficiently concerned with his credibility that he actively made the transition from a non-congenial environment to a congenial one. When he was elected General on August 30, 1939, there was neither a command post nor any operational plans. Guisan went to his house in Pully at the lake of Geneva. A specially sent plane took him from Lausanne-Blecherette to Bern-Belp to take him to the meeting of the Federal Council, on 1 September 1939.2 After that, the commander-in-chief of the army obviously had his quarter at the Hotel Bellevue for the next three days. On the evening of Sunday, 3 September, the General had the 3rd Division march past the Bundeshaus. Monday, 4 September, the move to Spiez, to the Olvido house, was prepared. From 5 September to 17 October 1939, Guisan had his headquarter in Spiez.

Effort to create a congenial environment

The primary purpose of the departure from Berne was to bring Guisan out of the immediate sphere of influence of officers considered German-friendly and at any rate not congenial, above all Chief of Staff Jakob Labhart. Hans Bracher, liaison officer between the General and the Federal Council, describes his own recommendations to the General with his own characteristic sharpness, renouncing all modesty:
“I tell all thoroughly and describe to him the whole malaise, the irrepressible aspirations of Labhart, X, and Y. How the gentlemen fight each other, only to then, once again, form a united front against the general. In order to be more independent against intrigues and to lead the army according to his ideas, I recommend the general to form a small staff himself, with Logoz, Gonard or another capable general staff officer as his main assistant.”3 Although Bracher undoubtedly underestimated Guisan’s independence, however, this personal staff of the General was appointed, with Samuel Gonard at the head. For Chief of Staff Jakob Labhart, the abolished 4th Army Corps was re-established and at the same time the exceedingly capable Jakob Huber was appointed Chief of Staff.

Personal Staff: keeping freedom of action

The Personal Staff allowed Guisan not only to judge with the necessary distance whatever cameand no less important, with the support of the staff what came from the General Staff. He could thus make his own decisions and also keep his own secret against indiscretions in a way that was astonishing even for the circumstances of the time. Thus Labhart, whom Guisan did not trust sufficiently for this, learned nothing of the staff agreements with the French in the event of a German attack on Switzerland. In the winter of 1939/1940, these agreements were an indispensable, likewise politically problematic contingency plan. Even more important was the fact that in October 1939, in accordance with the spirit of the agreements, the general could decide in favour of a credible defence in the army position Sargans – Zurich – Villigen – AG-Plateau of Gempen.

Guisan explains the réduit to the US military attaché

The same advantages – free decision and safeguarded secret – were provided by the Personal Staff also later, after the collapse of France. Guisan’s reaction to the new situation – Réduit and Rütlirapport – gave the army a new mission and gave the country, which was hesitating for a moment, new hope of self-assertion. That was not enough: our friends in the remaining democracies should know what we actually did. The General received the American military attaché Barnwell Rhett Legge, probably at Gümligen Castle, where he had had his headquarters since 17 October 1939. He gave him a detailed outline of the réduit strategy in at least one four-eye dialogue.4 This dialogue was so secret that Legge, a veteran of the First World War, allowed the corresponding cable to pass the American envoy in Berne and the State Department in Washington, to go directly to the War Office. Only very few traces of this important meeting can be found in the Swiss papers. We do know the matter thanks to the American archives.

Knowledge of human nature and trust

Guisan needed courage to do what he recognised to be right even under very great risks. Although the USA was still neutral at the time, but if the four-eye dialogue with Legge had become known, it would have had a considerable, perhaps fatally weakening effect, for the position of the General vis-à-vis his critics linked with the German Embassy.
It took audacity. It also took knowledge of human nature to initiate only completely reliable people. In this case they were known and unknown Americans: Legge, who spoke fluent French, but, to Guisan, also the anonymous cryptographers of the delegation who worked under Legge’s guidance, and finally the addressees in the War Office in Washington. It is a fact that they all kept it closely guarded. Legge stood behind them.
One also had to trust the initiated Swiss, Gonard’s successor as head of the Personal Staff Bernard Barbey. As a writer, himself interested in publishing, Barbey kept real secrets until his death.
In trust, gradations were to be observed, all was not entrusted to everyone. What later became the principle of “information only if necessary”, was considered by Guisan with the greatest consistency and in filigree detail.

Protection of the public person Guisan

The protection of the public person of Guisan through a rigorous secrecy of actions that by their nature were not intended for the public, was one thing. The other thing was that even confidential statements actually remained confidential. Thus, the general wrote his proven First Adjutant Albert R. Mayer from Jegenstorf, on 24 November 1944, if the parliamentarians wanted to interfere in military matters of which they do not understand anything, then he could just as well give up his command: “Si les parlementaires veulent se mêler des questions militaires auxquelles ils ne comprennent rien! Je n’ai plus qu’a déposer mon commandement.”5
It’s obvious how that would have turned out in the press. However, Mayer was as reliable as Barbey, just like Legge: As long as he lived, this statement remained as private as it was meant to be.

Bring together good people and courageously do the right thing

Conclusion: Surround oneself with the right people. Associate with trustworthy people. With people, who have no other ambition than to enable the General to courageously do the right thing, elegantly say what is necessary.
This may also have been the aim of other commanders throughout military history. Few have succeeded. What was Guisan’s secret? The answer is probably to be found in his humanity. He wrote his sick First Adjutant in a particularly critical phase of active service that he should look after himself: “La santé passe avant tout.”, health above all.6

From house to house

If Guisan was unable to write, his wife, Mary Guisan-Doelker, took over the task: No letter, note or however small appreciation, went without a note of thanks. Not in a calculating way, but out of inner concern, over a lifetime: Less than half a year before his death, the General, who was in his 86th year of life and who planned to smoke only on Sundays, thanked his First Adjutant for the birthday cigars sent by him. He closed with the words: “Mes respectueux hommages à Madame Mayer et les amitiés de notre ménage au vôtre.” (My honorable greetings to Mrs Mayer and kind regards from our family to yours)    •

1    Guisan, Henri. Unser Volk und seine Armee (Our people and its army). Zurich. 1940 (one of several editions).
2    Steiner, Peter. Nachlass Hans Bracher (Estate of Hans Bracher), series of publications Bibliothek am Guisanplatz No. 52, Berne 2013, p. 109.
3    ibid. p. 115.
4    Stamm, Luzi u.a. A Courageous Stand. Lenzburg 2005, p. 14, 15, 84, 85.
5    Pedrazzini, Dominique M; Stüssi-Lauterburg, Jürg; Volery; Anne-Marie. En toute confiance …, (Fully confidential …) Brugg 1995, p. 51.
6    ibid.

Source: Allgemeine Schweizerische Militärzeitschrift (General Swiss Military Magazine) 06/2019, p.35-37

(Translation Current Concerns)

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