High above Lake Geneva, in a castle as spectacular as the surrounding mountains, rich and powerful people from all over the world are gathering. Their purpose? To celebrate the 50th anniversary of a shadowy organisation which claims, by quiet manipulation, to have influenced many of the most important events in post-war history
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THE VIEW from the old Caux-Palace Hotel, a gigantic, pinnacled pile on the edge of a precipice high above Montreux, is one of Europe's great panoramas. It sweeps over Lake Geneva to the saw-toothed mountain ranges which culminate in the snows and glaciers of the Dents du Midi, the view which once made this corner of Switzerland the territory of Grand Hotels.

The registers of the old Montreux guest-palaces, preserved in the town museum, record a leisured grandeur which began to die in 1914. Prince S from Galicia, the Graf von and zu This-and-That from Vienna, Colonel Something from Scotland and the banker W from Berlin reserved suites for six weeks at a time, for their large families and their valets and ladies' maids. The Empress Elisabeth ("Sissi"), estranged wife of the Emperor Franz-Josef, stayed here regularly. Today, after generations of decline, most of these vast palaces are used for something else. The paddle steamers still churn up and down the lake, and the Quai des Fleurs is still delicious with the scent of well-tended roses, eucalyptus and broom. But the names of the great visitors are only a memory. The clientele at Montreux are ordinary holidaymakers, no longer the aristocrats and financiers who upheld empires.

The Caux-Palace itself never recovered from the collapse of the Europe of the Belle Epoque. Already dilapidated by 1939, it was used to house British prisoners of war who had escaped from Germany or Italy and then, as the war ended, a contingent of survivors from Bergen-Belsen. The place was in such a bad state that demolition was proposed. Yet today the great visitors and grand titles are back: the Dalai Lama, the President of Switzerland, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Rees- Mogg... This week, and for much of this summer, a selection of the world's great and good will be there again.

They are coming to celebrate a private "Jubilee". It is 50 years since a group of Swiss Christians bought the hotel for their evangelical movement. They repaired and remodelled its sumptuous ballroom and restaurants with volunteer labour, renamed it Mountain House, and converted it into a meeting centre dedicated to manipulating world affairs from behind the scenes - with, its members now claim, astounding success.

"WE ARE trying to heal the wounds of history, and to play a part in creating a society of peace and responsibility." The words could have come from any of the dozens of institutions - UN agencies, national ministries for overseas aid, non-governmental organisations and charities - which are trying to make the world a safer and wiser place. They are tentative words, without bombast or false optimism. What made them striking was that they were said to me, on the terrace of Mountain House earlier this month, by a spokesman for what was once the pushiest and noisiest evangelical crusade in the world.

Caux is the conference centre of Moral Re-Armament. Here, under the supervision of MRA's founding prophet, Frank Buchman, important people would once be invited to meet their adversaries and to apply Buchman's "four standards" of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, they would experience a personal change of heart and conflicts would melt away. The temptations of more worldly approaches to social and political divisions - the Satanic ideology of Communism, above all - would be removed. Over the next decades, the main Cold War period, thousands of people were brought up to stay at Caux, to sit down and debate with adversaries and to watch MRA plays. Some left convinced that Caux had changed their lives, eager to spread the message. Others came away feeling that they had been exposed to brainwashing, whose purpose was more to recruit them into a sect than to solve the world's problems.

Talking to colleagues around the Independent on Sunday's office, I was surprised to find how completely MRA has fallen out of the British consciousness. Few people under 40 had even heard of it. "Wasn't that a right-wing thing?" asked somebody a bit older. It has become hard to realise how familiar this movement was to my own generation, and - as the "Oxford Group" or the "Buchmanites" - to the generation of my parents in the Thirties. Its propaganda was expert, arresting and pervasive. Its supporters sat in all manner of influential positions, especially in the press and Parliament and even in trade unions. Students proselytised tirelessly in universities. All over Britain, it was common to hear the comment that "he or she is MRA".

In its great days, MRA was as expert in recruitment as the Communist Party, more lasting in its influence than Billy Graham. But the price of success, in Britain at least, was widespread dislike and suspicion - and not only on the Left. This was partly resentment at its methods. But it was also, especially in the later Thirties, dismay at Buchman's imprudent weakness for Adolf Hitler.

Frank Buchman, an American Lutheran of Swiss-German extraction, had been working up and down the world as an evangelist for many years before he became famous in Britain for his success at Oxford, where he became the fashionable guru of the Thirties. Buchman offered no precise theology beyond the invitation to "change", abandon sin (especially homosexuality) and allow God to take charge of one's life. A rotund, cheerful person with a gift for conversation rather than preaching, Buchman was an organisational genius who worked through "house parties" - which came to mean religious meetings which could draw tens of thousands. At Oxford in the Thirties, he swept undergraduates along with him. England had seen countless religious revivals among the poor, but mass revivalism among the middle- and upper- class young was something new, and the "Oxford Group" became a favourite topic for journalists.

Deliberately, Buchman targeted the upper crust. He aimed at the aristocracy and the fringes of the royal family, and made august converts. This was a well-established technique for American evangelists seeking influence and funding; in America, the upper crust was a meritocracy which liked to ascribe its wealth to God's favour. In Britain, by contrast, Buchman's approach seemed snobbish, and blatantly political in its preference for the reactionary Right.

His blunder over Hitler, which was to dog him for the rest of his life, arose from naive self-confidence. Buchman was convinced that if he could meet the Fuhrer he could persuade him to "change", and to this end he went persistently to Nuremberg Rallies and tried in vain to use his Nazi acquaintances to get him an interview. But it is clear that he admired Hitler in some ways. In 1936, an interviewer quoted him as saying: "I thank God for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defence against the Antichrist of Communism." Afterwards, Buchman and his disciples frantically denied that he had used those precise words. But the quote was reasonably close to his attitudes at the time.

"Moral Re-Armament" was a catch-phrase coined in the late Thirties, which stuck. After the war, the movement renewed itself by pioneering what is now called "conflict resolution", skilfully inserting itself into the ideological struggles of the Cold War by proclaiming that MRA had discovered the secret of reconciling apparently implacable opponents. Those who came to its new headquarters in Caux were encouraged to "change their lives", to recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in their adversaries and to abandon policies of confrontation. Moral and spiritual renewal, leading to forgiveness, would solve the world's problems.

My own first encounter with MRA, in the late Fifties, was revealing. I was commonwealth correspondent of The Scotsman, whose owner, Roy Thomson, thought in his Canadian way that MRA was a good religion for business. One of the paper's senior executives was an enthusiastic convert. As a result, both I and the diplomatic correspondent - the late David Watt - frequently opened The Scotsman to read articles under our by-lines which we had not written; a column attacking repressive British policies in Nyasaland would be replaced by a soapy article deploring the supposed Communist control of African nationalist movements and listing the names of obscure Africans who were alleged to have repented and "changed their lives". It took a stiff battle to reassert the authority of the editor and put an end to this abuse.

THE CLAIMS made for what MRA achieved at Caux were so enormous that it is hard to sort out truth from exaggeration. At different times, MRA proclaimed that it had launched Franco-German reconciliation, laid the foundations for the Schuman Plan which was the embryo of the European Union, defused the threat of Communism among industrial workers in the Ruhr, brokered a solution to the South Tyrol problem and shown the way to overcome innumerable confrontations in Africa and Asia as the old colonial empires were challenged by liberation movements. Many of these claims are repeated in Caux's glossy 50th anniversary publicity material.

What is certainly true is that Caux offered a sort of acceptance to nations and groups struggling for recognition. For post-war German leaders, especially Konrad Adenauer, Caux provided an invaluable opportunity to meet other Europeans, to overcome suspicions and begin the painful process of rehabilitation. African nationalists, desperate to break out of colonial isolation, often welcomed invitations to Caux as a chance to make their mark in front of international audiences. And, in a period when the unofficial conference industry was in its infancy, Caux was valuable as a place where people could meet informally and privately to sound out the ground for some formal settlement to follow - which was the case with the parties in the South Tyrol dispute.

The "spiritual" element in all this was less important than MRA used to claim. No doubt some visitors did undergo conversion and "change their lives" in the required way. But others, like many of the postwar West Germans, were using Caux for their own ends as much as they were used. And many guests, including some African friends of mine, grew uneasy at the sense that they were being morally disarmed rather than rearmed. They felt that they were being lured away from the bitter, necessary struggle for independence or social change into a pretence that the barriers dividing people were unreal - which amounted to accepting the status quo.

In 1961, at the age of 83, Frank Buchman died. His designated successor was Peter Howard, a British journalist who had once worked for the Daily Express. Howard's vigour and charisma, and his huge talent as a propagandist, promised well for the movement, but four years later he died of pneumonia in Peru. MRA found itself leaderless, in a world which was changing rapidly and in which young people were moving away from traditional moralities towards the lifestyle experiments of the Sixties. A damaging schism now took place. Shortly before his death, Howard had toured America and raised a new revivalist youth movement for MRA known as "Up With People". This group, unlike the Oxford students of the Thirties, veered off into what is cautiously described by an MRA spokesman as "uncontrollable nationalism", and a split in the movement followed.

After these years of crisis, MRA began to change. No new prophetic leader emerged. The movement retreated from its tradition of boastful claims and sensational headlines, and - especially in Britain - its public profile steadily diminished. At the same time, debates began about methods and structure. Some felt that the fishing for important people - the Big Names culture - had gone too far; others wanted a more realistic approach to world problems which acknowledged that collective struggle and even on occasion armed conflict might be justifiable. MRA grew interested in inner- city problems, and played a small but useful mediating role in the transition of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe - a role which it forebore to blow trumpets about.

Today, in the post-Cold War world, MRA remains busy and active. There are new outreach programmes, like the groups seeking moral foundations for democracy in eastern Europe, while thousands of guests will pass through Caux this summer for the centre's 50-year "Jubilee" and for the usual conferences and meetings. And yet, visiting Caux, I felt that MRA had grown chastened by experience, and had slowed up. The world underneath Caux has changed. The time of the mighty entrepreneurs, of confident millennial creeds and ambitious prophets, has passed away. Instead, there is a more rueful and realistic sense of what can be done to improve the human race. It is a downsizing world, and Moral Re-Armament has downsized itself too.

Age creeps over all religious movements of this kind. Perhaps the problem is that the world has caught up with MRA. Hundreds of official or unofficial bodies now offer "conflict resolution", which - as the Bosnia talks at Dayton, Ohio, showed - has become a developed science. Europe is sprinkled with innumerable "conference centres". Even MRA's flamboyant name-dropping, which once seemed so obnoxious, is now general practice for any institution on the make, from an export firm to a university, which needs to "identify elites" and raise funds.

There is still a degree of holy anarchy about who does what in MRA. People insist that "God leads them" to one task or another. But even here, there are signs of an organisation growing set in its ways. Structures are starting to crystallise. Representatives of MRA from all over the world have taken to meeting once a year. A body called the International Co-Ordination Group is evolving towards a sort of executive. In this as in other ways, MRA is growing less peculiar and more like any other religious foundation working to make the world an easier place to live in.

Money, in this new environment, is becoming a problem. Once the movement could afford to be relaxed about finance, relying on God to open the bank accounts of countless rich and not so rich supporters when funds were needed. Now, although MRA can still pay for an astonishing range of activities and publications, divine grace is less generous. The Westminster Theatre in London, acquired by MRA in 1946 for its own high-minded plays, has been placed on the market. And the great building itself on the mountain peak at Caux, nearly a century old and demanding ever more effort to maintain, is becoming a burden which MRA can no longer carry on its own.

The summer programme of meetings and courses will continue. But for the off-season months, the Moral Re-Armers have adopted a pragmatic, very Montreux solution. They are renting Caux to a training school for hoteliers.