Review of Werner Vogts book in Finest Hour

The most recent issue of Finest Hour, the journal of Winston Churchill and his times, looks not at what people in the English-speaking world make of Churchill’s views on Europe but rather what people in Europe today make of Winston Churchill.

The issue can be downloaded here:

Werner Vogts book “Churchill und die Schweiz. Vom Monte Rosa zum Triumphzug durch Zürich”  is reviewed by Jochen Burgtorf. Professor of History and former chair of the History department at California State University, Fullerton. He is currently the President of the National History Honors Society.

Werner Vogt, Winston Churchill und die Schweiz: Vom Monte Rosa zum Triumphzug durch Zürich,Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2015, 231 pages. ISBN 978–3038100867.

Review by Jochen Burgtorf

If Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Sinews of Peace” address, delivered in Fulton, Missouri, drew international attention to the disheartening notion after the Second World War of an “iron curtain” coming down on eastern Europe due to the policies of the Soviet Union, then his “Let Europe Arise” speech, given in Zurich, Switzerland, later that same year, suggested an appropriate antidote: the United States of Europe, based on a partnership between France and Germany.

Werner Vogt’s Winston Churchill und die Schweiz: Vom Monte Rosa zum Triumphzug durch Zürich (“Winston Churchill and Switzerland: From Monte Rosa to the Triumphal Procession through Zurich”) places Churchill’s Zurich speech into a broad context and promises to go beyond Max Sauter’s 1976 dissertation by including Churchill’s early connections to Switzerland and, above all, the “human factor” (13). The latter is accomplished on the basis of oral histories conducted by Vogt with eyewitnesses and their descendants, including the son of Churchill’s physician in Switzerland and the dining-car waiter who served Churchill on the Swiss “Red Arrow” train.

Vogt holds a doctoral degree (1996) from the University of Zurich for a dissertation on the image of Churchill between 1938 and 1946 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland’s premier newspaper. His present volume is beautifully illustrated with more than 100 photographs. Intended for a wide audience, it does not employ any footnotes or endnotes. Following an introductory chapter that sketches Churchill’s life and career, Vogt turns to Churchill’s pre-1910 experiences in Switzerland, which include climbing Monte Rosa (at more than 15,000 feet, Europe’s second-highest mountain), almost drowning in Lake Geneva, and arguing with local shepherds in the canton of Valais over the—in Churchill’s opinion—undue early-morning noise made by cow bells.

Churchill’s interest in Switzerland after the First World War culminated in the somewhat regular publication of his opinion pieces on international politics in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung between 1936 and 1938. During the Second World War, Churchill acknowledged Switzerland’s attempts to remain neutral, while many Swiss, especially the editors-in-chief of several newspapers, saw Churchill as a beacon of hope against the threat of a German invasion. A short chapter is dedicated to Churchill’s painting instructor, the Swiss Charles Montag, whom he had met in 1915 and who was instrumental in bringing about Churchill’s 1946 visit to Switzerland. That visit is the subject of three full chapters.

The visit’s official program, we learn, was overloaded, perhaps to compensate for the inability of the University of Zurich’s faculty to find a consensus and bestow an honorary doctorate upon its prominent guest. The “Let Europe Arise” speech drew considerable international attention (as well as French criticism). However, it was the enthusiastic reception by the people of Zurich that made the visit an unprecedented event in Swiss history. According to Vogt, all of Zurich was “vollkommen aus dem Häuschen” (145), perhaps best—albeit somewhat atypically for the Swiss—translated as “completely gaga.”

The book concludes with chapters on Churchill’s friendship with Swiss artists and businessmen (especially paint manufacturer Willy Sax), and the memories of the “Swiss girls” employed at Chartwell.

Vogt emphasizes time and again that Churchill viewed Britain’s role with regard to post-war Europe as that of a godparent, not a parent, and that, to Churchill, Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth came first, that with the US second, and the one with Europe third. He concludes that Switzerland’s position in modern Europe is quite “insular” and, thus, not dissimilar to that of Britain.

The book’s appendix contains the English text and German translation of Churchill’s Zurich speech (apparently as published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 1946), accompanied by photographs of the respective first pages of the original typescript and the typescript in Psalm-style format, intended to facilitate Churchill’s oratory. It is curious that the speech’s final phrase “Let Europe arise!” is translated as “Lassen Sie Europe entstehen!” (210/214). While the German verb “entstehen” is not incorrect, it is in this context a rather weak rendition of the English “arise,” and Churchill might have preferred “auferstehen” or “sich erheben.”

Considering that both anti-EU and pro-EU politicians in Britain routinely claim Churchill as one of their own, translating his speeches with the intent to capture their essence remains a tall order. Since Winston Churchill und die Schweiz is published under the auspices of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the author’s obvious—and admittedly not unmerited—reverence for the paper’s longtime (1933–67) editor-in-chief Willy Bretscher comes as no surprise. Otherwise, Vogt’s book is not a hagiography: neither its Churchill nor its Switzerland is flawless, which is why, alongside the general readership, historians will appreciate this volume.


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