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Europe: Will Fortress Switzerland Face Its World War II Past?

Prague, 22 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Observers of Switzerland's past behavior concur that the special character of the small Alpine nation of seven million people has largely shaped its reaction to the charges made against it in the past 12 months concerning its behavior during World War II.

They speak of Switzerland's deep conservatism -- all women were given the right to vote only eight years ago -- of its "fortress mentality" and of its strong tendency to reject foreign criticism. Some Swiss analysts call this a national "defense mechanism."

Swiss historian and journalist Gian Trepp says that when his countrymen are attacked, "they draw the wagons around themselves" in collective defense. Trepp and other analysts talk also of a "national myth" about Switzerland's "neutrality" in World War II. Trepp says that as late as 1990, Swiss school children were taught that "the (Swiss) army and God saved Switzerland from invasion by the Nazis."

Swiss historian Jacques Picard believes more people now have become aware of the truth -- that Switzerland's vaunted "neutrality" concealed its extensive cooperation with the Nazis. But, Picard adds, destroying the national myth will be "a very slow process."

Earlier this month, a high Swiss official spoke of this national tendency to mythify the past in a television interview. Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss -- the only Jewish minister in the Swiss Government -- talked bluntly, saying: "We have a fear of our own past and what could emerge...Nothing is more difficult than (dealing with) one's own past....(But) we need to be confronted with the truth that is being dug up now."

According to recent polls, the majority of her compatriots do not agree with Dreifuss. They blame foreigners, not themselves, for the controversy over Switzerland's past behavior. And some of their reactions to the criticisms from abroad have turned ugly. Swiss media have noted a substantial increase over the past several months in anti-Semitic incidents.

So have the small Swiss Jewish community and leaders of Jewish organizations abroad who have come to Switzerland to discuss with officials their search for the assets of Holocaust victims still thought to be in Swiss banks. Last week, after two days in Switzerland, the director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League said he sensed "anti-Semitism right now in the streets of Switzerland." Abraham Foxman said he was particularly troubled by suggestions he had heard that Jews are the enemy of the Swiss. He told Swiss reporters: "The enemy of Switzerland today is your past...the Swiss are not the victims, but that is what I see and hear (in Switzerland)...What this country needs is ... to take a quantum moral leap to face the past."

Not all Swiss insist on guarding their national myth. There have been some changes in attitude among a substantial minority of Swiss -- estimates range from 20 to 35 percent -- mostly among those under 40 years old. Historians Jacques Picard and Jacob Tanner -- who have both been named by the Swiss government to an international commission to review Swiss wartime behavior -- agree that changes in national attitudes are taking place, but only very slowly.

But neither Picard nor Tanner is sure whether the changes will be sufficient to alter centuries-old feelings.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Tanner said: "I cannot say whether (the changes we have seen) will turn out to be a break with the past, and the adoption of a new (more enlightened) attitude --or if this development will end with a reinforcement of (Switzerland's) defense reflex....That's the most important question."

That every democratic country worthy of the adjective must eventually face up to the darker chapters in its history has become accepted wisdom in the late 20th century. Examples of such actions abound in recent decades.

Germany has made a great effort to come to terms with its Nazi past -- even if many believe that effort has not been thorough enough.

France took 25 years to begin to accept the reality of its wartime collaboration with its Nazi occupiers. But last year President Jacques Chirac finally acknowledged -- and apologized for -- the Vichy Government's murderous treatment of Jews living in France.

The United States has sought over two decades to come to terms with the controversial war it waged in Vietnam.

There are negative examples as well. Japan, for instance, has never officially apologized for numerous atrocities it committed before -- notably, the so-called "Rape of Nanking" -- and during World War II. Austria prefers to consider itself a victim of the Nazis rather than a willing collaborator, even though the historical record shows that most Austrians greeted their integration into the Third Reich in 1938 with glee. It is also known that, proportionately, there were more Austrians than Germans who joined the Nazi party and the notorious SS.

It is now Switzerland's turn to decide, more than a half-century after the war, whether it is capable of accepting the truth about itself, or whether it will retreat into its "fortress" and continue to nourish its national myth. No one can confidently predict which path it will choose. But one thing is quite clear: For a stubborn, conservative people that has nourished legends about itself for decades, it won't be easy, whatever it decides.