This biography is taken from Benedict von Tscharner, ‘Max Huber’ in Benedict von Tscharner, Inter Gentes: Statesmen, Diplomats, Political Thinkers, translation Nathasha Proietto, (Infolio editions & Éditions de Penthes, 2012): extract: pp. 217-226.
‘Switzerland’s foreign policy sometimes has a tendency to approach the problems of international life from an essentially legal angle: that of the rights and obligations linked to neutrality in particular. Due to this, legal experts often play a determining role at the heart of Swiss diplomacy. Max Huber is the most evident incarnation of this tendency. Indeed, between 1907, the date of his first assignment as a Swiss delegate to the International Peace Conference at The Hague, and 1921, when he was nominated for the post of judge at the Permanent International Court of Justice at The Hague, he exerted a decisive influence not only as advisor to the Federal Council and as a negotiator, but also as a senior officer in the military justice system. Even though he was personally in charge of some of the most important dossiers of Swiss foreign policy, such as that of entry in to the League of Nations, Huber never desired to enter the federal administration; this was his way of affirming and retaining his independence as a legal expert.
A product of the industrial and financial elite of Zurich, the young Max Huber was named ordinary professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Zurich from 1902, at the age of only 27. It was to a brilliant thesis on the succession of states, presented in Berlin, that he owed this precocious nomination. He very quickly distanced himself from the rather conservative, business-oriented milieu of his family, largely due to his convictions as a practicing Christian, for whom the love of thy neighbor and social engagement were an integral part of his professional approach. He also wanted to follow-up on his interest and engagement for peace and the development of public international law. An educative world tour, offered to him by his father and undertaken between 1900 and 1902, awoke or perhaps confirmed his interest in the affairs of the wider world.
Yet let us get back to Max Huber’s assignments in the sphere of international relations. For the pacifist he was at the time, the second Conference of The Hague (1907), summoned as the first (1899) had been by Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, was a triple let-down: a disappointment for the novice diplomat who discovered the role played by the Swiss delegation in all its ambiguity; too automatically aligned for his liking to the German position and rather negative in its response to many important issues; a disappointment, too, when faced with the relative powerlessness of small, especially neutral countries when they tried to mingle with the big players who dominated the debate. Finally, he was also disillusioned when he saw the failure of the obligatory international arbitration project to which he attached such importance as a legal expert.
The grand epoch of Max Huber as a diplomat was somewhere between 1918 and 1921, at the end of the Great War, at a time when the Peace Conference in Versailles and the birth of the League of Nations led to the question of whether Switzerland would join this new organisation. Max Huber based his thinking on the dual conviction that Switzerland, a nation of peace and international cooperation, owed it to itself to become a member of the League of Nations from the start and to play an active role in it, but that at the same time a special status had to be obtained whereby the country could guarantee the perpetual armed neutrality. The diplomatic action led by Max Huber and William Rappard under the political direction of Federal Councillors Gustave Ador, Felix Calonder and Giuseppe Motta would succeed on both counts.
In this context, there is an issue that has not been brought up enough: the fact that Huber reflected a great deal on the question of how to manage the post-war international order and the fact, too, that Switzerland submitted a complete project for the League of Nations charter to the powers present at Versailles. This text was written by Huber and was quite detailed; there was some polite interest shown to it, but as Versailles was essentially a victors’ conference, it was the propositions of American President Woodrow Wilson which would serve as the basis for discussions at the conference. That said, Switzerland, despite the fact that it had not taken part in the war, was welcomed as one of the founder states of the League of Nations. Yet the particular status that it asked for came across in many capitals as a sign of indifference, or worse, as a selfish attempt to play a role without assuming all the responsibilities of a member state. It was therefore a case of trying to convince the main delegations that neutrality, as conceived of and practiced by the Swiss, was truly in the interest of the international community, notably if a Swiss city – names such as Lausanne and Geneva were touted – was to become the location for the headquarters and secretariat of the new international organisation.
In Switzerland, the line taken by the Federal Council was not wholly understood. There were those on one side who believed that, indeed, thanks to the League of Nations, peace was guaranteed from then on, which would even render neutrality an anachronism; and there were others for whom the new international engagements of Switzerland constituted a dangerous breach of the nation’s independence and neutrality, no matter what clarifications and guarantees were contained in international texts. The negotiations on an interpretative declaration concerning the neutrality of Switzerland proved long and delicate; it was France most notably who turned a deaf ear and tried to mix this question up with that of the Free Zones in Savoy and the Pays de Gex. Moreover, Max Huber felt that Gustave Ador, President of the Confederation for the year 1919, who was present in Paris several times over, seemed overly soft or at least too vague in his defence of the Swiss position. It was finally a meeting between Max Huber and Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, which allowed him, just before a meeting of the League of Nations Council in London, to arrive at an agreement on a compromise text. This declaration by the Council, dated February 12th, 1920, formally recognized Switzerland’s neutrality in what concerned its participation in military sanctions, from which it was duly dispensed. On the other hand, it was not free to abstain from applying economic and other measures that the League might take with regards to the member states that violated the Charter. The term “differential neutrality” was created to cover this new status.
Max Huber was not only the author of the London declaration; beforehand, he had also drafted the long message which the Federal Council addressed to the Federal Chambers on the ratification of Swiss membership of the League, a very detailed text, precise and sober – apart from some of the concluding passages where the old idealist pacifism of the author resurfaced. When he returned to Bern, Huber was the object of a rare gesture by the Federal Council, a dinner in his honor in recognition of the role he had played in the genesis of this historic declaration. The campaign that preceded the popular vote on an ad hoc annex to the Federal Constitution – at this time, there were no provisions for referenda on international treaties – was extremely animated and Huber was wholly engaged in it. The result of this memorable vote of May 16th, 1920 was, as we know, positive, albeit very tight (eleven cantons in favour, ten against).
In the months that followed, Max Huber remained Motta’s main advisor and participated in a series of sessions of the League of Nations Assembly and its commissions. He focused, for instance, on the status of the Aland Islands, which lay between Sweden and Finland; he also worked to achieve a German membership of the League, believing that the League’s universal membership was an essential precondition for its success. Germany did finally join in 1926, probably too late. Finally, in 1932-33, Max Huber would become a Swiss delegate once more; this time at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, where the main question was arbitration, which he viewed as a lynchpin of Swiss foreign policy. The Locarno Treaty of 1925 would essentially reflect the important Germano-Swiss bilateral arbitration treaty concluded in 1921 and negotiated by Huber.
The International Court of Justice was created by the League of Nations and its judges were elected by the General Assembly. Max Huber’s election as a judge in 1921, as proposed by the Federal Councillor Motta, was not necessarily an obvious move, despite the great renown enjoyed by the Swiss candidate, for there were a great many pretenders to these posts and they were the subject of much politico-diplomatic maneuvering. The end result however was that our compatriot did go to The Hague and swapped Bern with the Dutch capital. Th1s noble institution was lodged in a pompous palace there that had been financed by the American millionaire – and militant pacifist – Andrew Carnegie after the Conference of 1907. It was a palace awaiting an international court which would have a considerable task to accomplish. Even more surprising was the election of Max Huber as president of the Court; at the age of 50, he was actually the youngest of its judges. Max Huber would hold this position from 1925 to 1927 and would then be elected vice-president, from 1928 to 1930. A Swiss at the head of a Court that passed judgment on the whole world: the event was exceptional. In order to exercise this high function, Max Huber had to make many sacrifices: he gave up his chair and professorship in Zurich for good; he left prestigious boardroom seats (Oerlikon, Alusuisse, etc.); he put an end to his role as legal advisor to the Swiss government and he even refused to enter the race for the Federal Council. This candidature was brought up in 1929 not by a member of his own party but rather – in an exceptional move – by a popular petition. He also had to live in The Hague, solitary as ever, far from his castle in Wyden in the Ziirich countryside and far from his wife, who suffered a great deal from this. Max Huber left this demanding role in 1930, clearly disappointed by the weakening impact international justice was having – a sort of justice he always viewed in rather political terms; this evolution went side by side with the general degradation of the international political climate.
The new great challenge faced by Huber would from now on be the presidency of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an institution profoundly moulded by Geneva traditions; he was a member of it since 1923, the first Swiss German in this post! In this all-too brief summary, we shall limit ourselves to mentioning only two of the major contributions made by Max Huber to the life of the Red Cross. First of all, the elaboration and adoption of the Statutes of the International Red Cross in 1928, a text essentially written by the then-President Huber; it defined with precision the role to be played by diverse actors – national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies, the League of Red Cross Societies (an institution created in 1919 under the presidency of Gustave Ador, who was at that time both a Federal Councillor and the President of the ICRC), and finally, of course, the ICRC itself, whose role and absolute independence had to be clearly denoted. Another important text with Max Huber’s fingerprints on it was the Convention on the Protection of Civilians in Times of War, a convention adopted by the International Conference of the Red Cross in Tokyo in 1934, but ratified by too few states to enter into force. This fact would significantly lessen the impact of the ICRC during the Second World War, notably also for everything linked to the concentration camps and Nazi persecution of the Jewish people. Indeed, for the ICRC to go over and above what was permitted by international humanitarian law would, according to its leaders at the time, severely have endangered the successful fulfillment of its classic, uncontested tasks. As for the day-to-day activities of the ICRC, they would experience an enormous expansion during the war, which would make of this small Geneva institution a global – non-governmental – organisation.
One of the great actors in the Swiss foreign policy of the 20th century, Max Huber was perhaps the one who best managed to combine his ethical, scientific, diplomatic and didactic qualities, all the while remaining an exemplary figure in terms of probity and simplicity – in the best sense of the term – exceptional qualities for a man in his position.’