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Europe: Was Switzerland Really Neutral During World War II?

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 22 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than a half-century after the end of World War II in Europe, one of its most clouded mysteries has in recent months become the subject of intense, bitter international controversy.

The mystery has to do with the real wartime role played by officially neutral Switzerland. Polemics about that role continue to be nourished -- and to mount in sharpness -- on almost a daily basis now. Many Swiss officials and bankers find themselves defending their country's record against attacks by parts of the U.S. government, by international Jewish organizations and, not least, by much of Switzerland's own mainline media and several of its respected historians.

At the heart of the mystery is a deceptively simple question: Did Switzerland, as it has claimed for decades, remain humane in its treatment of persecuted Jews, and did it remain economically as well as militarily neutral from 1939 to 1945?

High Swiss officials say the country acted appropriately, and recent polls indicate most Swiss citizens still believe their country on the whole behaved properly.

But those both outside and inside Switzerland attacking this thesis argue that the country actually played an important, some say indispensible, role in supporting the German Nazi war economy and its military machine.

The foreign critics include important U.S. officials and members of Congress -- notably, U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) -- as well as World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman and other prominent leaders of Jewish organizations. They say that Switzerland acted callously toward the 22,000 Jews it agreed to take in as refugees until late 1942, and even more callously toward the 30,000 Jews it later turned back from its borders. Most of those refused entry are presumed to have perished -- many in Nazi death camps -- as a result.

In addition, both Swiss and non-Swiss critics say that after the war's end Switzerland's national and most private banks behaved inhumanely toward survivors of the war and withheld deposits and valuables belonging to those survivors. The critics also say that the banks have made it extraordinarily difficult for Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust to recover money deposited in Swiss accounts for safekeeping before the outbreak of the war in 1939.

To support such charges, those attacking Swiss wartime and postwar behavior have benefited from the recent declassification of once highly classified, largely U.S. official documents. In one of many similar documents, dated October 1943, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Leahy wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that Swiss munitions supplies to Germany were "materially decreasing the military effectiveness of (Allied) air attacks on the Axis." Leahy asked Hull to consider sanctions against Switzerland.

To these and other documents impugning Switzerland's avowed neutrality, some Swiss officials today have a ready reply. They say that if Switzerland aided Germany, it also aided the Allies -- therefore, it was neutral. And in fact the Allies did benefit to a degree from Switzerland's neutral status. But not, say the critics, on the same scale as Nazi Germany.

One of the prominent critics is Greg Rickman. a senior aide to U.S. Senator D'Amato, whose Banking Committee investigations over the last year have publicized many of the recently released and, D'Amato says, incriminating documents about Swiss wartime behavior. In an interview with RFE/RL, Rickman said that, based on the documents he has seen "the war would have been very difficult for (the Nazis) to have conducted and paid for without the role of Swiss banks. He said Germany "needed a place to get rid of and launder things like gold and securities and bonds, and to sell the stolen and looted art work and jewels -- and it went through Switzerland."

Rickman's views are considered somewhat suspect by many Swiss. But several of Switzerland's own historians have also documented how much of the country's wartime economy was geared to feeding the German war machine.

A decade ago, Swiss historian Jacob Tanner wrote a book on his country's war economy. Based on German wartime documents he uncovered, Tanner said that 60 percent of Switzerland's armaments went to Nazi Germany, 70 percent of its electrical products, 80 percent of its electronic equipment and half of its optical products. His conclusion was that Switzerland, its banks and private businesses flourished during the war because of their exports to Germany. As a result, Tanner also concluded, Switzerland was able to modernize its industry during the war and was thus ready to prosper, as it did, in the postwar period.

But Tanner's 1986 book -- actually a published version of his doctoral thesis -- received little notice at the time. Only now that a wave of criticism -- and some new evidence -- of Switzerland's wartime and post-war behavior has come from abroad has the general public begun to be made aware of Switzerland's extensive wartime cooperation with the Germans.

The official Swiss response to much of the criticism is that it is unfair and that the new evidence of wartime complicity with the Germans is really not that new. Ambassador Thomas Borer is the chief Swiss spokesman on the issue. He has acknowledged in interviews that the international criticism of Swiss behavior has "plunged Switzerland into its biggest crisis since the war" and that his compatriots have been "a bit too blue-eyed about (their) wartime past." But in an interview with our correspondent, Borer nonetheless insisted on understanding the "context" of his country's wartime behavior as essential to what he called a "balanced view of the matter."

"We regret that these (new) documents (about Swiss complicity with the Nazis) are taken out of context....An historical report (that is fair) should take into consideration the whole historical context of that (wartime) situation. For example, (there was) much more gold traffic going on between Switzerland and the Allies than (between) Switzerland and the Nazis," said Borer.

So the answer to the "simple" question about Switzerland's wartime and post-war conduct is really anything but simple. It involves complicated moral questions about the country's behavior toward Jews during and after the war, as well as its apparent support of the German war machine.

This is part one of a three-part series.