This biography is taken from Benedict von Tscharner, ‘Giuseppe Motta’ in Benedict von Tscharner, Inter Gentes: Statesmen, Diplomats, Political Thinkers, translation Nathasha Proietto, (Infolio editions & Éditions de Penthes, 2012): extract: pp. 199-215.
‘Before we begin, it is appropriate to ask if Giuseppe Motta can be really be said to rank among those Swiss citizens who acted “in the world”, for his dealings in the political sphere took place in Switzerland for the most part; in the Ticino and later Bern, with regular trips to Geneva; all this is quite true. Yet international affairs were omnipresent when he was tackling his brief as Federal Councillor responsible for the nation’s foreign policy, or to put it more bluntly: the world and in particular the League of Nations, with its debates and its problems, actually came to him. For this unique diplomatic world was “located” in Geneva. Furthermore, among the numerous figures who, since the creation of the federal state, had responsibility for Swiss foreign policy as members of the federal executive, Motta was among those who not only managed these relations, but whose impact and notoriety extended far beyond national frontiers. He also enjoyed nearly unfaltering popular support at home. Yet this did not come easily, it had to be worked on, with new efforts made each time to ensure continued success. Motta found the right tone and the right arguments with which to do this.
It could also be mentioned in passing that the Ticino can boast of quite a few of its sons and daughters ending up figuring among the famous Swiss abroad. Many monographs have been dedicated to big names from the Ticino, in particular its architects, who from the Renaissance to the present day have created masterpieces in Italy, Russia and elsewhere (Trezzini, Rossi, Madema, Fontana … and today: Botta). It almost seems like there is a dose of genius emanating from the canton’s granite hills. Figures such as Giuseppe Motta or Carla Del Ponte have that little something extra because they contributed to defining Switzerland’s place in the wider world.
Motta was a son of the Leventina, the upper part of the Ticino River valley; his native town, Airolo, is the first stopover at the southern foot of the Gotthard Pass. On this important axis between North and South, travellers did not have the benefit, at the time anyway, of either a railway line or cars to take them through. Sigismondo Motta, Giuseppe’s father, ran the local postal inn and was the manager of an important transport company for people and merchandise. Indeed, he essentially had a monopoly on transport between the hospice on the crest of the Gotthard and the small town of Faido, situated lower down in the valley. In other words, the Mottas were an influential local family. In 1877, when a huge fire destroyed Airolo, the stone houses belonging to the Mottas were among the rare buildings that were left standing. Giuseppe’s mother, Paolina Dazzoni, was also from the Leventina, Faido to be precise; but his two grand-mothers came from Uri and were thus Swiss-German. In 1882, the opening of the rail tunnel of the Gotthard had a huge impact on the Leventina and also the Motta family’s commercial activities. A year later, Sigismondo died as the result of a stroke, leaving his widow to bring up their six children. Little Giuseppe, then twelve years old, was always present to help his mother.
The picture that we get of Motta at this time is that of an honest, studious young man who was determined to succeed. He started his schooling in Airolo and Bellinzona and then went on to the secondary school in Ascona, Papio College, a small boarding school founded by Saint-Charles Borromeo and run in a very strict manner by clerics. At Saint-Michel College in Fribourg, the brilliant young man from the Ticino passed his high school diploma in 1889 and stayed in the town to begin studying Law at the University there, which had only just opened its doors. He continued his studies in Germany, in Munich and Heidelberg, where he obtained his doctorate in Law in 1893 (in German, of course), with the distinction of summa cum laude. He immediately set up as a lawyer and solicitor in Airolo. He was clearly a very hard worker. In 1899, Motta married Agostina Andreazzi, from Dongio in the Val Blenio, with whom he would have ten children, seven girls and three boys.
In the Ticino, the Mottas – officers, clerics, magistrates and teachers for generations – had always taken an active part in public life. The father of the future Federal Councillor was a deputy at the Consiglio Grande, the canton’s Parliament, in Bellinzona. Giuseppe, whom his fellow citizens in Airolo called avvocatino, the little lawyer, was lively and capable, an excellent orator, and despite his enthusiasm also an extremely conscientious man, who was elected in tum to the cantonal Parliament in 1895 when he was only 23 years old. Motta thus rapidly became one of the key figures of the Catholic Conservative Party. He also found the time to write a weekly political article for his party’s newspaper. A spokesman for the pragmatic non-clerical section of the party calling themselves the possibilista (doing what is possible … ), his main aim was to fight for secularization of the party and for the abandoning of the futile and sometimes violent quarrels with the rival Liberal Radicals. From 1900, Motta was the President of his party at cantonal level.
Four years later, in 1899, Motta made his debut on the national political scene. He became a member of the National Council. In Bern, his first actions centred on the defence of asylum rights in Switzerland. He would also fight for the introduction of proportional representation, a concept dear to all small parties, but which would only come into being in 1919. By 1908, Motta’s name was already being put forward as a possible candidate for election to the national government. In 1892, the first representative of the Catholic Conservative Party to enter the Federal Council, which had been composed exclusively of Radicals since 1848, was Josef Zemp from Lucerne. This enlargement of the government’s political base was mostly an expression of the desire to put an end to the famous Kulturkampf and the interdenominational struggles that had already divided Switzerland for long enough during the course of the 19th century. Giuseppe Motta’s election by the Federal Assembly finally took place in 1911, with 184 out of 199 votes cast, a brilliant victory. In his canton of origin, there was great pride and joy at this achievement.
This election also constituted an important homage to the Ticino and contributed decisively to reinforcing its integration into the Swiss nation while also teaching the Swiss to truly appreciate this “sunny balcony of the Helvetic house.” Indeed, this part of the country had not been represented in government at the federal level since 1864 while the people of the Ticino, although deeply Catholic, had stayed faithful to the Confederation during the internecine crisis of the Sonderbund War ( 184 7). This loyalty was rewarded by a seat on the Federal Council, from 1848 onwards, taken up by the Radicals Stefano Franscini and later Giovanni Battista Pioda. Yet the growth of nationalism and irredentism on the Italian side of the border reinforced doubts in the mind of a good number of Swiss citizens as to where the real patriotic loyalties of the Italian-speaking canton lay. Later these complex relations between Switzerland and Italy would be considered Motta’s great area of expertise. His flattering remarks on the subject of Benito Mussolini’s political talents did however damage his standing. Although it must be said that Giuseppe Motta, once he had been elected to the Federal Council, was not considered someone who simply stood up for the demands of his canton, but also a politician who had the best interests of Switzerland as a whole at heart.
As per the rules governing the Federal Council, the last member to be elected has to take the portfolio that is left vacant. In Motta’s case that was the Department of Finance and Customs, a subject matter for which he did not feel particularly well-prepared. Yet he learned fast and in any case, the advent of the First World War meant his files had lower priority for the time being. The strongmen of the government were at that stage Edmund Schulthess from Aargau (in charge of the economy) and Arthur Hoffmann from St Gallen (defence). It was Motta who proposed a temporary direct “war tax” which was duly introduced with little opposition and quickly produced satisfactory revenue, much to the surprise of many observers. In the ten years between 1910 and 1920, the Confederation’s spending almost tripled, from 90 to 227 million francs. In 1915 Motta was elected President of the Confederation, the first person from the Ticino to ever reach this particular high office. He would hold the position no less than five times during the course of his governmental career. The tradition that saw the President running the Political Department (foreign affairs) at the same time as fulfilling his presidential duties was abandoned at that point. With the war in full motion, foreign policy had become a time-consuming task which needed as much professionalism and continuity as the other portfolios. It was only in 1920 that Motta changed departments so as to succeed Felix Calonder at the head of Swiss diplomacy.
We simply cannot discuss Motta’s work as head of foreign policy and notably his involvement in the League of Nations without briefly mentioning Gustave Ador (1845-1928), the great Geneva Liberal who entered the Federal Council at the age of 71 in June 1917 – and the first and last Liberal to be elected to it. He would leave this function at the end of 1919 after having completed his year as President. From 1910 onwards, after the death of Gustave Moynier, he would be the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and would remain in the chair of this institution even while he fulfilled his presidential duties in Bern. It was on his initiative that an agency was created in Geneva as soon as war was declared in 1914, to collect information on the whereabouts of prisoners of war. In 1916, Arthur Hoffmann, at that stage head of the Political Department, had to step down from his post following an unfortunate diplomatic initiative. He was accused of having been in favour of a separate peace between the new Russian government led by Alexander Kerensky and that of the German Reich. Parliament was keen to rapidly reestablish the reputation of the government both in Switzerland and abroad and turned to the man from Geneva because of his unimpeachable international prestige and credentials. Ador therefore took charge of foreign affairs for a period of only six months; in 1918 and 1919, he would be head of the Department of the Interior. Despite this, he was responsible for a new type of Swiss presence on the post-war political scene, thanks also to his various networking trips in the most important foreign capitals.
Of course, the most important destination for Swiss envoys, Gustave Ador, William Rappard, and Max Huber among them, was the big Conference at Versailles, where the victorious powers “reshaped the world.” For the Swiss representatives present, the goal was to obtain formal recognition of Switzerland’s particular position as a neutral country, but also to soften the commercial restrictions that were having a bad impact on the economy at home. The opposition to any such status that would set Switzerland apart, came mainly from France, while the British and especially the American President Thomas Woodrow Wilson supported Swiss ambitions. Gustave Ador’s involvement, notably his desire to see Geneva chosen as the seat of a new international organisation, would be crucial to Switzerland obtaining its desired exemption from the obligation to apply military sanctions decided on by the League of Nations (“differential neutrality”). This would have a great impact on the successful outcome of the popular vote of 1920 that was held only a few months after Ador had stepped down from his post. This success was all the more remarkable for the fact that in November 1919, the American Senate had rejected the ratification of the League of Nations Charter, which also deprived the new organisation of its universality, an essential attribute in the eyes of many Swiss. In the autumn of 1920, Gustave Ador was a member of the Swiss Delegation to the League of Nations, which was meeting for the first time in “his” city.
However, let us get back to Motta. In 1920, he had to combine all his own prestige and energy with that of Gustave Ador in order to convince the Swiss to vote in favour of this entry into the League; it was the first time in the history of the Confederation that there had been a popular vote on a foreign policy issue. At the heart of Motta’s argument was the notion that peace, solidarity and cooperation, the three pillars of the League of Nations, were also the principles of Swiss foreign policy. Collective security and multilateralism were the most appropriate concepts in terms of mirroring the democratic and federalist values close to Switzerland’s heart, closer than any international foreign policy based on the Darwinian dominance of the great powers … Therefore it was to be the smaller countries that would benefit the most from the radical paradigm shift proposed in the Charter which would bring along a reinforcement of international law and peaceful resolution of conflicts by means of mediation, arbitration or new types of international justice.
To these arguments we must add Giuseppe’s Motta’s own conviction that to participate in the great debates of the era, a country had to be present and active and that this was something Switzerland could not do without if it was to look after its special image and position on the European and global arena. One cannot fail to highlight the extent to which Motta’s idealism, verve and oratory talent contributed not only to his popularity but to lending greater plausibility to his arguments. The “little man” from the Ticino was evidently able to hold his own amid the “top guns” of the world’s political elite. That is not to say the adversaries of the Swiss chief diplomat were ever short of arguments, for the League’s arrival brought with it many questions that remained open. The right-wing bourgeoisie preferred to combine a strong will of independence with the defence of integral neutrality. Switzerland had no business or advantage in getting mixed up in the quarrels between larger powers … On the left, the Socialists did not see in the League of Nations the embodiment of a better, more solidary world but rather the expression of Western capitalism and imperialism, a coalition of the victors imposing their will onto the humiliated and powerless losers. Finally, on the 16th of May 1920, Switzerland’s membership of the League was accepted by 416,870 votes against 323,719 and by ten cantons and three half-cantons against nine cantons and three half-cantons. The result was thus very close, especially in terms of cantonal majority. The Ticino unsurprisingly voted yes, though it was the acceptance by the Grisons which tipped the balance. The referendum on long lasting international treaties would be inscribed into the Federal Constitution the following year. There had already been an initiative along those lines dating from the time of the disputes about the financing of the Gotthard Tunnel by some of Switzerland’s neighbours.
On the 15th of November 1920, it was Motta who opened the first session of the League’s General Assembly, which was still being held in the rather sad and cramped Salle de la Reformation in Geneva. In tribute to the host nation, Giuseppe Motta was named Honorary President. Following this he would always personally assume the leadership of the Swiss Delegation and would act as Vice-President of the Assembly for 19 consecutive years. Motta wrote his numerous speeches meticulously and by hand, often on the same morning as he gave them. Though his political influence cannot be directly compared with that of representatives of more powerful nations or even engaging “star” figures such as the Czechoslovak Edvard Benes or the Romanian Nicolae Titulescu, his eloquence certainly raised eyebrows during debates and his ideas resounded throughout the chamber. In 1924 Motta presided over the Assembly. He had not given up his defence of the prerogatives of this “democratic” body, notably when talking to the Council, and he fought against prevalent political intrigues and secret diplomacy. He was also the President of this and that permanent commission put in place by the Assembly. This activism, as well as his personal charm and capacities, certainly earned him respect but also got attention focused onto the small host nation, a nation that was getting into the habit of formulating reservations, demanding clarifications, submitting counter-proposals … Indeed, some thought the Swiss made too much of a fuss sometimes, even going as far as slowing progress. In short, Motta turned the League into the focal point of his activities and thoughts during the whole length of his mandate. On the other hand, he refused the idea that Switzerland attempt to get elected to the Council, which had in the meantime shed its character as an exclusive instrument of the great powers who had won the War. Motta also turned down the invitation he received to become Secretary-General of the League after the incumbent, Sir Eric Drummond, had resigned.
It might be useful to add that Motta was nothing like the stereotype of a society diplomat. A spontaneous and jovial man, he ran a mile when threatened with the endless rounds of cocktails and banquets that were part and parcel of his work with the League in Geneva and kept the simplicity he had grown up with as a son of the mountains. It is quite true that he did not speak English, which held one back even at that time, but in debates and negotiations, Motta managed to calmly hold his ground when faced with sometimes virulent, twisted and even dangerous propositions emanating from other delegations. Some saw in this ability the fruit of his political schooling in the Ticino.
It is not surprising that the League of Nations opened up doors that allowed certain key Swiss figures to accede to important international postings. William Rapped was asked to head the Mandates Service at the heart of the General Secretariat; Max Huber was elected a judge and later president of the International Court of Justice at The Hague; Felix Calonder, from the Grisons and a Romansh speaker who had been Motta’s predecessor as head of Swiss foreign affairs, . was named mediator for the attribution of the Aland Islands m the Baltic Sea and chairman of an international conference on the status of Upper Silesia before going to Katowice as President of the mixed German-Polish Commission charged with overseeing the application of the accord that had defined its new status, a mandate he would carry out for 15 years, from 1922 to 1937. Finally, from 1937 to 1939, the writer and diplomat Carl Jacob Burckhardt from Basel would be the League of Nations High Commissioner to Danzig (Gdansk), a German-majority port city on the Baltic that had been detached from Prussia in the Treaty of Versailles.
For the Swiss Foreign Minister, the Locarno Conference, taking place in his own comer of the country in October 1925, would come as a ray of hope, particularly because France, Germany and Belgium accepted to abstain from further shifting the frontiers of the territories they had been given at Versailles. This resolve was backed up by Great Britain and Italy. One of the consequences of this would be the end of the occupation of the Rhineland by Allied forces. Here was a wonderful example of a new approach to diminish international tensions. Meanwhile, some saw in the Locarno Treaty the foundation for the later impunity with which Germany felt free to act after its rearmament. Indeed, in 1936, all it would take Adolf Hitler to reoccupy the Rhineland was the deployment of two battalions…
Another case Motta took up was the obligatory arbitration established by the League of Nations as a general principle when it came to resolving disputes and international conflicts. For Motta, it was actually the vocation of a neutral country to place itself at the head of any such movement. The 1920′s were the period when Switzerland did all it could to conclude as many bilateral instruments of arbitration as possible. It did so with Poland as early as 1920, with Germany in 1921, Italy in 1924 and France in 1925. In certain cases, Motta managed to convince people in Switzerland who had once been opposed to the League of Nations to tum their efforts to his cause. This was the case with the Socialists, who placed new hopes in the League’s ability to help advance, most notably, the cause of disarmament
The problem with regards to states that had not yet joined the League continued to haunt Motta. Contrary to his initial intentions, Switzerland did not use the absence of the United States as a pretext to also stay away from the new organisation. Yet in the aftermath of this, it did do everything in its power to ensure that the empty seats were filled as fast as possible. This was linked especially to the question of Germany’s membership, not only because it was a friendly, neighbouring country but also due to its position, even back then, as Switzerland’s most important economic partner and also because this membership would symbolize like nothing else that the League was evolving as more than just a coalition of the victors and beginning to take on the mantle of a credible international organization. Other nations, France in the main, did not take kindly to this new militant approach by Switzerland. Nevertheless, in 1926, after Locarno, Berlin mounted its bid to enter the League. This stage of events was presided, on the side of the League, by no less a figure than … Motta.
On the other hand, Motta seemed less in a rush to welcome the Soviet Union and feared it would have a perverting effect on the institution, indeed that it would make it even harder for the League to lobby for peace. Yet the USSR did join in 1934, before being expelled in 1939 due to its attack on a neighbouring nation, Finland. Motta felt deeply hostile towards Communism. In 1918, he was among those who feared that the General Strike might act as a precursor to revolution and herald the rise of Russian-style anarchy in the country. This wariness was for him also a reason to term himself “close” to Benito Mussolini. This emotive stance meant he effectively postponed the re-establishing of diplomatic relations between Bern and Moscow indefinitely and in February of 1939, as the Civil War still raged in Spain, led him to recognise Franco’s nationalist regime. The issue of whether such non-democratic entities should have a place at the heart of the League was clearly still highly controversial. In 1933 Hitler, who wanted a free hand so he could rearm Germany, responded in his own way by slamming the door in Geneva’s face. Japan followed suit, with Italy hesitating until 1937, all of which would not prevent London and Paris, ancient rivals of Rome in the colonial race to conquer Africa, from recognising the annexation of Ethiopia by Italy.
Despite a few glimmers of hope, the storm clouds gathering over the international scene finally won through, especially during the course of the 1930′s. As idealistic as he was, Motta understood full well the crises of his era: economic problems that led to social tensions, the rise of Communist, then Fascist and finally National Socialist ideologies, the brutality of totalitarian regimes towards their own population and their equally brutal relations with the outside world, the weakness of democracies in the face of all this, and to top the lot, the inability of the League to effectively counter the difficulties engendered by these phenomena. In terms of the international conflicts that appeared on the League’s agenda before the outbreak of the Second World War (not all of them were dealt with in Geneva!) the list is overwhelming and damning:
- Poland’s surprise attack on Lithuania in 1920 (Vilnius Crisis),
- taly’s aggression against Corfu in the same year,
- the Chaco war between Bolivia and Paraguay between 1928 and 1935,
- the two Sino-Japanese conflicts in 1931-1932 and 1937 and the establishing of a puppet regime in Manchuria,
- the conquest of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935,
- the joining (Anschluj3) of Austria to Germany 1938 and the annexation of Czechoslovakia,
- the attack by the Soviet Union against Finland in 1939.
The League of Nations proved incapable of responding positively to the numerous calls for help that came its way. The large conference on the control and reduction of armaments in Europe that the League organised in February 1932 and which mobilised hundreds of experts and journalists from all over the world also saw huge crowds of demonstrators bear down on Geneva, pacifists in the main, determined to vent their anger.
Reacting to this evolution, a rapid and deep disillusion can be seen to have set in among the Swiss population with regards to the great hopes of the 1920′s, a disillusion that also led to a nationalist fallback where traditional values were the order of the day and which found its expression in the National Exhibition in Zurich in 1939, the famous Landi. In 1937 a Popular League for the Independence of Switzerland led by Andreas von Sprecher, the son of the Chief of General Staff during the 1914-1918 War demanded that Switzerland leave the League of Nations. It was on the 14th of May 1938 that Switzerland managed to get official dispensation from the Council of the League of its obligation to participate in economic sanctions. This return to so-called integral neutrality was saluted as a great diplomatic success in Switzerland. Does this mean it was an attempt to return to an age of innocence with regards to international relations? That would be too high a hope…
As Europe started its slide towards war in 1939, Motta was already an exhausted and sick man. Despite suffering a stroke in March, he took part in the inauguration of the Landi in May. In August, during the Day of the Swiss Abroad, he gave one of his best speeches ever. After the unleashing of hostilities by Germany in September, he personally wrote the diplomatic notes that Swiss representatives were invited to hand over in the main European capitals to reaffirm Switzerland’s neutral position. And despite suffering another stroke in November, he was reelected to the Federal Council for the eighth time! His death in January 1940 followed a third health crisis. Motta had by then become a sort of monument to Swiss foreign policy; as the great Ticino writer Francesco Chiesa said, “The life Giuseppe Motta has been, if we look at it through the eyes of our soul, an accomplished work of art.“
Obviously we cannot heap blame on Motta for having looked on, powerless, as the international system, as well as the political culture in which he had invested all his hopes and energy fell apart. Was he wrong to keep hammering away at these ideals and to take Switzerland down this road with him? Insofar as we can judge such events in retrospect, the main problem with the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations lay in the fact of the inherent contradiction between the idealistic, visionary “builders of a New World” on the one side, and the very “Old World” behaviour as well as the profound differences in terms of interests between the great powers on the other. It is clear that this contradiction was also fed by the particularly unfavourable circumstances of the period immediately following the Great War: revolutions, unemployment, poverty and lack of food supplies, inflation, etc., to which were added the nightmare of financial reparations. The League of Nations was seen both as a source of great hopes and a hate symbol, even as a tragic monument to grand illusions. The “great diplomatic bazaar” of Geneva was fascinating and repulsive at once.
That said, and despite everything, the 1920′s did provide the first push towards what might become a better world. Motta wanted to mould his world out of these new ideas and to ensure Switzerland’s place in this process, as well as giving a positive image of his country as somewhere kind, generous … At the same time, he wanted to hone Swiss attitudes in favour of a new type of global engagement. In a deeper sense, this related to the existence of a real community of peoples with universal values. He had said it himself: “The actions of the sower are never entirely fruitless.” Clearly however, failure came as a stinging, cruel lesson for many heads of state, diplomats and otherexperts who had truly believed in these concepts and congregated in Geneva; it was crueler still for the millions of men, women and children who paid with their lives for the disintegration of the international order established at Versailles.
Let us add that the United Nations Organization (UN), conceived of during the Second World War and put in place after it ended, was able to learn a good deal from the lessons of the interwar years. We should mention the undeniable necessity that the United States, the most powerful and richest nation on the planet during the whole of the century, should take an active, creative and generous part at the heart of the international community. The UN certainly repeated some of the mistakes made by the League and had some similar bad experiences, notably during the period of the Cold War – the repeated niets by the Soviets being a case in point. Yet after a few tweaks, the UN not only survived and developed a whole host of new instruments of cooperation, but it also became truly universal in nature, something which undoubtedly facilitated Switzerland’s adhesion in 2002, a move put off in 1945 because of the concern that the institution could not truly accept a strict interpretation of Swiss neutrality. This does not mean that the world in the 21st century has in its hands a magic formula that will guarantee long-lasting, real peace, and in all of the world’s countries a human order that merits the name.
As for certain stances taken by Motta, it is clear that they appear difficult to understand when see through the prism of modern mores, the decision, for instance, to recognise the annexation of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy; they illustrate Motta’s desire to be a realist politician and not overly emotive. He understood the conflict between ethics and politics all too well.
There is no point in trying to water down or sweeten some of his political convictions; but it is no use being too quick to criticise certain decision, which are neither convenient nor convincing because we now know how history panned out after they were made. Motta was always chasing after the right solution with great personal intensity and ultimately it was this intensity that allowed his best qualities to shine most brightly.’
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