How Caux began
by Pierre Spoerri
Pierre Spoerri is from Zurich where his father was Professor of Romansh Language and Literature and later University Vice-Chancellor. He worked with the world-wide programme of Moral Re-Armament, as well as reporting for European newspapers and radio. He has been one of those responsible for the Centre at Caux and is author of several books, notably Rediscovering Freedom with Dr J.S.Lester.
WHEN Frank Buchman, in the middle of July of 1946, stepped through the doors of Mountain House, the newly created conference-centre of Moral Re-Armament (in Caux-sur-Montreux, Switzerland), he looked more towards the future than back to the past. So he enquired about all the people coming to attend the planned conference, and in the weeks that followed, 3,000 men and women from 34 nations arrived in Caux to participate in this first international gathering of Moral Re-Armament since the end of the war. Even Japanese, Chinese and Indians made the then long trip to Switzerland and expressed their vision for the future. The first deep conversations between the Germans and their former enemies took place. My parents were both there and I joined them in uniform during a week-end leave from my military service.
Few of the guests and participants knew that the decision to buy the former Caux Palace and to transform it into Mountain House had only been taken four months before and that those responsible for this initiative had only just taken possession of the building on June 1. For Buchman - in 1946 68 years-old - and for some of the Swiss, however, the former Caux Palace was not an unknown place. Buchman had visited it as a tourist in August 1903 during its heydays. And in the spring of 1942, just before entering the Foreign Office, Philippe Mottu had expressed to his friends the following thought: “If the Swiss were to escape from getting involved in the war, our task will be to put at the disposal of Frank Buchman a place where the Europeans, torn apart by hate, suffering and resentment, can find each other again. Caux is the place.”*1
Mottu repeated this conviction again in 1944, still in the middle of the war, when he was able to join Frank Buchman for a few weeks in the States. Then in the summer of 1945, he joined Buchman again at a conference on Mackinac Island (USA) together with his friend Robert Hahnloser and several other Swiss, British and Dutch friends. One day, Buchman took Mottu and Hahnloser aside and asked them to organise a first international post-war conference in Switzerland.
About to be sold
Looking for an adequate place for the gathering, Mottu again thought of Caux and visited the building one sunny March day in 1946. They found the old caretaker and discovered that the building was going to be sold to a French company. The banks had taken back the derelict hotel after it had been run by the Swiss Army as a refugee camp, first for Allied officers who had escaped from prison-camps in Germany and Italy, then for several hundred Jewish refugees who had been able during the last weeks of the war to flee from Budapest and who arrived at the Swiss border after a short stay in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. The caretaker had been able to hide the hotel china and silver and hoped against hope that the building would be restored to its ancient glory.
Then things moved very quickly. At Easter 1946, several hundred Swiss and a few friends from outside gathered in Interlaken, and in the middle of the conference a group of them - including the three couples, Philippe and Helene Mottu, Robert and Dorli Hahnloser, Erich and Emmy Peyer - made the journey to Caux to look at the building and decide whether to take it or not. It was a cold and unfriendly day, and the house received them in a similar way with empty rooms, destroyed furniture and endless dirty corridors. Still, Robert Hahnloser, a qualified engineer, saw immediately the potential of this building. He envisaged what could be done to transform the big hall into a meeting-room, the ballroom into a theatre, and to make the kitchens which were described by one as similar to ‘the black hole of Calcutta’ into a workable place for potential cooks. When the group met after a visit of two hours in the building, they all agreed, well realizing the gigantic effort that would be needed, that they should go ahead. From London, Frank Buchman gave his agreement and asked: “Can you find the needed money in Switzerland?” Mottu answered with a clear “Yes”, knowing - or not fully knowing - what he was letting himself in for.
Neglected, battered, filthy
On May 25 1946, the contract was signed with the Banque Populaire Suisse in Montreux by Mottu and Hahnloser who took on to find within a few months the more than one million Francs needed to pay for the hotel and the whole land surrounding it. On June 1, Robert Hahnloser took possession of the building. Also on June 1, a group of 25 Swiss, British, Scandinavians, French and Dutch arrived knowing that they had just six weeks to transform this half-ruin into a home ready to receive up to six hundred guests from all over the world. Four of them wrote a letter describing the experience: “When we arrived the building was for us a symbol of what Europe is today. Neglected, battered, filthy, upside down, cold and empty. It waited for a new era to dawn. Coming into the vast and desolate-looking hall that first evening we were gripped by the fear of the huge task before us. We had six weeks...”*2
At the same time, the needed money was coming in big and small sums. Hahnloser answered the question where the money was coming from with the following words: “Some gave from their income, others from their capital; again others gave everything they possessed. Some sold their life-insurance, others shares or their houses. One of the first gifts received in 1946 came from an important Swiss trade union. One of my best friends had put 10,000 Francs aside to build a ski-chalet for his children, but he came to the conclusion that for the future of his children Mountain House would be the best place to invest this money.”*3 The first payment of 450,000 Swiss Francs was paid on time on July 1 to the bank. It was all money coming from Switzerland, from sacrificial giving by 95 Swiss families.
How did all these elements come together in time? One moment of decision had clearly been the 1946 Easter Conference in Interlaken. Besides the Swiss, there were also three hundred friends from neighbouring countries who took part. Probably the most unexpected group were four from Germany. The first contact between some of Buchman’s friends from Germany under occupation was made thanks to a Swiss industrialist, Paul Suter, who worked on the German side of the border and continued during the war to live in a village on the Swiss side. He ‘smuggled into Germany’ some invitations to the Interlaken conference. The four candidates received their exit permits thanks to the chaplain to the French Forces in Germany who had known the Oxford Group*4 before the war. For them, participating in this gathering was a rather shattering but unforgettable experience. The Germans who could go to Caux in 1946, in the spring and in the autumn, were all from the French Zone only.*5
It is a fascinating exercise to read the names of the people who took part in the Interlaken Conference, many of whom then decided to ‘buy Caux’ and were ready to come and clean up the rooms and prepare the building. Many of them also made the financial sacrifices needed to buy the building and to support the group which had decided to give its whole time to this enterprise. When one looks at all these names, one makes an amazing discovery: practically all these people had found a new direction for their lives and a deepening of their faith in the early Thirties during Buchman’s first visits to Switzerland.
“Why not prepare to live?”
The first of these visits happened through an extraordinary set of circumstances. Buchman was having dinner in the spring of 1931 with Mrs Alexander Whyte, the elderly widow of a once-famous Scottish theologian. He asked her what was her greatest concern. “I’m preparing to die,” she replied. Buchman responded, “Why not prepare to live?” Mrs Whyte then spoke of her hopes for the League of Nations where her son was working at that moment. Some months later she suggested to Buchman that he take a team to Geneva, and in true Buchman fashion he answered by saying, “You do it.” So, in January 1932, she booked a hundred rooms in Geneva. Buchman prepared an adequate group to go with him and stayed there for ten days.*6
In the summer of 1931, a young Swiss student, Walther Staub, had participated in Oxford at one of the house parties organised by Frank Buchman. When he returned to Zurich, he found that his professor, Theophil Spoerri, was in profound spiritual need. Staub had the extraordinary courage to suggest to his professor in January 1932 a visit to Geneva where, as he had heard, Buchman was holding a series of meetings. As a cautious Swiss, my father did not announce his coming but arrived anonymously in the hall where the meeting took place. He was staying with his sister, a deaconess, in order not to seem to be too keen.
He was not too impressed by what he heard but was struck by the fact that all of those who spoke or whom he met knew where they were going and were obviously enjoying life. When he asked one of them how he could find the same sense of direction he was told that he had to be ready to make a simple experiment: he would need to take the principles of the Sermon of the Mount - absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love - and compare them to his present life. Then he would just need to take time in silence to let God - or his conscience - talk to him.
Much too simple
After returning to Zurich, with the impression that all this was much too simple, he one day took time to be silent in his study on the second floor of our house. He expected to get some ‘moral’ thoughts, for instance to be more patient with his wife or to clean up a bit of his thought-life. But what he got was of a totally different nature: “Come down from your second floor!” Till then he had fled upstairs whenever there was a need on the ground-floor - where my mother ruled - and had in more ways than one avoided getting involved in any unpleasant things of any kind. ‘Coming down into the street’ meant a profound change of motive. When my father accepted the truth of this call, the whole atmosphere in our family changed. I was six years old when all this happened, but I definitely noticed the difference. My room had been next to my parents’ bedroom. So I had heard them argue at night. I had not understood the words but the music was unmistakable!
It was natural that such a deep change would affect very quickly several of father’s friends. One of them was the well-known professor of theology, Emil Brunner. Another was the Genevese doctor Paul Tournier. The latter met the ideas of the Oxford Group4 through an extraordinary set of circumstances in which he could not help but see later the hand of God. Tournier used to replace a colleague of his during the summer holidays. The colleague, Henri Mentha, had one very difficult patient, an Austrian Baroness, Connie von Hahn. And in the first summer, Tournier found the lady very difficult. Then Mentha told him one day: “You remember the Austrian Baroness?” “Indeed,” was Tournier’s reply. Mentha: “Well, she’s changed.” The two doctors were determined to get behind the secret of this change. One of their friends made this possible and so Tournier found himself meeting with two Zurich professors, Spoerri and Brunner, and another impressive visitor from Zurich - the psychiatrist Alphonse Maeder - and a senior official of the League of Nations, Jan de Bordes. Tournier described that evening as “the great turning point in my life”.*7 When he then met Buchman in Oxford the following summer, the latter told him: “Now you must apply what you have found here in your profession.” He wrote later: “So I decided to devote my life to reflection about the influence of the spiritual life on personal health”.
In August 1932 Buchman returned to Switzerland for a first major conference on Swiss soil at Ermatingen on Lake Constance. My father and Emil Brunner were the main initiators of this gathering for which they had chosen a place half-way between Munich and Zurich, as there was a growing interest in Germany now for the Oxford Group ideas. One family that was to play an important role in the creation of the conference centre of Caux took a prominent part in Ermatingen, the de Trey family. Mrs Lydi de Trey was the sister of Emil Brunner, and Emmanuel was a very successful inventor and businessman. They addressed the gathering together with their eldest daughter Helen, who was to become in 1939 the wife of Philippe Mottu.
Riches as goods loaned to him by God
Mrs de Trey said that her deepest wish had been fulfilled - to see the family united with the same purpose. Helen spoke about a new relationship with her brothers. But the most spectacular changes seem to have happened to Emmanuel de Trey, who spoke after a former communist lady about the ‘sins of a capitalist’. He spoke about “the misery in a man who is the slave of Mammon…The only salvation for a capitalist is...to use his riches as goods loaned to him by God, goods that do not belong to him but whose administrator he is, in order to serve his neighbour in a better way.”*8 In 1946 Emmanuel de Trey bought the Hotel Maria, across the road from Mountain House, to be an integral part of the conference centre. It is still used for seminars and conferences outside the summer months. He also gave major sums for the work of Caux in Asia and Africa.
After Ermatingen, dozens of meetings, house-parties and gatherings took place all over Switzerland. My father wrote: “From Geneva it swept across the country like a hurricane. There were mass meetings in the major cities. In Zurich not only was the great Börsensaal packed out but an overflow meeting had to be arranged. It was a keen, invigorating, uncomfortable time. It went beyond all expectations.”*9
To a friend he wrote: “We had to cancel the open evenings in Zurich as too many people came and the halls became too small. All the groups in private homes are overflowing. We do not make any propaganda, but rather discourage people from coming. But we still do not have enough time to receive all the hungry souls. Last time when I had a group-meeting in our house, I had to open the side-room as well and people had to sit on the floor. I guess we were about sixty...”*10
In his biography of Frank Buchman, Theophil Spoerri describes the effects of this awakening on Swiss national life: “It is difficult to measure all the results of these great meetings and of the countless personal contacts. There is no doubt that for many it was the turning point of their lives. It could also be described as a change of climate. It was almost as if something new was penetrating between the chinks in the shutters. A businessman, alone in his office, would feel a faint sense of unease if he was planning to cheat his fellow citizens. The public conscience became more sensitive. The Director of Finance in one canton reported that after the national day of thanksgiving and repentance, 6,000 tax payments were recorded, something that had never occurred before in the financial history of the Republic.*11
Switzerland a prophet among the nations
“This breaking out of the religious sphere into public life took place in every imaginable way. A reception was given by the Swiss President and other government representatives in the Federal Assembly. The following week a large number of Members of Parliament met with Frank Buchman and his colleagues in one of the main committee rooms. News of this appeared in the daily press. Der Bund spoke with some astonishment about an 'hour of frankness in Parliament’.”
The closing event of the campaign was Buchman's speech in Zurich. After quoting the President of the Swiss Confederation, Rudolf Minger's words of welcome some days earlier, he went on to outline his vision of Switzerland's role in world affairs. “I can see Switzerland a prophet among the nations, and a peacemaker in the international family... I can see Swiss businessmen showing the leaders of the world's commerce how faith in God is the only security. I can see Swiss statesmen demonstrating that divine guidance is the only practical politics.”*12
Besides the influence on the politicians and on thousands of individual lives, the wave of these new ideas also affected the economic life. Another good friend of my father and of Robert Hahnloser was Professor Alfred Carrard of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.*12 He developed a new thinking about the relationships in industrial enterprises and through his work developed a warm friendship with the leaders of the Swiss machine- and watch-making industry and of the trade union leadership in the same industry. He had a part in making possible a remarkable peace agreement*13 in this industrial field which was quite revolutionary at that time and which is still lasting at the beginning of the second millennium.
The teamwork of Emil Brunner and my father reached its high-point at Easter-time 1937 in a national gathering attended by 10,000 people from all over the country in Lausanne. In 1938, again at Easter, several hundred Swiss met for four days in Caux in the hotel that they were going to develop into a world centre ten years later.
When the war broke out, the contact with Buchman who was in the United States at that time and until 1946, was interrupted. Most Swiss men were mobilised in September 1939 and spent many months in uniform guarding the frontiers. A small group of women decided to keep a contact-office open in Berne, in the Hotel Bristol. Their main mission was to ensure liaison between Buchman's friends who had been called up in their various countries, and to supply them with news and literature.
My father writes. “The many letters they received showed how the seed sown by Buchman bore fruit in the most hopeless situations. A young man who had been at the Interlaken Conference in 1938, in a letter to his father just before he was killed, wrote: 'Looking back I am grateful for my life because God has guided it wonderfully... I pray for you to be able to accept my death so that it brings neither rebellion nor sorrow, but spurs you on to fight all the more for the common cause to which God has called us in different ways.' From a concentration camp another wrote: 'Even in a concentration camp where everyone is fighting for sheer survival, often at the expense of others, it is possible to be completely happy when you forget yourself. That is very hard to do, especially here, and I often fail. But I know that if every day I start by thinking of others, I can do something for them.' This group in Berne built a bridge leading to the post-war years.” *14
We are back in 1946. It was as if the country and many of its citizens had been kept in reserve. When the call came, they were ready. The doors then were opened to the world, especially to the nations that had fought against each other to the bitter end. And they came by the hundreds and thousands.
(1) Philippe Mottu, Caux - De la Belle Epoque au Rearmament Moral (A la Baconniere, Neuchatel 1969). p.54. Translation by the author. Many facts in the following paras also emanate from this book
(2) Letter signed by Philippe and Helen Mottu, Elspeth Spoerry, Kärstin Rääf, Theo Metcalfe (Archives cantonales vaudoises)
(3) Le Monde Ouvrier et Caux (Editions de Caux 1949) p.79.
(4) Oxford Group, Groupes d’Oxford, Oxford-Gruppe, Gruppenbewegung - These were the names used in the thirties to describe the work of Buchman and his team in English-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking countries worldwide. In 1938, Buchman launched the name Moral Re-Armament. It was replaced by Initiatives of Change in 2002.
5) Dr Siegfried Ernst, Mit Gott im Rückspiegel (Gerhard Hess Verlag, Ulm 1998) p.280/1.
6) Garth Lean, Frank Buchman - a Life (Collins Fount Paperbacks, London 1988), p.215/6.
(7) Paul Tournier, in a letter written on the occasion of my parents’ golden wedding anniversary 1965.
(8) Quotes from the Ermatinger Tagebuch (Leopold Klotz Verlag Gotha und Wander Verlag Zürich 1932) (in the Archives cantonales vaudoises).
(9) Theophil Spoerri, Dynamic out of Silence (Grosvenor Books, London 1976) p.90.
(10) Pierre Spoerri, Mein Vater und sein Jüngster (Th. Gut Verlag, Stäfa 2002), p.30.
(11) Theophil Spoerri, ibid. pp.94-6.
(12) More about the thinking of Alfred Carrard in Jean Carrard, Pionier der Wirtschaftsethik (Paul Haupt Verlag, Bern 1990).
(13) Friedensabkommen in der Schweizerischen Metall- und Uhrenindustrie, signed on 19th July 1937.
(14) Theophil Spoerri, ibid. pp.156, 158.