As a general, Henri Guisan led Switzerland through World War II. His public image alternated between resistance and diligent personal propagandisation.
Art historian and Museum Director at Jegenstorf Castle, Berne, since 2010.
In 2011, television viewers voted Henri Guisan Romand du siècle (French-Swiss man of the century) – ahead of Nicolas Hayek, Auguste Piccard, Claude Nicollier, Jean Tinguely and others.
In 1941 Swiss Nazis, whose phones had been tapped, were planning to kill Guisan. Understandably, since the Rütli Report of 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of the Swiss Army had become a symbol of resistance. However, you can only kill a person if you know where he’s going to be. So there were good reasons to keep the General’s command posts in Spiez, Gümligen, Interlaken and Jegenstorf as secret as his little apartment on the Schänzlihalde in Bern.
News reports or photographs showing the General at his various locations were not welcome. In addition, Henri Guisan was not to be used for commercial purposes. Therefore, from 1940 to 1942, the following provisions were inserted into Swiss emergency press law in several stages (Note 8c of the Compendium of Swiss emergency press law):
Whereabouts of the GeneralThe following are prohibited:Advance announcements of visits and journeys by the General including inspection and approval of parades, unless such notice has been approved by the General himself or a delegated officer.Any use of the General’s person for advertising purposes, e.g. for publicity for performances by army concert parties etc., is prohibited.Advertising segments featuring depictions of the General and of other high-ranking officers are subject to prior censorship.In August 1943 this image control was tightened up even further. Now, every picture had to be submitted to the General’s personal staff: ‘All images of the General that are intended for circulation in any form whatsoever (publication by the press, display in windows or premises accessible to the public, retail sale on postcards, etc.) are to be checked by you.’ This put the responsibility on the press officers of the territorial commands. They were responsible for ensuring that the General’s personal staff always had an overview of pictures of Guisan, and also that the staff’s decisions were enforced and checked.These real restrictions – in addition to the legal restrictions, there were also even more far-reaching factual ones – served to ensure Guisan’s survival. They also helped keep his diplomacy under wraps. This went far beyond his leadership of the army. The core of the General’s diplomacy was to convey the same message to everyone, Germans or Americans and British, publicly and privately, over and over again: Switzerland’s unconditional willingness to resist.
In cinematic footage too, care was taken to ensure the staging sent the right messages. Movie in German.SRF
The General’s secret diplomacy
This secret diplomacy was a tricky business. When, as happened on 22 January 1941, Henri Guisan received the US military attaché Barnwell Rhett Legge at Gümligen Castle for a private meeting and gave him a comprehensive overview of Switzerland’s defence preparations, that was information that should not fall into unauthorised hands. The hands of Guisan’s pro-German critics in the army such as Ulrich Wille junior, Eugen Bircher or Gustav Däniker senior, for example. Or those of Guisan’s Vaudois adversary Marcel Pilet-Golaz, who as Federal President in 1940 delivered a weak speech and afterwards met with a delegation of Swiss frontists (Nazis and Nazi sympathisers), on his own authority and without consulting the Federal Council. Of this event, the Rheinfelden newspaper Volksstimme had written on 21 September 1940: ‘Not only has he slipped on the parquet floor of his own department, but more especially he has, as Federal President, introduced methods that are not consistent with the principle of collegiality in the Federal Council.’ Pilet-Golaz was a heavy-handed Federal Councillor, but he was still in office. Guisan’s secrecy was maintained to such an extent that US Attaché Legge smuggled the dispatch past the US envoy in Bern and the State Department and had it delivered directly to the War Office, which would later become the Pentagon.To maintain his personal safety and to shield his own activities from prying eyes, Guisan the general heavily propagandised his public image. There were thus sound reasons for censorship, including image censorship. When, according to the official minutes of a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at the Brenner Pass on 2 June 1941, the German Führer branded the Swiss and Switzerland ‘the vilest and most wretched people and nation’ and Italy’s Il Duce called Helvetia an anachronism, it was important for the General to project a more powerful image. Incidentally, the following day Reichsleiter Martin Bormann issued the ban on Tell: ‘The Führer orders that Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell no longer be performed […] Heil Hitler!’
There was also a little bit of propagandisation
With regard to Henri Guisan, it can thus be said: so far, so resistant. However, when it came to censoring his image there was no lack of careful propagandisation either. When we organised an exhibition on the Commander-in-Chief at Schloss Jegenstorf, Guisan’s last command post, in 2015, we devoted a display cabinet to photos from the Federal Archives. Photos that the General’s personal staff had censored, i.e. banned. I worked my way through stacks of archive cartons and found many photos of Guisan with cigarettes (he was a heavy smoker) or of Guisan with women (though married, the General was not indifferent to feminine charm).Overall, the outcome of this image management was positive. The General’s secret contacts with the American military attaché and the British envoy remained precisely that: secret. Unlike his contacts with Western diplomats and military diplomatists, however, Guisan’s meetings with the SS General Walter Schellenberg in Biglen und Arosa, arranged by the head of the intelligence service, became well known. The Federal Council, which had been bypassed, rebuked the General.
What else? Some elements of vanity can be noted in the portrayal of Guisan. More problematic, albeit to some extent understandable, was the distrust which the Commander-in-Chief felt towards the Federal Council. But neither was a decisive factor. Cherishing beauty is certainly not a crime. For my part, I am in full agreement with the TV viewers who have chosen the great man from Vaud as what he is, and probably always will be: the Romand du siècle.
In 1940, General Guisan stood on the battlefield and called for resistance. Meanwhile, French internees wanted to sing the Marseillaise. Yet again, women were responsible for their welfare. ‘Allons les femmes de la patrie.’
On 1 April 1944, Schaffhausen was mistakenly bombed. The municipal museum lost more than 80 paintings. Then, artworks to match the scale of the losses started arriving from all over Switzerland. Even now, this level of cultural donation is testament to the huge solidarity compatriots felt for the stricken city.