‘I didn’t die,’ says Jeanmaire proudly. ‘They wanted me to, but I wouldn’t do them the favour.’
It is evening. We are alone in his tiny flat on the eastern outskirts of Bern. He is cooking cheese fondue for the two of us. On a shelf in the kitchen stand the steel eating bowls he used in prison. Why does he keep them?
‘For memory,’ he replies.
In the tiny corridor outside hang the dagger and sabre that are the insignia of a Swiss army officer’s dress uniform. The drawing room is decorated with a reproduction medieval halberd and his diploma of architecture dated 1934. A signed photograph from General Westmoreland, commemorating a goodwill visit to Bern, is inscribed ‘General, Air Protection Troops’, Jeanmaire’s last appointment.
‘Of course there were some of my colleagues who got nothing,’ he says slyly, indicating that he was singled out for this distinction.
He has decided it is time for a drink. He drinks frugally these days, but still with the relish for which he is remembered.
‘I permit myself a little water,’ he announces. Prussian style, he stiffens his back, raises his elbow, whips the cap off the whisky bottle I have brought him and pours two precise shots. He adds his water; we raise our glasses, drink eye to eye, raise them again, then perch ourselves awkwardly at the table while he rolls the whisky round his mouth and declares it drinkable. Then he is off again, this time to the oven to stir the cheese and – as a trained and tried military instructor as well as judge – lecture me on how to do it on my own next time.
On the desk, and on the floor, and piled high against the wall, papers, files, press cuttings, mounds of them, mustered and flagged for his last campaign.
It is a journalistic conceit to pretend you are unmoved by people. But I am not a journalist and I am not superior to this encounter. Jean-Louis Jeanmaire moves me deeply and humorously and horribly.
Jean-Louis Jeanmaire photographed in his apartment in the suburbs of Bern, 8 January 1991
Jeanmaire is not cut out to be a mystery, least of all a spy. He is not cut out to be a Swiss, for his feelings are written all over his features, even when he is trying to hide them, and he would be the worst poker player in the world. He is broad-faced and, for a seemingly aggressive man, strangely vulnerable. He has the eyebrows of an angry clown. They lift and scowl and flit and marvel with every stray mood that passes over him. His body too is seldom reconciled. He seems to come at you and retreat at the same time. He is short and was once delicate, but striving has made a bull of him. His brief, passionate gestures are the more massive for being confined in a small room. Wherever you are with him in his life – whether in his childhood, or in the army, or in his marriage, or in court, or in prison – you feel in him, and sometimes in yourself as well, the need for greater space, more air, more distance.
‘I had no access to top secret information!’ he whispers, with an emotional implosion that his body seems hardly able to contain. ‘How could I have betrayed secrets I didn’t know? All I ever did was give the Russians harmless bits of proof that Switzerland was a dangerous country to attack!’ A wave of anger seizes him. ‘C’était la dissuasion,’ he bellows. He is wagging his finger at me. His brows are clamped together above his nose. ‘My aim was to deter those mad Bolsheviks at the Kremlin from mounting an assault against my country! I showed them how expensive it would be! What is dissuasion if the other side is not dissuaded! Denissenko understood that! We were working together against the Bolsheviks!’
His voice drops to make the point more gently: ‘I was never a traitor. A fool maybe. A traitor, never!’
He has no time between moods. He has no time. He is pursuing justice every moment that is left to him. He can act and mime. He can camp and scorn and laugh. He has the energy of a man half his eighty years. One minute he is squared at you like a boxer; the next all you have to look at is his soldier’s back as, toes and heels together, he bows devotionally to light the candles on the tiny kitchen table. He lights them every day in memory of his dead wife, he says: the same wife whom he never once blamed for sleeping with his nemesis, the Soviet military attaché and intelligence officer Colonel Vassily Denissenko, Deni for short, who was stationed in Bern in the early sixties and effortlessly recruited Jeanmaire as his source.
He waves out the match. He has the tiny fingers of a watchmaker. ‘But Deni was an attractive man!’ he protests, as his far-off, pale eyes brim again with love remembered, whether for his wife or for Deni or for both of them. ‘If I’d been a woman I’d have slept with him myself!’
The statement does not embarrass him. For all that has been done to him, Jeanmaire is a lover still: of his friends, dead or alive, of his several women and of his erstwhile Russian contacts. The ease with which a man so deceived in his loyalties continues to give his trust is terrifying. It is impossible to listen to him for any time and not wish to take him into your protection. Deni was handsome! he is insisting. Deni was cultivated, charming, honourable, a gentleman! Deni was a hero of Stalingrad, he had medals for gallantry, he admired the Swiss Army! Deni was no Bolshevik: he was a horseman, a tsarist, an officer of the old school!
Deni, he might add, was also the acknowledged Resident of the GRU, or Soviet Military Intelligence Service, poor cousin of the KGB. But Jeanmaire doesn’t seem to care. The first time he even heard of the KGB, he insists, was when he was cataloguing books for the prison library. The GRU remains even more remote from him. He swears that throughout his entire military career, he never had the least training in these bodies.
And Deni was faithful to the end, he repeats, driving his little fist on to the table like a child who fears he is unheard: the end being twelve years in solitary confinement in a cell ten feet by six, after 130 days of intermittent civilian and military interrogation while under arrest, followed by a further six months’ detention while awaiting trial and a closed military tribunal that lasted barely four days. Its findings are still secret.
‘When they arrested me, Deni wrote a letter from Moscow to the Soviet Literary Gazette, describing me as the greatest anti-Communist he had ever known. The letter was published in the Swiss press but never referred to at my trial. That was exceptional, such a letter. Deni cared very much about me.’
That is not exactly what Denissenko wrote about him, but never mind. He described Jeanmaire as a nationalist and patriot, which is probably how Denissenko regarded himself also.
And still the anguished eulogy flows on. Deni never pressed him, never tried to squeeze anything out of him he didn’t want to give. Ergo – Deni was an honourable man! Not so honourable that Jeanmaire would let Deni pay for drinks or that he could accept an envelope of money from him or even that he could let Deni get a sight of Jeanmaire’s signature on a letter, but honourable all the same: ‘Deni was a man of heart, a brother officer in the best sense!’
Above all, Deni was noble. Jeanmaire awards this word like a medal. Jeanmaire has been prejudged, reviled and incarcerated. He has come as near to being burned as a witch as modern society allows. But all he asks is that, before he dies, the world will give him back his own nobility. And I hope it will. And so would all of us. For who can disappoint a man of such infectious and vulnerable feeling?
To the suggestion that he might have been jealous of his wife’s lover, Jeanmaire expresses only mystification.
‘Jealousy?’ he repeats, as the nimble eyebrows rush together in disapproval. ‘Jealousy? Jealousy is the vice of a limited man, but trust –’
We have struck his vanity again, his tragic, childish, prickly vanity: Jeanmaire is not a limited man, he would have me know! And his wife was a pure, good, beautiful woman and, like Deni, faithful to the end! Even though, in his wife’s case, the end came sooner, for she died while he was still in prison. Deni’s charm, whatever else it had going for it, did not come cheap.
From the pile of cuttings Jeanmaire extracts a muddy photograph of the great man, and I try hard to imagine his allure. Or was the allure actually all on Jeanmaire’s side, and was Jeanmaire the one person who never knew it? Alas, Russian officers are seldom photogenic. All I see in Deni is a grey-suited, doughy-faced military bureaucrat of no expression, looking as if he would prefer not to have been photographed at all. And Jeanmaire, this un-Swiss Swiss, beaming as if he has just won the Derby.
Let me be a journalist for a moment. Jean-Louis Jeanmaire was born in 1910 in the small industrial town of Biel in the canton of Bern, where they do indeed make, among other things, the watches that remind me of his little hands. Biel is bilingual, German and French. So is Jeanmaire, though he regards French as his first language and speaks German with a grating, nasal pseudo-Prussian accent that to my ear is not at all Swiss, but then I was never in the Swiss Army. If there were such a thing as German Canadian, I am thinking as I listen to the rolled rs and saw-edged as, that is what Jeanmaire would be speaking. His father was an arch-conservative of chilling rectitude. Like Jean-Louis after him, he was a chartered architect. But by passion he was a Colonel of Cavalry and Commandant of Mobilization for the town of Biel. In a country condemned to peace, the infant Jeanmaire was thus born a soldier’s son and longed to be a soldier. He was four when the First World War broke out, and he has a clear memory of his papa standing in uniform beside the Christmas tree and of his great and good godfather Tissot, also in uniform, dropping in to visit.
‘Such a beautiful officer,’ Jeanmaire recalls of his godfather Edouard Tissot, almost as if he were talking about Deni.
Tissot was also beautiful without his uniform, apparently. When Jeanmaire visited him in his spacious apartment, he would likely as not find his godfather wandering around it naked. But no, Tissot was not homosexual! he cries in disgust, and neither was Jeanmaire! This nakedness was Spartan, never sexual.
Yet beside this image of military glory, Jeanmaire has a second and contrasting early memory that reflects more accurately the social upheavals of the times: namely of the Swiss General Strike of 1918, when the ‘Bolsheviks of Biel’ derailed a train in order to barricade the street, then hoisted the red flag on the capsized engine. Their violence against property and their lack of discipline appalled the young Jeanmaire, and his love of the army, if possible, increased. Even today, given the chance, Jeanmaire would make an army of the whole world. Without his army, it seems, he is in his own eyes a man of no parentage.
Jeanmaire is nothing if not the creature of his origins. For those who know Switzerland only for its slopes and valleys, Swiss militarism, if they are aware of it at all, is a harmless joke. They make nothing of the circular steel plates in the winding mountain roads, from which explosive charges will be detonated to seal off the valleys from the aggressor; of the great iron gateways that lead into secret mountain fortresses, some for storing military arsenals, others for sitting out the nuclear holocaust; of the self-regarding young men in officer’s uniform who strut the pavements and parade themselves in tea shops at weekends. They are unaware of the vast annual expenditure on American tanks and fighter aircraft, early-warning-systems, civil defence, deep shelters and (with 625,000 troops from a population of 6,000,000) after Israel the largest proportionate standing army in the world, costing the Swiss taxpayer 18 per cent of his gross national budget – it has been as high as thirty – or 5.2 billion Swiss francs or £2.1 billion a year. If their Alpine holidays are occasionally disturbed by the scream of low-flying jets or bursts of semi-automatic fire from the local shooting range, they are likely to dismiss such irritations as the charming obsessions of a peaceful Lilliput with the grown-up games of war.
And to a point, the Swiss in their dealings with the benighted foreigner encourage this view, either because as believers in their military ethic they prefer to remain aloof from frivolous explanation, or because as dissenters they are embarrassed to admit that their country lives in a permanent, almost obsessive state of semi-mobilization. For better or worse, Switzerland’s military tradition is for many of her inhabitants the essence of Swiss nationhood. And the chain of influence and connection that goes with it is probably the most powerful of the many that comprise the intricate structure of Swiss domestic power.
To its more radical opponents, the Swiss Army is quite baldly an expensive weapon of social suppression, an insane waste of taxpayers’ money, which recreates in military form the distinctions of civilian life. But to its defenders, it is the very spirit of national unity, bridging the linguistic and cultural differences between Switzerland’s ethnic groups and keeping at bay the swelling numbers of immigrants who threaten to dilute the proud and ancient blood of free Switzerland. Above all, say its defenders, the army deters the foreign adventurer. Just as apologists of the nuclear deterrent insist that the bomb, by its existence, has ensured that it will never be used, so supporters of Swiss militarism claim that the army has secured their country’s neutrality – and hence survival – through successive European wars.
Jean-Louis Jeanmaire – who still prides himself on having persuaded incarcerated conscientious objectors to change their minds – has subscribed passionately to this gospel since childhood. He had it preached to him by his father and again by his godfather Tissot. In the same breath they taught him the equally fervent gospel of anti-socialism. ‘Good’, says Jeanmaire, meant ‘patriot and militarist’. ‘Bad’ meant ‘anti-militarist and socialist.’
But the small town of Biel did not at all share the reactionary visions of Tissot, Colonel Jeanmaire and his son. Its inhabitants were mostly workpeople. When the railway workers marched in support of the strike of November 1918 – in the same days in which Jeanmaire witnessed the overturning of the train – the army dealt with them swiftly, tearing into the crowds and shooting one man dead. But the response of Jeanmaire’s father and his comrades, he says, was to rally a contingent of technical students to keep the gas and electricity works going, and arm the bourgeoisie against the rabble. Interestingly, local historical records award no such role to Jeanmaire’s father, but say that the strike was broken by imported Italian labour. But whatever his father’s contribution to the suppression might have been, his conservative posture did not make life easy for the young Jeanmaire when the time came for him to attend the local school. From his first day, he says, beatings by staff armed with sticks and the inner tubes of car-tyres became his fare. When he was unruly, the diminutive Jeanmaire was strapped to a school bench: ‘I was the smallest but I wasn’t the most stupid,’ he says grimly.
Some boys in this situation might have learned to keep their opinions to themselves, or prudently converted to their oppressors’ views. Not Jeanmaire. Always one to speak his mind, he did so more loudly, in defiance of what he regarded as the prevailing cant. Both at school and afterwards, he learned to count on his own judgement and assail mediocrity wherever he found it, whether it was above him or below him on the ladder of beings.
And this attitude stayed with him through his adult life – through the architectural studies on which he hurled himself with impressive result as a prelude to enlistment and into his career as an infantry instruction officer, which he pursued on the orders of his godfather Tissot, who told Jeanmaire that if he joined the artillery he would never talk to him again.
At first, Jeanmaire’s career proceeded well. In 1937, after the usual probationary period, he made instructor, rose to captain three years later and major after another seven. During the Second World War he saw service on the Simplon and in the canton of Wallis, and in 1956 he was made lieutenant-colonel and given his first regiment.
Yet throughout his steady rise, Jeanmaire’s reputation as a big mouth would not go away, as his army record testifies in its otherwise quite favourable account of him: Jeanmaire was ‘intelligent, lively’, but spoke ‘too much and too soon’. In his work as an infantry instructor, he ‘lacked respect and picked quarrels with his superiors’. He was ‘qualified technically but not personally’ to command a training school. On one occasion, in 1952, he was even given eight days’ punishment arrest ‘for insulting officers of a battalion placed under his command’ during manoeuvres – though according to Jeanmaire, all he did was tick off a member of Parliament for not wearing his helmet and call a machine-gunner an arsehole for nearly mowing down a group of spectators.
True, Jeanmaire had his supporters, even if their admiration of him was played down in the Army’s self-serving portrait of his inadequacies. To some of his superiors, he was a capable officer, an inspiration to his men, energetic, good fun. Nevertheless, the abiding impression is of a man impatient of fools, pressing too hard against the limitations of his rank and professional scope. At best, he comes over as a kind of miniature Swiss Lee Kwan Yew, thrusting to express great visions in a country too small to contain them.
Jeanmaire, having recently been promoted to major, in 1943
Jeanmaire’s accusers, of course, had every reason to present his military career in a poor light, for they were stuck for a motive. They had looked high and low for the thirty pieces of silver, but all they had found was a handful of small change. And not even the most implacable of Jeanmaire’s enemies could pin secret Communist sympathies on him.
So finally they fixed upon Jeanmaire’s transfer to Air Defence in 1956 as the moment of his turning; followed by his being passed over, in 1962, for the appointment as Chief of Air Defence and Territorial Services, obliging him to wait another seven years, by which time the two responsibilities had been separated, and Jeanmaire got Air Defence only. Jeanmaire, it was reasoned, was ‘disappointed and traumatized’, first to leave the glorious infantry for the unregarded pastures of Air Defence, then to see a lesser man promoted over him. Jeanmaire denies this adamantly: perhaps too adamantly. The army had always been good to him, he insists; he had status, and he was on the guest list for Bern’s diplomatic round of military and service attachés; and in 1969, when he finally made it to brigadier, he got his apartment in Bern as well.
And he had a wife, of whom he still says little, except that she was the soul of loyalty and faithful to the end; and that she was beautiful, which indeed she was; and that he lights a candle to her memory each day.
The army matters to Jeanmaire above everything. Even today. Even when he lay in the deepest pit of his misfortune, his faith in it burned on. He was in prison awaiting trial when, on 7 October 1976, Kurt Furgler, the Swiss Federal Minister of Justice, rose in Parliament to denounce the ‘treasonable activities’ of Jeanmaire, his ‘disgraceful attitude’ and his betrayal of ‘most secret documents relating to war mobilization plans’. The next day, Switzerland’s most strident tabloid, Blick, branded Jeanmaire ‘Traitor of the Century’ in banner headlines and ran photographs of the villain and his accuser on the front page. Three months later, the Federal President Rudolf Gnägi, addressing a meeting of his own party, confessed his deep disappointment that ‘such base actions could be committed by such a high officer’, and demanded ‘the full severity of the law’. There are Western countries where such words would have rendered a trial impossible, but Switzerland is not among them. The Swiss may have signed the European Declaration of Human Rights, but they have no law that prevents the public prejudgement of those awaiting trial. Furgler also denounced Jeanmaire’s wife, stating that she had knowledge of her husband’s treasonable activities and in the early years had assisted him. (The charges against Frau Jeanmaire were eventually dismissed.) The Swiss insurance company Winterthur, from which the Jeanmaires had rented their apartment, also preferred not to await the verdict of the military court, but gave them notice, forcing his wife on to the street.
Yet among all these calculated humiliations, what hurt him most and hurts him this evening is that his beloved army, also before his trial, caused his pension to be withdrawn ‘in eternity’. The reason, according to one reputable paper of the day, was Volkszorn, popular fury. ‘Our offices were exposed to pressure by angry citizens. A flood of letters demanded that Jeanmaire be paid no further money,’ a spokesman for the federal pensions agency explained.
For a moment, it is as if the pale baby eyes are presuming to weep without his permission. They fill, they are about to brim over. But the old soldier talks brusquely on, and the tears dare not fall.
‘That was a crime as never before,’ he says.
‘In prison I was never a slave but I obeyed!’ Jeanmaire declares, hastening once more to the defence of old friends: ‘No, no, they were good fellows, my fellow prisoners! I never had a bad scene! I was never set upon or insulted for what I was supposed to have done. I never felt threatened by a single one of the prisoners I met! I always made a point of warning the young ones of the perils of prison. I was a father to them.’
Seated at his little table, eating his fondue, we become cellmates, sharing our hoarded rations by candlelight.
He is talking of the first shock of imprisonment: the terrible first days and nights.
‘They took my watch away. They thought I could kill myself with it. It’s very bad to be in solitary without a watch. A watch gives rhythm to your day. When you are free, you go to the phone, the lavatory, the kitchen, the bookshelf, the garden, the café, the woman. The watch tells you. In prison, without a watch these instincts become clamorous and confused in your head, even if you can’t obey them all the time. They’re freedom. A watch is freedom.’
The front page of Blick on 8 October 1976 – ‘The Traitor of the Century.’ ‘Former Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire (66)’ the article says, ‘told the Soviets everything, everything, he knew! That’s what Minister of Justice Furgler, ashen-faced and visibly shaken, had to tell a shocked Parliament yesterday.’
But Jeanmaire’s sanity, despite the harrowing assaults on it, seems as pristine as the polished steel bowls he keeps from prison. He has an extraordinary memory for dates and places and conversations. He has been interrogated by a rotating troupe of professional performers for months on end: policemen, lawyers, bit-players from the demi-monde of spying. He has been interrogated in prison hospital, on what should have been his deathbed. Since his release, he has given interviews on television, to the printed press and to the growing number of concerned Swiss men and women in public life who begin to share his view that he is the victim of a great injustice.
There are evasions, certainly. You hit them like fog patches along an otherwise clear road: willed unclarities where he is being merciful to himself or to third parties. For example, when you touch upon the delicate matter of his wife’s affair with Denissenko – when did it start, please? How long did it last, please? When did he first know of it and what part did it play in his collaboration? For example, the number of encounters he had with his successive Soviet contacts, and exactly what information or documents were passed on this or that occasion? We are talking, you understand, not of the discovery of the H-bomb, but of how the Swiss people would respond to the improbable sight of an invasion force of Soviet tanks rumbling up Zürich’s Bahnhofstrasse.
Most difficult of all is to pin down Jeanmaire’s own degree of awareness – consciousness, as the spies call it – as he slid further and further down the fatal slope of compliance. There we are dealing not merely with self-deception at the time of the act, but with fifteen years of subsequent self-justification and reconstruction, twelve of them in prison, where men have little to do except relive, and sometimes rewrite, their histories.
Yet the consistency of detail in Jeanmaire’s story would be remarkable in any story so frequently retold. Jeanmaire ascribes this to the disciplines of his military training. But the greater likelihood seems to be that he is that rarest of all God’s creatures: a spy who, even when he wishes to deceive, has not the smallest talent to do so.
Under interrogation, Jeanmaire was an unmitigated disaster; the tortures of sudden imprisonment worked wonderfully and swiftly on such a thrusting and sociable spirit.
‘There were moments when, if I had been accused of stabbing my wife seven times, I would have said, “No, no, eight times!” Again and again they promised me my freedom: “Admit this and you are free tonight.” So I admitted it. I admitted to more than I had done.
‘When you are first locked in a cell you undertake a revolution against yourself. You curse yourself, you call yourself a bloody fool. You’re the only person you blame. You protect yourself, then you yield, then you enter a state of guilt. For instance, I felt guilty that I had ever spoken with Russians at all. I believed I was guilty of meeting them, even though it was my job. After that came the optimism that the tribunal would deliver the truth, and they encouraged me to believe this. I had been a judge myself, at fifty trials. I believed in military justice. I still do. What I got was a butchery.’
He is no longer alone in this conviction. Today, the witch-burners of fifteen years ago are feeling the heat around their own ankles. The belated sense of fair play which, in Switzerland as in other democracies, occasionally asserts itself in the wake of a perceived judicial excess, is demanding to be appeased. A younger Switzerland is calling for greater openness in its affairs. An increasingly outspoken press, a spate of scandals in banking and government, now lumped together as ‘the Kopp affair’ after the first woman deputy in the Swiss government and Minister of Justice who fell from grace for warning her lawyer husband that he risked being implicated in a government inquiry into money-laundering – all these have beaten vigorously on the doors of secret government.
The new men and women are impatient with the old-boy networks of informal power, and suddenly public attention is fixing its sights upon the most elusive network of them all: the Swiss intelligence community. It is not Jeanmaire but the ‘snoopers of Bern’ and the professional espionage agencies who are being accused of betraying their secrets for profit, of spying on harmless citizens, of maintaining dossiers in numbers that would embarrass a country five times Switzerland’s size and of fantasizing about non-existent enemies.
And as the decorous streets of Bern echo with youthful protestors demanding greater glasnost, it is the unlikely figure of Jeanmaire, the arch-conservative and militarist, the man who for so long hated popular revolt, who now walks with them in spirit, not as ‘the traitor of the century’ but as some flawed, latter-day Dreyfus, framed by devious secret servants to cover up their own betrayal. In the next few weeks he will hear whether he has won a reassessment of his case.
Yet whatever the final outcome, the story of Jean-Louis Jeanmaire will remain utterly extraordinary: as a tragi-comedy of Swiss military and social attitudes; as an example of almost unbelievable human naïvety; and as a cautionary tale of an innocent at large among professional intelligence-gatherers. For Jeanmaire, by any legal definition, was a spy. He was seduced, even if he was his own seducer. He did pass classified documents to Soviet military diplomats, without the knowledge or approval of his superiors, even if they were documents of little apparent value to an enemy. He did receive rewards for his labours, even if they were trivial, and even if the only real satisfactions were to his ego. Immature he certainly was, and credulous to an extraordinary degree. But he was no child. Even by the time of his recruitment, he was a full colonel with thirty years of soldiering in his rucksack.
So what we are talking of is not so much Jeanmaire’s guilt in law, as the price he may have paid for crimes he simply could not have committed. And what we are observing is how a combination of chance, innocence and overbearing vanity precipitated the unstoppable machinery of one man’s destruction.
‘My two great crimes are as follows,’ Jeanmaire barks, his delicate fingers outstretched to count them off, while he once more stares past me at the wall. ‘One, I had character weaknesses. Two, I had been a military judge. Finish.’
But he has left out his greatest crimes of all: a luminous, fathomless gullibility, and an incurable affection for his fellow man, who could never sufficiently make up to him the love he felt was owed.
Marie-Louise Burtscher prior to meeting Jeanmaire. The soldier in uniform was her first fiancé.
To describe Jeanmaire’s courtship and marriage is once again to marvel at the cruel skein of coincidence that led to his destruction. For one thing is sure: if Jeanmaire had not, in June 1942, fallen innocently in love with one Marie-Louise Burtscher, born in Theodosia, Russia, on 12 October 1916, and if they had not married the following year, he would now be living out an honourable retirement.
He met her while he was travelling on a train from Bern to Freiburg. She entered his compartment and sat down: ‘Lightning struck, I was in love!’ They talked, he chattered army stuff, he could think of nothing better. She was working as a secretary in the Bern bureaucracy, she said; and yes, he could take her out to dinner. So on the next Wednesday, he took her to the Restaurant du Théâtre in Bern, and of course he wore his uniform.
‘Thus began the great love. I don’t regret it. She was a good, sweet, dear comrade.’
Comrade is the word he uses of her repeatedly. But it was her past, not her comradeship, that became the chance instrument of Jeanmaire’s undoing. Marie-Louise Burtscher was the daughter of a Swiss professor of languages who was teaching in Theodosia at the time of the Revolution. So it was from Theodosia, in 1919, that the family fled to Switzerland, penniless, expelled by the Bolsheviks. The professor’s last days were spent working as a translator and he was dead by the time Jeanmaire met Marie-Louise.
But Marie-Louise’s mother, Juliette, survived to exert a great and enduring influence on Jeanmaire – greater, one almost feels, than her daughter’s. Jeanmaire not only undertook responsibility for her maintenance but spent much time in her company. And Juliette talked – endlessly and glowingly – of the old Russia of the tsars. The Bolsheviks were brutes, she said, and they had driven her from her home, all true. But the Bolsheviks were not the real Russians. ‘The real Russians are people of the land,’ she told Jeanmaire, again and again. ‘They’re farmers, peasants, intelligent, cultivated, very pious people. My greatest wish is to return to Russia to be buried.’
Thus by the sheerest chance Juliette became another of Jeanmaire’s life instructors, taking her place beside his father and his godfather Tissot. And her fatal contribution was to instil in him a burgeoning romantic love for Mother Russia and an even greater hatred, if that were possible, for the rapacious Bolsheviks, whether of Biel or of Theodosia. ‘Juliette loved Russia with her soul,’ says Jeanmaire devoutly. And it is not hard to imagine that, as ever when he had identified an instructor, he struggled to follow her example.
The marriage began in Lausanne and followed Jeanmaire’s postings until the couple returned to Lausanne to settle permanently. In 1947, Marie-Louise bore a son, Jean-Marc, now working for a bank in Geneva. In return for her keep, Juliette kept her daughter company during Jeanmaire’s absences and helped look after the child. The couple spent about one third of each year together – Jeanmaire was for the rest of the time with the army. ‘My wife never intrigued, was not vain. One noticed in her that she had begun life from the bottom, as a poor kid. She had no girl-friends. She was a woman who was content with her own company. She read a lot, walked and was a good hostess.’ And he uses the word again, this time more clearly: ‘She was less a wife than a comrade.’
And that is all he likes to say about her, except to tell you that his lawyer has advised him not to say any more, and that he, Jeanmaire, doesn’t know why. It is quite enough, nevertheless, to set the stage for the appearance of Colonel Vassily Denissenko.
It is April 1959 in beautiful Brissago in the Italian part of Switzerland, and the Air Protection Troops of the Swiss Army are giving a demonstration under the able direction of Colonel Jeanmaire. All Bern’s foreign military attachés have been invited and most have come.
The climax of the demonstration, as is traditional in such affairs, comes at the end. To achieve it, Jeanmaire has ingeniously stage-managed the controlled explosion of a house at the lake’s edge. The bomb strikes, the house disintegrates, flames belch out of it, everyone inside must be dead. But no! In the nick of time, stretcher parties of medics have arrived to bring out the burned and bleeding casualties and rush them to the field hospital!
It is all splendidly done. Under cover of the smoke, Jeanmaire has introduced his ‘casualties’ from the safety of the water, in time for them to climb on to their stretchers and be ‘rescued’ from the other side of the house. The effect is most realistic. The distinguished guests applaud as Jeanmaire formally reports to his superior officer that the demonstration is at an end. When he has done so, Colonel Vassily Denissenko of the Soviet Embassy in Bern delivers a short speech of thanks and admiration on behalf of himself and his colleagues. For Denissenko, though newly arrived, is today by a whim of protocol, the doyen of Bern’s military attachés. His speech over, he turns to Jeanmaire and, in front of everyone, asks him, in jest or earnest, a very Russian question: ‘Tell me, Colonel, how many dead men were you allowed for the purposes of this demonstration?’
Jeanmaire’s reply, by his own account, was less than diplomatic: ‘We’re not living in a dictatorship here, as you are in Russia. We’re in democratic Switzerland and the answer to your question is “None”. I cannot allow myself a single wounded man.’
Denissenko makes no comment, and the party adjourns to Ponte Brolla for lunch at which Jeanmaire, still flushed with success, finds himself, thanks to the placement required of protocol, seated at Denissenko’s side. Here is Jeanmaire’s account of their opening exchange: ‘So that there is no misunderstanding, Colonel,’ Jeanmaire kicks off, ‘I don’t care for Soviets. I’ve nothing against you personally, since you yourself can’t do anything about the mess the Russians have brought upon the world, both in the Second World War and in the Bolshevik Revolution!’
Denissenko asks why Jeanmaire has such a hatred of the Russians.
‘Because of my parents-in-law,’ Jeanmaire replies, now in full sail. ‘They were thrown out of Russia in 1919 and had to flee to Switzerland. They arrived without a penny to their names. As a result, I’ve had to provide for them.’
And to this, Denissenko replies – spontaneously, says Jeanmaire – ‘That’s a terrible story. I don’t hold with that sort of behaviour either. You must never confuse the Bolsheviks with the Russians. The Bolsheviks are bandits.’
Jeanmaire is at once reminded of the stories told him by his late mother-in-law: ‘At this moment I recognized in him a tsarist officer,’ he recalls simply.
As to Denissenko, he may have recognized something in Jeanmaire also, for he soon returns to the subject of the injustice done to Jeanmaire’s parents-in-law: ‘We ought to put that right,’ he says. ‘The property should be given back. And you should receive something by way of compensation.’
But Jeanmaire still presses his attack. ‘And look here. What about that disgusting business in Budapest three years ago?’ he demands, referring to the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising.
Once again Denissenko is quick to parade his antipathy to the Bolsheviks: ‘I agree with you one hundred per cent. And let me tell you something else. In 1966, a certain Russian officer will be coming to Bern as military attaché with whom you should have no contact at all. He’s the man who organized the whole Budapest affair.’
And thus – says Jeanmaire – did Denissenko warn him against one Zapienko, who did indeed come to Bern in 1966, and Jeanmaire avoided him exactly as Deni had advised.
Jeanmaire with US General Westmoreland, in Switzerland, in 1969.
In terms of intelligence trade craft, the horseman Denissenko had thus far achieved a faultless round. He had presented himself as an anti-Communist. He had nimbly touched upon the possibility that Jeanmaire might be eligible to receive Russian money. He had left the door open for further contact. And by warning Jeanmaire against Zapienko, he had planted in him a psychological obligation to grant a favour or a confidence in return. Yet to this day, Jeanmaire seems unable to believe that Denissenko’s moves were no more than the classic passes of a capable intelligence officer.
‘He didn’t prod. He put out no hints,’ he insists. ‘He was correct in all respects. He had a great admiration for the Swiss Army.’
The meeting over, Jeanmaire hastened home to tell his wife the amazing news. His words, as he repeats them now, are like the headlong declaration of a young lover to his mother: ‘He’s exactly what Juliette your mother always loved! A real, fine tsarist officer! What a shame she’s no longer alive to meet him!’
Jeanmaire was so enthusiastic about Denissenko that he insisted that Marie-Louise accompany him the next month to a British diplomatic reception at Bern’s Schweizerhof Hotel in order that she could meet Denissenko for herself. So she went, and Jeanmaire hastened to introduce her to his discovery. Denissenko, speaking Russian, asked Marie-Louise whether she spoke Russian also. She understood the question and said no. After that, the two spoke German.
‘She saw in him someone who, like herself, had been born in Russia,’ says Jeanmaire, explaining his wife’s pleasure at this first encounter. And then: ‘You can never tell what goes on inside a woman’s head. Otherwise nothing happened.’
Speaking this way of his wife, Jeanmaire is once more too dismissive, too much on guard. There is another story here somewhere, but he is not telling it – certainly not to me, but perhaps not to himself either.
Throughout that same year Jeanmaire and Denissenko met at several receptions. Marie-Louise, according to Jeanmaire, came only once. Sometimes Denissenko’s wife was present – from Jeanmaire’s account of her, a pleasant, tubby, not especially pretty woman, a Russian babushka in the making. But the axis was undoubtedly between the men: ‘Deni was interesting to talk to and felt bound to me on account of the injustice done to my parents-in-law. Perhaps my wife was somewhere in the background of his mind. I don’t know. At that time, nothing had happened.’ And this is the second time that Jeanmaire has assured me that nothing has so far happened between Deni and Marie-Louise. How did he know? I wonder – unless he knows better? When did something happen? – and did he know then, too?
At one of these occasions, Denissenko suggested a lunch. Jeanmaire says that when he reported this in advance to his brigadier, which he invariably did throughout his liaison with the Russians, the brigadier wished him ‘bon appetit’.
The two men drove in Denissenko’s Mercedes to Belp on the outskirts of Bern, to the Hotel Kreuz, Denissenko’s choice. Over lunch, Denissenko first talked about the battle of Stalingrad, in which he had served as an air captain. He dwelt on the horrors and the heroism of war. Jeanmaire, the Swiss soldier, was thrilled by this vicarious experience of one of the great sieges of history. The conversation turned to the construction of the new Geneva-Lausanne autobahn through Morges and to the uses of autobahn underpasses as atomic air-raid shelters. Jeanmaire was impressed by Denissenko’s detailed knowledge of the Morges terrain. Denissenko drank no schnapps and little wine – on account, he explained, of his heart. Jeanmaire drank more freely, but not excessively. This is a regular refrain of Jeanmaire’s narrative. Other encounters followed through the next year, but it was not until a full two years after the Brissago meeting that the Jeanmaires invited Denissenko to dinner, as usual – says Jeanmaire – with the advance approval of his superiors.
Denissenko arrived by chauffeur-driven car, and he was glowing with excitement. The date was 13 April 1961. On the day before, Gagarin had become the first man to circle the earth in space. Deni’s elation was instantly matched by Jeanmaire’s. Unlike the Pentagon, which was having kittens at the news, Jeanmaire appears to have been thrilled by Russia’s triumph. The party set off for Savigny outside Lausanne for dinner, and the evening was spent discussing the space race. The local police chief walked in and, at Jeanmaire’s invitation, joined them for a drink.
Jeanmaire on principle always paid his own tab when he was out with foreign attachés, and he paid it that night. After dinner, the party repaired to a Bern nightclub, the Tabaris, where Jeanmaire presented Denissenko to the manageress. ‘I was proud to be able to show myself with this man. He was very presentable: always well dressed – we were in civilian clothes – discreet but well chosen. He was a Gorbachev. When I think of Denissenko today, I see Gorbachev. I experienced glasnost twenty-five years ahead of its time.’
Jeanmaire recalls that Denissenko danced with Marie-Louise. The drinking, in deference to Denissenko’s heart, was again moderate, he insists. All the same, it was a long, late, jolly evening, and what is significant in retrospect is that Denissenko, the professional GRU officer, made no attempt in the months that followed to build on it. If he was setting Jeanmaire up for a clandestine approach, he was playing a long game.
On the balcony outside Jeanmaire’s flat at the end of May 1964. Marie-Louise is on the left; Vassily Denissenko’s wife is on the right.
There are several possible explanations for Denissenko’s apparent reluctance to develop Jeanmaire as a secret source. The first is that having taken a close look at his man he had decided, with reason, that Jeanmaire simply didn’t know enough to be worth the candle, either as a present source or as a future prospect to be directed against a better target. Jeanmaire was discernibly approaching his professional ceiling, after all, and it was not, from the point of view of Soviet intelligence priorities, a sexy one. Other explanations lie in the still impenetrable marshes of the Soviet espionage mentality. No potential recruit of the sort Jeanmaire had now become could be approached without detailed orders from Moscow. Even in the GRU, which never approached the KGB in professionalism or sophistication, the choice of restaurant, the allocation of expenses, topics of conversation for the evening – all would have been ordained in advance by Denissenko’s Moscow masters.
And it is beyond doubt that any effort to shift Jeanmaire from the status of ‘legal’ to ‘illegal’ collaborator would have been preceded by a ponderous appraisal of the risks and merits. Is he a plant, they will have asked themselves, in wearying evaluation sessions? A man so forthcoming might certainly have looked like one. Is he a provocation to secure Denissenko’s expulsion or sour Soviet-Swiss relations? Does he want money? If so, why does he insist on paying his own way? And if not, how is this passionate anti-Communist motivated? The astute Denissenko had not, it seems, detected in Jeanmaire those vengeful feelings against his superiors that became such a feature of the later case against him.
And perhaps – because of the delicacy of the diplomatic situation – the GRU may even have swallowed its pride and called in the KGB, who counselled caution and delay. Or perhaps the KGB gave different advice: perhaps they said, ‘Keep Jeanmaire in play, but slowly, slowly. One day we may need to fatten him as a sacrificial lamb.’
All that is certain is that for several months Denissenko made no move towards Jeanmaire. He spent much time in Moscow, allegedly on health grounds, and no doubt when he conferred with his colleagues at headquarters the pace and progress of Jeanmaire’s cultivation were discussed: even if he can hardly have rated high on Moscow’s shopping list.
Then in March 1963, Denissenko and the Jeanmaires got together again, once more for dinner, and the topic this time turned to a Swiss military exercise which had taken place a few weeks before. A friendly dispute arose between the two men. Denissenko, who appeared excellently informed, insisted that Swiss military planning leaned heavily on NATO support. Jeanmaire, as ever the champion of Swiss neutrality, vigorously denied this, and in order to prove that the Swiss integrity was still intact, he says, he offered to show Denissenko the organization plan of staff and troops at corps and division levels, from which it would be clear that the army maintained no NATO liaison of the sort Denissenko suspected. The army, of course, most certainly did maintain such liaison and would have been daft not to, though officially it was denied. And Jeanmaire knew it did, but the organization plan did not reveal this. Ironically, therefore, what Jeanmaire was offering Denissenko in this case was not dissuasion at all but Swiss military disinformation.
But Denissenko in return seems not to have taken Jeanmaire up on his offer. Why not? Too risky? Or simply a warning from Moscow to lay off?
The only known photograph of Marie-Louise Jeanmaire and Vassily Denissenko – on the Jeanmaires’ balcony.
Three months later, however, Jeanmaire bumped into Denissenko at a cocktail party given by the Austrian military attaché and invited him to his apartment in Lausanne. Three days after that, in the company of Marie-Louise, Denissenko and Jeanmaire ate a meal at Lausanne’s railway-station buffet, then went on to the Jeanmaire’s apartment where Jeanmaire handed over a photocopy he had made of the promised document, or part of it.
The document was graded ‘for Service use only’ or as the British might say ‘confidential’. Whether it should have been so graded is immaterial. Jeanmaire knew it was confidential, knew what he was doing and who for. It may have been a tiny journey, but at that moment he crossed the bridge. In every tale of one man’s path to spying, or to crime, or merely to adultery, there is traditionally one crucial moment that stands out above the rest as the moment of decision from which there is no return. This was Jeanmaire’s. ‘I gave only two pages, not the whole document,’ he says. It seems to have made no difference. A Swiss colonel, as he then was, had voluntarily and without authorization handed a classified document to the Soviet military attaché and resident of the GRU in Bern.
Yet the evening had only begun. Jeanmaire seems to have entered a vortex of reckless generosity. There had been recently a rehearsal of Swiss military mobilization plans. Now Jeanmaire took it into his head to boast to Denissenko that Swiss resistance to a Soviet invasion would be more ferocious than the Kremlin could envisage. He showed Denissenko his personal weapons, including his new semi-automatic rifle. He took him on to the balcony and pointed at the neighbouring houses. He is red-faced and thrilled as he describes this, and that is how I see him on the balcony. ‘If your parachutists jump on to that tennis court, everyone around here will fire at them,’ he warned Denissenko. ‘Forget orders. They won’t wait for them. They’ll shoot.’
He produced the Mobilization Handbook which is issued to every Swiss company commander. He had it by chance at home, he says, in preparation for a lecture he proposed to give in Geneva. Its classification was ‘secret’. The stakes had risen.
Who was pulling now, who pushing? According to Jeanmaire, Denissenko asked to borrow the handbook, promising to return it the next day, so Jeanmaire gave it to him. As if it mattered who was the instigator! ‘Anyway the handbook was common knowledge,’ he adds dismissively. ‘Everyone knew what was in it.’ But that isn’t what the official report has him telling his military examining judge on 23 November 1976: ‘He [Denissenko] vehemently insisted that I give him these documents. Alas, I was weak enough to yield, and I thus put my hand into a trap that I couldn’t get out of. From then on the Russians could blackmail me by threatening to inform my superiors. I told my wife that very day that I had made the blunder of my life.’
But Jeanmaire now denies that he said this.
And Marie-Louise – what did she tell Jeanmaire in return? It seems, almost nothing. Jeanmaire admits that he had an onslaught of guilt after Denissenko left, and confided his anxieties to his wife: ‘And merde, on Monday I’ll go and get the thing back!’ he told her. But Marie-Louise, according to Jeanmaire, merely remarked that what was done was done: ‘She had no sense that anything bad had happened.’
And still on the same crazy evening, Jeanmaire showed Denissenko parts of another classified document on the requisitioning of Swiss property in the event of war – for example, the seizing of civilian transport for the movement of territorial troops. This time he refused to part with it, but made a list of pages relevant to their discussions on ‘dissuasion’. A day or two later, at his office, he made photocopies of these pages under the pretext that they were needed for a study course for air-raid troops. A lie, therefore: a constructive, palpable lie, told to his own people in order to favour his people’s supposed enemy.
And on the evening of 9 July, he handed the stolen pages to Denissenko. A criminal act. It was on that occasion also that, in the presence of Denissenko, Marie-Louise proudly displayed to her husband a bracelet which she said Denissenko had given her while Jeanmaire was briefly out of the room.
‘When I came back, my wife said, really lovingly: “Look at this beautiful bracelet that Herr Denissenko has given me.” I said “Bravo.” I made nothing of it, except that it was a beautiful gesture by Denissenko. If she’d shown it me without his being there, I might have smelt a rat. Today I know he gave it her at a quite different time. It was a gift of love and had nothing whatever to do with betraying one’s country.’
Denissenko’s gift of love was worth 400 Swiss francs, says Jeanmaire. Referring to it later, he raises its value to 1,200 Swiss frances. Either way, it seems to have been a horribly good bargain in exchange for Jeanmaire’s gift of love to him. The evening ended with another trip to Savigny for a celebratory drink. It is hard to imagine what the three of them thought they were celebrating. With Denissenko’s bracelet glittering proudly on Marie-Louise’s wrist, Jeanmaire had just put a bullet through his muddled soldier’s head.
Jeanmaire’s prosecutors were not the only ones to hunt for an answer. Jeanmaire himself has had years and years of staring at the wall, asking himself the same question: why? His talk of dissuasion wears thinner the more you listen to it. He speaks of his ‘character weaknesses’. Yet what is weak about a lone crusader setting out to deter the Kremlin from its evil purposes against peace-loving Switzerland? He says the information he passed was common knowledge. Then why pass it? Why in secret? Why steal it, why give it and why be merry afterwards? What was there to celebrate that night? Betrayal? Friendship? Love? Fun? Jeanmaire says Denissenko was a tsarist, an anti-Bolshevik. Then why not report this to his superiors, who might have passed the tip to people with an interest in recruiting a disaffected Russian colonel? Perhaps the answer was simpler, at least for the landlocked Swiss soldier: perhaps it was just change.
For the novelist, as for the counter-intelligence officer, motive concerns the possibilities of character. As big words frequently disguise an absence of conviction, so drastic action can derive from motives which, taken singly, are trivial. I once interrogated a man who had made an heroic escape from East Germany. It turned out that, rather than take his wife with him on his journey, he had shot her dead at point-blank range with a Luger pistol that had belonged to his Nazi father. He was not political; he had no grand notion of escaping to freedom, merely to another life. He had always got on well with his wife. He loved her still. The only explanation he could offer was that his local canoe club had expelled him for antisocial behaviour. In tears, in despair, his life in ruins, a self-confessed murderer, he could find no better excuse.
So again, why?
The more you examine Jeanmaire’s relationship with Denissenko, the more it appears to contain something of the compulsive, the ecstatic and the sexual. Again and again it is Jeanmaire himself, not Denissenko, who is forcing the pace. Jeanmaire needed Denissenko a great deal more than Denissenko needed him: which was probably what gave Denissenko and his masters pause.
After Denissenko’s departure from Bern, it is true, there came a grey troupe of substitute figures – Issaev, Strelbitzki, Davidov. Each, in the longer narrative, presents himself at the door, uses Denissenko’s name, appeals to Jeanmaire’s Russian persona, tightens the screws, finds his way to Jeanmaire’s heart and receives an offering or two to keep the Kremlin happy – or to dissuade it, whichever way you care to read the story. Jeanmaire’s relationship with the GRU is not broken with Denissenko’s departure to Moscow, but neither is it advanced. Were they anti-Bolsheviks too? The fig leaf seems to have been tossed aside: Jeanmaire barely seems to care. For Deni’s sake he gives them scraps; a part of him accepts that he is trapped; another part seems to tell him that his recent translation to the giddy rank of brigadier should somehow exempt him from the unseemly obligation of spying. ‘I thought: Now I’m a brigadier, I’ll pack in this nonsense.’ Yet he continues to enjoy the connection. He dickers like a scared addict, offers them crumbs, warms himself against their fires, fancies himself Switzerland’s secret military ambassador, wriggles, warns them off, calls them back, sweats, changes colour a dozen times, allows himself one more treat, swears abstinence and allows himself another. And the grey, cumbersome executioners of the GRU, knowing the limitations of their quarry, and even perhaps of themselves, make up to him, bully him, flatter him, accept what is to be had, which isn’t much, and show little effort to force him beyond his limits.
Yet it is the figure of Denissenko that glows brightest to the end: Deni who obtained him; Deni who, if charily, baited the trap; Deni who slept with his wife; who was so fine, so well-dressed, so cultivated; Deni with whom it was a joy to be seen in public. All his successors were measured against the original. Some were found wanting. All were reflections of Deni, who remains the first and true love. Deni was noble, Deni was elegant, Deni was of the old school. And Jeanmaire, on his admission, would have slept with Deni if he had been a woman. Instead, Deni slept with Marie-Louise. The desire to please Deni, to earn his respect and approval, to woo and possess him – with gifts, including, perhaps, if it had to be, the gift of his own wife – seems, in the middle years of Jeanmaire’s life, to have seized hold of this affectionate, frustrated, clever, turbulent simpleton like a grand passion, like a fugue.
So it is only natural that Deni, even today in Jeanmaire’s recollection, is a great and good man. For who, when he has wrecked his life for love and paid everything he possesses, is willing to turn round and say: ‘There was nothing there?’
The love of one man for another has had such a dismal press in recent years – particularly where espionage is in the air – that I venture on the subject with hesitation. There is no evidence anywhere in Jeanmaire’s life that he was consciously prey to homosexual feelings, let alone that he indulged them. To the contrary, it is said that after hearing from his defence counsel Jean-Félix Paschoud that his wife had had an affair with Denissenko, Jeanmaire at once wrote her a letter of forgiveness. ‘If they had offered me a pretty Slav girl,’ he is supposed to have written, ‘I don’t know what I might have done.’ The story certainly accords with his known heterosexuality and his self-vaunted hatred of homosexuals, whom he identifies constantly among his former military comrades: X was one and Y was not; Z went both ways but preferred the boys.
In this respect, Jeanmaire is a product of the Swiss military patriarchy. Women, to this Swiss chauvinist, are a support regiment rather than true warriors. Men, as in all armies, are most comfortable together, and sometimes – though not in Jeanmaire’s case – this comfort flowers into physical love. When Jeanmaire speaks of his mother or his wife, he speaks of their loyalty, their good sense, their stoicism, their beauty. He is appalled by the vision of them as victims, for he is their protector. But never once does he speak of them as anything approaching equals.
And when he speaks of his godfather Tissot – the sometimes naked, otherwise superbly uniformed soldier, who, according to Jeanmaire, had to relinquish his command for failing to promote the ‘useful’ people – he recalls as if it were yesterday the terrible moment when he learned that his idol was about to marry a woman he had kept secret for forty years: ‘Tissot had always insisted that soldiering was a celibate vocation. I believed him! I believe him to this day! I was disgusted to observe the two of them embracing. A world collapsed because I had regarded him as absolute. Not that I suspected him of homosexuality, but everyone regarded him as a priest.’
In Denissenko, Jeanmaire seems to have rediscovered the lost dignity of his fallen hero, Tissot, and perhaps in his unconscious mind to have recreated the dashing self-admiring friendship between brothers-at-arms that existed between Tissot and Jeanmaire senior. There is something accomplished, something destined in the way he still speaks of his bond with Denissenko. There is a sense of elevation, of superior knowledge, of: ‘I have been there and I know.’ And something of contempt that adds: ‘And you don’t.’
Jeamaire (on the right) with his godfather Edouard Tissot on a mountain hiking expedition in 1933
Oh, and how the two friends could talk! Between them, the beautiful Russian soldier diplomat and the squat little Swiss brigadier redrew the entire world. They put out their tin soldiers and knocked them down; they fought and played interminably: ‘When we talked politics, I represented democracy and Denissenko dictatorship. Each respected the other’s position perfectly.’
And here it is necessary to dwell – as a defence witness at the trial is said to have done – on the social poverty of Jeanmaire’s life. Good fellowship had been hard to come by until Jeanmaire discovered Bern’s diplomatic community. Partners of the sort he craved were scarce in the ranks of his own kind, and his reputation as a big mouth didn’t help. He found solace in the company of foreign nomads. To them, he brought no baggage from his past. In their company he was reborn.
And finally – if love must have so many reasons – there is the agonizing comedy of Denissenko’s record of real combat. To the Swiss soldier-dreamer who had never heard a shot fired in anger and never would, who had come from a prolonged military tradition of bellicose passivity, the lustre of Denissenko’s armour was irresistible. Not Jeanmaire’s father, not even his godfather Tissot, could match the heroic splendour and the vast authority of a man who had fought at Stalingrad, and whose breast, on military feast days, jangled with the medals of real gallantry and real campaigns. No courtship was too extreme; no risk, no sacrifice, no investment too reckless for such an exalted being. If two souls were warring in Jeanmaire’s breast on that night of his first betrayal – the one thrilling him with words of caution, the other driving him forward along the path of glory – it was the example of his unblooded cavalry forebears that urged him to drive in the spurs and not look back.
One episode, more than any other, reveals to us Jeanmaire’s state of mind during the high days of his honeymoon with Denissenko: it is the bizarre encounter on 30 November 1963 when Denissenko called on Jeanmaire in his apartment in Lausanne and, in a classic pass, tried to fling the net over him for good. According to Jeanmaire the scene unfolded in this way.
Marie-Louise is in the kitchen. Jeanmaire, with his customary ambiguity when speaking of her, no longer remembers whether she is party to the conversation.
Denissenko to Jeanmaire: ‘I told you when we first met that I would like to make reparation to you for the loss suffered by your parents-in-law in Russia.’ Producing a large envelope, unsealed, he holds it out to Jeanmaire. There is money in it. Jeanmaire cannot or will not speculate how much. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Swiss francs. He remembers hundred-franc notes.
‘It’s a compensation,’ Denissenko explains. ‘As I promised you. A Christmas present.’
Jeanmaire takes the envelope and flings it on the floor. Money flies everywhere. Denissenko is astonished.
‘But it’s not for you!’ Denissenko protests. ‘It’s compensation for the damage done to your parents-in-law.’
‘Then pick it up for yourself,’ Jeanmaire replies. ‘I’m not taking your money.’
The first time Jeanmaire told me this story, he was proud of his behaviour. It should prove, he seemed to think, that he was doing nothing underhand – much as introducing Denissenko and his successors to the proprietors of restaurants should prove there was nothing clandestine about the association. But when I pressed him to explain why he had refused the money – since Denissenko had offered it for such ostensibly honourable reasons, to repair a loss that Marie-Louise had undoubtedly sustained – he altered his ground: ‘I perceived the money at that moment as a bribe. In refusing it, I was admitting inwardly that I had done something impure. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say of me, “He can be had for money.” I never had the feeling that Denissenko wanted to trap me or pump me, but I didn’t want to take his money. It was repellent to me. It had the flavour of a payment for services rendered. I didn’t want him ever to be able to say that I had sold my country – although I knew I wasn’t selling my country or even giving it away for nothing.’
It would be charming to know what Denissenko and his masters in Moscow afterwards made of this bizarre scene and how much sound planning went to waste at the moment when Jeanmaire refused to swallow such a sweetly baited hook. How on earth could the grey men of the GRU be expected to understand that Jeanmaire wanted love, not money?
‘It amazes me that Denissenko could have done it to me,’ says Jeanmaire. ‘After all, he could have given the money to my wife. But probably he wouldn’t do that, because it would have made a whore of her.’
One might suppose that after this uncomfortable scene, the evening would have taken on a sour note. The suitor had made his pitch and been repulsed. Time perhaps to withdraw and fight another day. But not so. True, there were some sticky minutes, but soon the talk brightened and turned to the reorganization of the Swiss Army, which had come into effect on 1 January 1962. Jeanmaire produced a copy of the previous order of battle, valid till 31 December 1961 and therefore out of date: ‘I reckoned that since he was such a good fellow, I would give him something so that he wouldn’t feel useless,’ he explains. And adds that he had been told by Swiss military attachés how grateful they were to be slipped the odd ‘little bit of paper’ to justify their extravagant lifestyle at public expense.
But scarcely is this admission made than he is once more making another: ‘I gave him the order of battle because I’d already put it aside for him when the affair with the money got in the way. But then I gave it to him anyway, to show there were no hard feelings.’
But if the path to Jeanmaire’s mind appears tortuous and paradoxical, it resembles a Roman road when compared with the devious route that led the Swiss authorities to his arrest and trial.
Colonel Vassily Denissenko of the Soviet Embassy in Bern.
Here is the Federal Prosecutor Rudolf Gerber speaking before the Parliamentary Jeanmaire Commission, whose task was to examine the affair and whose report, though widely leaked, is still secret:
On 16 May 1975, we received a warning to the effect that a high-ranking Swiss officer had had significant intelligence contacts with the Russians. The time in question was 1964. It was difficult to work out who it could be. We knew only that the wife of this officer had had relations with Russia during her childhood. Thus we came on Jeanmaire. An investigation was launched in about August 1975.
You don’t have to be a counter-intelligence officer to wonder what on earth was ‘difficult’ about narrowing the field to Jeanmaire on the strength of this information. The number of senior Swiss Army officers whose wives had enjoyed a Russian childhood cannot have been large. Jeanmaire’s contacts with Soviet diplomats in 1964 were a matter of army record. He had been appreciated for them in the military protocol department, where enthusiasts for the official cocktail round were hard to find. He had been deliberately flamboyant in parading them to casual acquaintances.
Where had the tip-off come from? According to the Federal Prosecutor Gerber, only a few initiates know the answer to that question. The intricate game of spy and counter-spy commands his silence, he says: even today, the source is too hot to name. The chief of the Swiss Secret Service at the time, Carl Weidenmann, tells the story differently. From the outset, he says, the only possible suspect was Jeanmaire. He too claims he is not allowed to say why. Apart from such selective nuggets as these, we are obliged to fall back on rumour, and the hardy rumour is that the tip-off came from the CIA.
What did the tip-off say? Did Gerber tell the Parliamentary Jeanmaire Commission the whole or only a part of the information received? Or more than the whole? And if the tip-off did indeed come from the CIA, who tipped off the CIA? Was the source reliable? Was it a plant? Was it Russian? British? French?
West German? Swiss? In the grimy marketplaces where so-called friendly intelligence services do their trading, tip-offs, like money, are laundered in all sorts of ways. They can be slanted, doctored and invented. They can be blown up so as to cause consternation or tempered to encourage complacency. They serve the giver as much as the receiver, and the receiver sometimes not at all. They come without provenance and without instructions on the package. They can wreck lives and careers by design or by accident. And the one thing they have in common is that they are never what they seem.
In Jeanmaire’s case, the provenance and content of the original tip-off are of crucial importance. And until today, of crucial obscurity.
Kurt Furgler, the Federal Minister of Justice (on the right), and Rudolf Gnägi, the Federal President, on 9 November 1976.
After the tip-off – a full three months after it, and fourteen years after Jeanmaire’s first meeting with Denissenko – came the grand-slam secret surveillance, like a thunder of cavalry after the battle has been lost. Jeanmaire’s telephone was tapped; he was watched round the clock. He was probably also microphoned, but Western surveillance services have a uniform squeamishness about owning up to microphones. A ranking police officer claims to have disguised himself as a waiter at diplomatic receptions attended by Jeanmaire: ‘I heard only trivial party gossip,’ he told Jeanmaire after his arrest. ‘Soldiers’ chatter about music, alcohol and women.’ Again the police officer speaks as if he was wired.
And after four months of this, the watchers still had nothing against Jeanmaire except the tip-off, and what was vaguely perceived, in Gerber’s words, as ‘contacts with Russians in excess of the customary level’. But what was the normal level, given Jeanmaire’s celebrated predeliction for Russian contacts for which the army’s protocol department gave him humble thanks? By December, the watchers were worried that Jeanmaire’s imminent retirement would fall due before they had a case against him. Therefore Weidenmann, the Chief of the Secret Service, in collaboration with the Chief of Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutor, decided to offer Jeanmaire employment that would keep him in harness. To this end Weidenmann summoned Jeanmaire to an interview.
‘It would be a pity,’ he told Jeanmaire, ‘to let you leave the army without first committing to paper your knowledge and experience in the field of civil defence.’
For an extra 1,000 francs a month – later, in a fit of bureaucratic frugality, dropped to 500 francs – Weidenmann proposed that the pensioner Jeanmaire undertake a comparative study of military and civil defence in all countries where the Swiss maintained military attachés. Jeanmaire was flattered, and the investigators had bought themselves more time.
‘I suspected nothing,’ says Jeanmaire.
On 13 January, Weidenmann summoned Jeanmaire to him again and, in an effort to prod him into a betrayal, arranged for him to have access, through chosen intermediaries, to secret documents in the possession of Switzerland’s overseas intelligence service. Weidenmann testified later that his department took care to ensure that Jeanmaire didn’t get his hands on anything hot. The intermediaries, of course, were party to the provocation plan.
As a further inducement to Jeanmaire, a small office was set up for him in no less a shrine than the headquarters of Colonel Albert Bachmann, who ran his own special service, known in Swiss circles as the ‘Organization Bachmann’, and for long the object of much wild rumour and public agonizing, most notably after a ludicrous episode in which one of its agents had been caught spying on Austrian (sic) military manoeuvres. Bachmann was also charged with responsibility for Switzerland’s ‘Secret Army’, which would form the nucleus of an underground resistance group in the event of Switzerland being occupied by hostile forces. No Soviet spy or intelligence officer worth his salt, it was reasoned, could resist such an enticing target as the Organization Bachmann. The office was bugged all ways up, Jeanmaire’s phone was tapped and Bachmann was duly added to the team of watchers. But alas the hen still refused to lay.
Chief of the Secret Service Weidenmann before the Parliamentary Jeanmaire Commission: ‘He was kept under observation during this period, unfortunately without success.’
After another eight months of frustration, during which Jeanmaire’s every word and action were laboriously studied by his watchers, Federal Prosecutor Gerber decided to arrest him anyway, despite the fact that, on Gerber’s own admission, he lacked the smallest scrap of hard evidence.
But Gerber and his associates had something on their minds that weighed more heavily than legal niceties and cast a shadow over their professional existence. The American intelligence barons had recently served formal notice on Bern that Washington had no confidence in the ability of the Swiss to protect the military secrets entrusted to them. Vital technical information about American armaments was finding its way from Switzerland to Eastern Europe, they said. The Florida early-warning-system had been compromised. So had state-of-the-art American electronic equipment fitted to Swiss tanks, most notably the ‘stabilizor’. It was also rumoured that the Americans were refusing to sell Switzerland their new 109 artillery pieces and, worse still, threatening to relegate Switzerland to the status of a Communist country for the purposes of secrets-sharing, a humiliation that rang like a panic bell in the proud back rooms of Switzerland’s intelligence and procurement services.
Never mind that Jeanmaire had not been admitted to such secrets. Never mind that he was not qualified in the technology allegedly betrayed, or that the army had chosen to confine him to a harmless backwater without a secret worth a damn. There was the leak, there was the threat, there was the tip-off, there was the man. What was now needed, and quickly, was to put the four together, silence American apprehensions and re-establish Switzerland’s self-image as a responsible and efficient military (and neutral) power.
One of Jeanmaire’s principal interrogators, who also arrested him, was Inspector Louis Pilliard, Commissioner of the Federal Police – the same officer who claimed to have dressed as a waiter to spy on Jeanmaire at diplomatic functions. During Jeanmaire’s days of ‘examination arrest’ – that is to say, in the days before he was even brought before a military examining judge – Pilliard, the civilian policeman, questioned him, according to Jeanmaire’s secret notes made on scraps of paper, for a total of ninety-two hours. Forget the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland is a signatory and which requires a prisoner to be brought before a judge in swift order: Jeanmaire had already served 107 days in isolation and had another six months to go before his trial.
‘You have betrayed Florida,’ Pilliard told him at the end of October.
‘You’re mad,’ Jeanmaire replied. ‘I can prove to you that I don’t know the first thing about Florida.’
Albert Bachmann of ‘Organization Bachmann’
And indeed, on the one occasion in 1972 when Jeanmaire could have attended a demonstration of the Florida early-warning-system, he had sent a letter declining the invitation, which Pilliard to his credit traced. But if the charge of betraying Florida was now struck out, Jeanmaire remained in the eyes of his public accusers – and of Justice Minister Furgler – a spy of monstrous dimensions. Finally, on 10 November, Parliament ruled that all derelictions by Jeanmaire and his wife should be tried by military justice.
For Marie-Louise was also charged. While her husband was being bundled into a police car on his way to work, five federal police officers, one a woman, had descended on the Jeanmaire flat in the Avenue du Tribunal-Fédéral in Lausanne at seven in the morning to conduct a house-search, which lasted two days. Their finds included Marie-Louise’s diary, where she had recorded all meetings with Denissenko, and a television set of unspecified origin, but probably given to the Jeanmaires by Issaev, one of Denissenko’s successors. The diary has since disappeared into the vaults of Swiss secrecy, but it is said by Jeanmaire – who helped to decode it – to contain an entry that reads: ‘Today Deni and I made love.’
The police also descended on Jeanmaire’s friend and neighbour in Bern, Fräulein Vreni Ogg, at her place of work at the Bern office for footpaths. Having seized her, they bundled her too into a car, drove her to a police station and released her half an hour later, having apparently decided she had nothing worthwhile to tell them. The media had another treat and her life was never the same.
Jean-Louis and Marie-Louise Jeanmaire during the winter of 1975-76.
Soon Jeanmaire was singing like a bird, but not the song his questioners wished to hear.
Federal Prosecutor Gerber again, before the Parliamentary Jeanmaire Commission, in a lament that should be pasted to the wall of every hall of justice in the free world: ‘The nub of the thing is this: in Switzerland we do not have the means to increase Jeanmaire’s willingness to testify.’ After lightning arrest, solitary confinement, deprivation of exercise, radio, newspapers and outside contacts; exhaustive interrogation; threats and blandishments – what other means was Gerber thinking of, we wonder?
Jeanmaire was interrogated principally by Pilliard, who was sometimes accompanied by another officer, one Lugon, Inspector of the Waadtland Canton Police. Like Pilliard, Lugon had taken part in Jeanmaire’s arrest. 1 But others, including Gerber himself, had their turn at the interrogation – Gerber for four full hours, though the content of their discussion escapes Jeanmaire’s recollection: ‘He shook my hand. He was decent. I told him I was relieved to be interrogated by someone of authority. My memory is kaputt…’
It is kaputt, perhaps, because it was on this occasion – 8 September, according to Gerber’s testimony – that Gerber read out to Jeanmaire the list of the confessions he had by now made and which later constituted the bulk of the case against him. It is kaputt because a part of Jeanmaire’s head knows that, within a month of his arrest and probably less, he had confessed away his life.
Nevertheless, the interrogation seems to have been conducted with a signal lack of skill. Jeanmaire, after all, was an interrogator’s dream. He was terrified, disoriented, indignant, friendless and guilty. He was then, and is today, a compulsive, non-stop prattler, a braggart, a child waiting to be enchanted. What was needed in his interrogator was not a bully but a befriender, a confessor, someone who could interpret his dilemma to him and receive his confidences in return. Forget your lynx-eyed intelligence officer, master of five languages: one wise policeman with a good face and patient ear could have had him on a plate in a week. No such figure featured in the cast.
On day two he was visited by Gerber’s deputy, Peter Huber, who stayed an hour with him and, according to Jeanmaire, urged him to embellish his confession: ‘Herr Jeanmaire, your case is not dangerous, but you should admit to more than you have done, so that we can get the damage out of the way quickly.’
What damage could Huber have meant, if not the damage threatened by the Americans?
Jeanmaire then asked Huber why he was in prison and what had happened.
Huber: ‘I’m not allowed to tell you, I can’t. But there’s been a big leak to the East.’
Jeanmaire: ‘But not through me!’
Huber: ‘Don’t get so excited. Things aren’t as bad as they appear. Just own up to more than you did.’
Exactly when Jeanmaire confessed to what is hard to establish without the help of official records and, presumably, the secret tapes of his interrogations. According to Gerber, before the Parliamentary Jeanmaire Commission, it was not till 6 September that Jeanmaire confessed to handing over documents classified ‘secret’. But whenever it happened, Jeanmaire says he was tricked: ‘Pilliard promised me I’d be sitting with my pals in the Restaurant du Théâtre that same night if I’d just say this and this and this. They promised I’d be let out, and the whole thing would be buried. They blackmailed me.’
But Gerber’s dates for Jeanmaire’s confession are precise, whereas Jeanmaire, from the moment of his imprisonment, was living a nightmare, as his own testimony now begins to show, for it becomes fragmentary, surreal and, in several respects, doubtful.
But here it is necessary to pull back from retrospective wisdom and pity the poor intelligence officers saddled with Jeanmaire’s case. They too were being blackmailed, if only by the fury of the Swiss – this Volkszorn – and by the urgent wish of the administration to heap on to Jeanmaire’s shoulders every real or alleged failure of Swiss security in the last decade. The legislature, as well as the executive, was breathing down their necks. Jeanmaire describes a moment when he was telling Pilliard, the police commissioner, how Denissenko had remarked over dinner in Belp that autobahn underpasses made good atomic shelters. Before the eyes of the astonished Jeanmaire, Pilliard then seized a telephone and related to Minister of Justice Furgler in person that Jeanmaire had talked to Denissenko about shelters and atom bombs: ‘I was suddenly a nuclear physicist and a designer of deep shelters. He said nothing of the context in which we had discussed these things.’
Now, of course, Pilliard’s call to Furgler – though it is one of several occasions when he paraded a close relationship with his minister – may have been a policeman’s bluff. Pilliard may have been talking to the doorman. But Furgler’s description of Jeanmaire as a grand traitor was by now a matter of public record, and it is entirely conceivable that, in democratic Switzerland, the police commissioner did indeed speak directly to his supremo.
In addition to these pressures from on high, the investigators were weighed down with a mass of case histories of high-ranking spies in other countries who had indeed betrayed their nation’s treasured secrets: men such as Wennerström in Sweden, Mitchell and Martin in America, Vassall, Houghton and Gee in England. A sack full of precedents was already raining down on them through the established channels of Western intelligence liaison. It would be remarkable if the CIA and FBI, for instance, had not by now sent out their customary squads of ‘experts’ and ‘advisors’, each trumping the other with ingenious theories of conspiracy. In America, James Jesus Angleton had already brought the CIA to a virtual standstill with his theories of moles in high places in the agency. In Britain, Peter Wright and company were up to the same game.
In such an atmosphere, Jeanmaire was naturally elevated to the upper ranks of the spies’ pantheon, and the Swiss were in no mood to be told that their spy was not as important as other people’s.
Jeanmaire has been watched and listened to for a whole year without success? Then he has been ordered to lie low! Trap him!
Smoke him out!
Jeanmaire has no known means of communication with his controllers? Then he’s talking to them by secret radio! Strip his television set, tear his flat apart, look for code pads, secret writing equipment, microdot lenses!
Jeanmaire has confessed to handing over trivia? He’s giving us chicken feed! Hold his feet to the fire! Grill his wife!
Jeanmaire has cracked and still not confessed to anything of value? He’s a hard nut, a professional soldier, work on him some more!
If Jeanmaire is to be believed, even his defence lawyer, Jean-Félix Paschoud, was convinced of his guilt – though no man who collects an eighteen-year prison sentence is likely to think well of his defence lawyer. Entering his cell for the first time, Paschoud, Jeanmaire says, shook his fist in Jeanmaire’s face and cursed him to hell and back: ‘What you’ve done is an imbecility! You’re a complete idiot! Nobody goes around with Russians, shaking hands with them!’
Well, perhaps Paschoud did say that, though it is not proof that he thought Jeanmaire guilty. Paschoud, according to Jeanmaire, was a member of the Ligue Vaudoise, an anti-Communist group of patriotic cold warriors, and Jeanmaire’s flirtation with Russians may indeed have shocked him. At the terribly brief trial, Jeanmaire complains, Paschoud was more exercised to keep his client quiet than to obtain justice for him. But Paschoud may have had professional reasons for wishing to keep Jeanmaire quiet. Jeanmaire was frequently his own worst enemy, and Paschoud was arguing that the charges against his client were out of date, which made defence irrelevant.
Jeanmaire likes to paint Paschoud as some small Lausanne lawyer whom he had known slightly in the army, but the larger truth is that Jean-Félix Paschoud is one of Lausanne’s few lawyers of international reputation, and was, among other things, lawyer to Charles Chaplin and his family.
The trial was from Kafka and beyond. Spread over four days, it lasted some twenty hours – roughly one hour for each year of the sentence. As of today, no official record of it has been released. The detailed charges against the Jeanmaires are still secret, though they have since been pretty thoroughly leaked.
Months before it finally started, both the accused had acquired a smell of death about them. From 21 September to 5 October, Jeanmaire, with severe angina and galloping fever, had been confined to a subterranean hospital. Under drastic medication, he had twice refused the extreme unction offered by the nursing sisters. The interrogation by Police Commissioner Pilliard had nevertheless continued. Pilliard had thrust documents in his face and challenged him to admit he had betrayed them to the Russians. Jeanmaire believes this was the work of Colonel Bachmann. On Jeanmaire’s return to prison, Pilliard, playing the good guy, had brought him a bottle of wine and two glasses. Jeanmaire asked him whether he was mad.
Marie-Louise, partly crippled by a stroke, was deemed too ill to be imprisoned, but not too ill to stand trial. How she had deported herself under arrest is left to Jeanmaire to describe. At first, he says, she had admitted nothing. ‘She lied. She wanted to save me. She was braver than I was. If I’d behaved the same way, nothing would have happened.’ She also denied having an affair with Denissenko, but her diary betrayed her. Jeanmaire, the transparent liar, off-guard: ‘I never told them about it either.’ And as he hastily corrects himself: ‘I never even knew about it.’
The Tribunal was convened in the classical Palais de Montbenon, in a small courtroom belonging to the cantonal court of Waadtland. Jeanmaire was brought to a side entrance under heavy guard and allowed to change into his brigadier’s uniform, fetched specially from Lausanne. The one painting in the courtroom portrayed the judgment of Solomon. The spectators comprised some fifty journalists and the same number of members of the public. Jeanmaire entered and soon after him came Marie-Louise, walking with difficulty and in pain on the arm of a wardress, who led her to a leather armchair. She wore a blue suit. The judges entered; everyone stood. After a warning that the court would shortly be cleared in the interests of military security, the clerk to the Tribunal read a brief extract from the indictment. This accused the Jeanmaires of having maintained ‘friendly relationships’ with two Soviet military attachés and their successors, and with a colleague of the military attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Bern, presumably the GRU Resident Davidov, their last contact, during the period before he was an attaché. The rest was broad-brush: the result of these relationships, said the indictment, was the deliberate and persistent betrayal of matters or objects which in the interests of national defence were kept secret. The maximum sentence for such offences was twenty years in prison.
There was also a reference to ‘passive bribery’, though interestingly no such reference appears in the thirty-five leaked charges published in the Wochenzeitung in 1988. And this is hardly surprising, since the total haul of Russian gifts received by the Jeanmaires in the fourteen years since their meeting with Denissenko, including Marie-Louise’s bracelet, the television set and a pair of ‘freebie’ cufflinks given to Jeanmaire, amounted to no more than around £1,000 – hardly a proper recompense for ‘the traitor of the century’, particularly when several senior officers of Jeanmaire’s acquaintance had happily accepted free shooting holidays in Russia, not to mention such customary diplomatic handouts as caviar and vodka.
Still in the presence of the public, Defence Counsel Jean-Félix Paschoud, himself a military judge and lieutenant-colonel of infantry, and his colleague, Maitre Courvoisier for Marie-Louise, then read statements declaring that there was no reason to believe that the Jeanmaires had accepted money from the attachés or that ideological motives had played a part in their actions. Paschoud’s attempt to invoke Switzerland’s statute of limitations in relation to the accuseds’ earliest transactions with Denissenko was held over until the Tribunal had decided whether their derelictions were continuous or merely repeated.
The public was then excluded and the detailed charges were read out. While this was happening, Jeanmaire says, he caught sight of his interrogator Pilliard, who was listed as a witness, sitting in the courtroom. He drew this to the attention of Paschoud, and the Tribunal’s proceedings were suspended.
‘Monsieur Pilliard,’ said the presiding judge, according to Jeanmaire. ‘You are a witness in this case. What are you doing sitting in the court?’
‘I am here on the orders of Herr Furgler,’ Pilliard replied.
The presiding judge asked his colleagues whether they had any objection to Louis Pilliard’s presence. They had none, so the chief witness for the prosecution, according to Jeanmaire, sat through the entire trial.
Marie-Louise was dealt with first. Though no reference was made to her affair with Denissenko, Jeanmaire insists they treated her like dirt, barking statements at her instead of questions. Particular play was made of an incident in which Marie-Louise had wrapped a military handbook in a chocolate box before her husband handed it to Denissenko. In a whisper, Marie-Louise admitted she had done this. Nevertheless, when she was accused of influencing her husband to pass on information, she became extremely animated: ‘My husband knew very well what he was allowed to do, and what not!’
At midday, her examination ended and she was led from the court. The examination of Jeanmaire began. ‘The tone was malicious and appalling,’ says Jeanmaire. ‘The Grand Judge Houriet was like a snarling dog.’ From the Tribunal, Jeanmaire learned his motive: it was vengeance for being passed over for promotion, and nothing he could say persuaded anybody otherwise. Frequently the presiding judge cut him short. Frequently Paschoud did. Towards the end of the day’s hearing, an assistant judge who had not till then spoken made an appeal to him. It seems to have come from the heart. Jeanmaire relates it thus: ‘Listen, Brigadier Jeanmaire, you’re an honest man, it’s known of you. Now tell us in Heaven’s name what you have done. Tell us the truth finally.’
‘I’ve told you the truth,’ Jeanmaire replied.
So alas, still no confession to betraying the Florida early-warning-system, or any other of the vital American defence secrets whose nature we are only allowed to guess at. The dreadful shadow of Communist status had still not been removed.
On the morning of the second day, according to the Tribunal’s press officer, witnesses for the prosecution were heard. The first was the doctor who had attended him in hospital. The prisoner, he said, was in good health. The doctor was followed by Commissioner Pilliard, who spoke generally about Jeanmaire’s awareness of what he was doing and his admission that the information he was supplying to Denissenko and his successors was probably being sent to Moscow: ‘It was after all his job as a military attaché,’ Jeanmaire was alleged to have said.
Before Pilliard left the stand, he was asked by the judges where the tip-off had come from that had led to Jeanmaire’s arrest. He replied that he could not reveal the source, since Justice Minister Furgler had ordered him to keep it secret.
Defence witnesses – all selected by Paschoud, says Jeanmaire – tended to compound the mystery of the accused’s personality, rather than explain it. They testified to Jeanmaire’s stalwart character and challenged the suggestion that he had acted out of vengeance. He was ‘jovial’ but never ‘drunken’. He could shock with his outspokenness and disliked pomposity. Under his coarse exterior lurked ‘a sensitive, soft centre’. He was a virulent anti-Communist. An attempt by Paschoud to submit favourable written testimonials from brother officers was dismissed by the presiding judge. ‘Let’s get on with it. They don’t interest us,’ he is alleged by Jeanmaire to have said.
For the prosecution’s final address, Marie-Louise was brought back into court.
Remember, please, that we still have only Jeanmaire’s testimony and the official press release and rumour to tell us what took place. The prosecutor emphasized Jeanmaire’s high responsibility as one of the Swiss Army’s few brigadiers and the commander of 30,000 men. He dwelt on Jeanmaire’s weakness of character and described him as a man trapped by Denissenko’s charm and cunning. He dismissed Paschoud’s claim that the early derelictions were outdated under the statute of limitations, maintaining that they were part of a continuum. He demanded twelve years in prison, reduction to the ranks, expulsion from the army and the obligation to pay court costs. For Marie-Louise he demanded a year in prison, but would not object to a suspended sentence.
At this, Jeanmaire’s counsel, according to his client, broke down and wept. ‘Paschoud had never expected a bid for twelve years,’ Jeanmaire explains – as if his own emotions were suddenly of less account than his defence lawyer’s. In the midday recess, Paschoud had come weeping to him in his cell and said: ‘They want to butcher you.’ Did Paschoud, a toughened lawyer, really weep? Did Jeanmaire? Was Jeanmaire, at that devastating moment, in a position accurately to observe and remember the reactions of anyone, even of himself? Men facing sentence – whether of life imprisonment or even death – are known to experience a whole scale of sensations, from despair to hysterical elation. As far as Jeanmaire is concerned, Paschoud broke down and wept, and that is the end of it. What Jeanmaire himself saw, or thought, or felt, is probably beyond description. Fifteen years after the event, he seems intent upon turning the description outward on to his lawyer.
Only once, apparently, has Paschoud broken his silence since that day and with Jeanmaire’s written consent: in an interview to a Lucerne newspaper published in September 1988 Paschoud accuses Commissioner Pilliard of extracting signed confessions from Jeanmaire by inducements and threats. He describes the circumstances of Jeanmaire’s detention under investigation as ‘scandalous’ and takes exception to Pilliard’s presence – as court witness and de facto prosecutor – throughout the trial. ‘That certain people act wrongly is no excuse to do the same to them,’ says Paschoud. Jeanmaire betrayed only trivia, he insists, and did so in order to show the Russians that the Swiss were ready to defend themselves. He was not a traitor, and he was treated like a hunted animal. Oddly enough, reading the interview, one can imagine Paschoud weeping after all.
Jeanmaire emerging from his trial, 16 June 1977.
Marie-Louise’s lawyer, Courvoisier, on the other hand, rose superbly to the occasion – thus Jeanmaire, thus the Tribunal’s press officer and thus, obediently, the press of the day. He emphasized Marie-Louise’s subordinate role, an argument readily acceptable to an all-male Swiss court, and her freedom from greed or ideology. She was today a different woman from the one Denissenko had seduced, he said. He quoted from Madame Bovary. She had seen in Denissenko a man she could admire, he said. And at the end of his speech, Marie-Louise – ‘very sweetly’ in Jeanmaire’s words – asked the judges to exercise clemency towards her husband.
Still not recovered from his breakdown, according to Jeanmaire, Paschoud now rose to his feet. As he spoke, he choked through his tears, says Jeanmaire. On behalf of his client, he pleaded guilty, a course that had not been previously agreed between them: ‘He had never told me how he intended to defend me,’ Jeanmaire complains. ‘He wanted to minimize me, rather than contest specific charges.’ Jeanmaire gives otherwise no account of Paschoud’s defence, beyond saying that it ended with these words: ‘I demand that Jeanmaire be judged and not condemned.’
But the press of the day accords Paschoud a more impressive role and credits him with attacking the ‘poisoning of public opinion, political intervention and certain statements by representatives of the executive which had influenced the general public against his client.’ According to the press, Paschoud even mentioned Furgler by name and described his speech of October 1976 before the National Council as ‘not in agreement with the Tribunal’s understanding of the case.’ Paschoud is also credited with saying that Jeanmaire had possessed no proper friends in Switzerland, and that he wished to prove to Denissenko that Switzerland’s defence preparations were strong and effective. This appears to be the only occasion on which the defence offered Jeanmaire’s much rehearsed argument of ‘dissuasion’, which today is his main self-justification.
Finally, Jeanmaire added his own last plea: ‘It was never my intention to betray my country. In so far as I have done harm, I am sorry.’ The session was declared closed, and Jeanmaire was taken down to his cell. Press and public were readmitted for the verdict. Jeanmaire was brought up again. The Tribunal deemed the prosecution’s request for twelve years too merciful and awarded him eighteen. The extra six were to be explained by Jeanmaire’s high rank, which added ‘exceptional gravity’ to his crime. Only ‘mitigating circumstances’ had spared him the full twenty. These were: the services he had performed for Switzerland; the positive feelings he had retained towards his country; and the absence of any profit motive. The Tribunal described his true motives as: ambition; self-glorification; and resentment. The charges against Marie-Louise were dropped.
If the grounds for the verdict are still secret, the reason for the massive sentence appears less so. The Tribunal had done what was needed of it. It had made a big spy out of a small one. Such a huge sentence must betoken a huge betrayal. The witch was burned, a great leak had been stopped and America need no longer equate Switzerland with a Communist country.
It is late, the fondue is long finished and Jeanmaire has tired himself with talking. A leaden prison pallor has descended over his too-expressive features. He is a little tired of me. The old soldier has served his time. But he is my host still. One last schnapps while we wait for the taxi, and soon I will return to my grand hotel, and he perhaps to the lady companion who now cares for him with the same loyalty as her predecessors.
He is preparing an autobiography, he says. Those files stacked against the wall contain just some of the thousands of pages that he wrote in prison.
A pause, then unable to contain himself, he asks me: ‘So, how was it? — ‘meaning: ‘How did I do?’ As if we who come to him should declare ourselves for the defence or the prosecution, leaving through the ‘yes’ door or the ‘no’ door.
For a moment, I am stuck for an answer. His courage and his age alone, these days, make an innocent man of him, and there is a grandeur in Jeanmaire at eighty that is its own virtue. But old age can be a different state. The sweetness of old men need not be the sweetness of their younger days, not by any means. And it occurs to me that catastrophe has made a special case of him, accorded him a separate redemption beyond the reach of human judgement.
‘I just want to report what I’ve seen and heard,’ I tell him lamely.
‘Do that! Do that!’ His eyes, as he wishes me goodbye, are once more brimming with tears, but whether of tiredness, or regret, or merely old age, I cannot tell.
So how was it? as Jeanmaire would say.
Only one thing is certain: he had no way of betraying what they wanted him to have betrayed, and no evidence
was ever offered that he had done so.
All he ever gave the Russians was peanuts, not least because peanuts were all he had. And until anyone can prove the opposite, eighteen years was a barbaric sentence.
What he might have betrayed, if he had had any real information, is a nightmare that, thank Heaven, need not trouble us. He didn’t have it.
And no, he is not dead, not by a million miles. There are men and women a quarter of his age in every small town in Switzerland, or England, who are a great deal more dead than Jean-Louis Jeanmaire ever was. He is a lover and a striver and a dreamer and a frustrated creator. He is a humble braggart and a tender bully. Perhaps he should have stayed with the architecture in which he was trained and briefly excelled. Then he could have enraged clients, insulted city councils, triumphed, failed, triumphed again with impunity. Perhaps he should have been an impresario like the Jeanmaire who staged the burning house in which his own life went up in smoke. Certainly he should have stayed away from any world that had its secrets.
He was never made for the army, even if he loved it. He was born to it and, like the good soldier he was, he set out to fight the non-combat wars he had inherited. As the army began to weary him, he started to dream that there was another, larger destiny being prepared for him elsewhere. In Denissenko, he thought he had met it: ‘He’s come!’ he thought – he, my destiny; he, my rainman; he, the door to the lives I have not led.
Was there really a big spy somewhere? Does he or she still walk the corridors of Bern, knowing that Jeanmaire served his twelve years for him? Jeanmaire does not think so, but in the Swiss press, rumours abound and conspiracy theories tumble over one another every week. The Russians engineered the whole thing, goes a favourite story: they had the big spy, they were buying his wares, and when he came under suspicion they planted the tip-off on the CIA and fitted out the little spy Jeanmaire to take the fall.
Accusations and cross-accusations between members of the Swiss intelligence establishment are daily fare: it was Colonel Bachmann himself who was selling the secrets! says one cry – no, no, it was Weidenmann; it was Gerber; it was Santa Claus; it was all of them and none of them.
And certainly, like the spate of espionage scandals that have entertained the British for the last forty-odd years, the revelations about the Swiss intelligence establishment in the sixties and seventies point to a swamp of private armies, private interests, private fantasies and startling incompetence hidden behind walls of secrecy.
But the Swiss, like the British, love their spies even while they hate them. In purging ‘the snoopers of Bern’ the Swiss are also purging their own age-old practice of mutual surveillance. And the new men and women mean to end all that. They want to give the Swiss back their joy in one another, just as they mean to rescue their country from its perennial fantasy of being a threatened bastion of sanity encircled by mad foreigners.
Somewhere in the soldier and patriot who is Jean-Louis Jeanmaire – though he would be the last man on earth to admit it – there slept a man who had become sick to the heart of being Swiss.
Postscript, 16 January 1991
Revelations about the Jeanmaire case continue. The most notable source of information is, alas, still eagerly awaited as I go to press – namely the second volume of the report of the Parliamentary Commission. Some of its findings are already current, if unofficially and in draft form, and shed more light (or darkness) on the questions I have raised.
Unlike Federal Prosecutor Gerber, the Commission sets the genesis of the affair not in May 1975, which was Gerber’s date, but in October 1974, when the ‘representative of a foreign intelligence service’ was dispatched to Bern on a special mission to the Chief of the Swiss Federal Police to inform him that a high Swiss officer was giving information to the USSR and that this officer was married to a Swiss woman born in the Soviet Union.
The source of the intelligence was ‘a Soviet officer’, but the draft report does not tell us whether he or she was still serving or had defected.
The tip was at once passed to Federal Prosecutor Gerber, says the report. At further meetings on 29 October and 1 November 1974, the same ‘representative of a foreign intelligence service’ referred to a list of some sixty persons suspected of contact with the GRU in Switzerland and dwelt on the sensitivity of his source, who was not in a position to expand on the information or answer questions. This injunction seems later to have been ignored by both sides.
The foreign intelligence representative’s information pointed specifically to ‘a married couple living in Lausanne in 1964, who for at least a year had maintained contact with Vassily Denissenko, Soviet attaché and GRU Resident in Bern, and afterwards with his successors.’ Their GRU cover-names were ‘Mur’ and ‘Mary’. The wife spoke no Russian despite her origins, said the source, and regarded French as her mother tongue.
Gerber’s later date for the start of the affair – 16 May 1975 – is evidently a reference to the visit of a different emissary from the same intelligence service, which resulted in a ‘stock-taking’ – thus the report – ‘at which new spy cases involving Swiss subjects came to light.’ It was also on this date that the Swiss officials, in the persons of Pilliard and Hofer, handed the emissary a questionnaire designed to obtain more information about the still unidentified couple.
On 2 June another meeting took place between the same players, and the foreign intelligence representative produced a new document containing yet more details about the suspected ‘couple’. The husband lived in Lausanne but worked in Bern. He commuted daily, probably by car rather than by train. He was active in ‘air defence’ and had visited France in 1964 to acquaint himself with ‘air raid’ installations.
On 24 June the Federal Police received a reply to its questionnaire, confirming that the wife of the couple regarded French as her mother tongue, while the husband at least spoke it well. On the strength of this, the report concludes, the Jeanmaires were positively identified on 24 June 1975, a full eight months after the tip-off.
The draft report also refers to a second foreign intelligence service, which came forward and confirmed the information given by the first. The British then? We cannot know, any more than we can know whether both services were getting their information from the same service – in that trade, no rarity.
On one point, however, the report is unambiguous: Jean-Louis Jeanmaire ‘never had access to top secret files’.
I last saw Jeanmaire on 16 January and mentioned to him that I had succeeded in tracking down Denissenko. He was living in Moscow, I said, but was presently in hospital with a liver ailment. I said I might visit him next time I was there. Jeanmaire seemed not to hear. He looked down; he peered round his kitchen. Finally, like a schoolboy who has been promised a treat, he gave me a radiant smile.
‘Oh, you are lucky,’ he said.
1 My attempts to obtain the first names of Lugon, formerly Inspector of the Waadtland Canton Police and presently employed by the Federal Police, and Hofer, formerly Commissioner of Federal Police and now in retirement, have met with fastidious rejection. After one and a half days of consultation, the spokesman for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office has advised that ‘the two gentlemen Lugon and Hofer wish no publication of their first names for commercial purposes.’ The spokesman, Herr Hauenstein, valiantly declined further explanation. Rumpelstiltskin himself could not have been better represented.