Prague, 22 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Critics and defenders now agree on at least one issue -- that Switzerland's behavior toward Jews seeking refuge in the country during the war was morally wrong.
Switzerland took in some 230,000 refugees in all during the war, of whom about 22,000 were Jews. The Jews, however, were not provided the financial support for room and board given to needy non-Jewish refugees, but had to obtain their support -- $55 million -- from the Swiss Jewish community and international Jewish agencies.
Far worse was the Swiss Government's August 1942 decision to stop allowing Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis to enter their country. As early as 1938, Bern had asked Nazi authorities in Berlin to stamp the letter "J" -- for "Jude" -- in all German and Austrian passports held by Jews (the secret deal was revealed only two years ago). That made it much easier to turn back Jews seeking refuge. It is estimated that after 1942 up to 30,000 Jews were sent back by Swiss authorities, many -- perhaps most -- of whom later were murdered by the Nazis.
Last year, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the Swiss government formally apologized to world Jewry for the 1938 accord with the Nazis and for its wartime actions. The apology was made by its then-President Kastar Villiger. For many Swiss it was the first time they learned of what their government had done more than a half-century before to Jews seeking refuge in their "neutral" land. The facts about the turning back of Jews were actually uncovered in the 1950s by a Swiss scholar, but his findings got little publicity outside academic circles.
In the same speech, however, Villiger downplayed the degree of economic cooperation between Switzerland and Nazi Germany during the war, as had many Swiss officials before him. And on that point -- as well as on virtually all other controversial issues -- the views of critics and defenders of Swiss wartime behavior diverge drastically.
The critics, including several respected Swiss historians, say that Switzerland's wartime economy was at the service of the Nazi war machine. They cite the high figures of shipments of Swiss armaments and other critical materials to wartime Germany -- found, ironically, in German files by a Swiss historian, Jacob Tanner. They cite as well Switzerland's documented role as "banker" to the Nazis, laundering their looted gold, securities and money -- a role "indispensible" to the Germans.
Some commentators even go so far as to speak of Switzerland's "Faustian bargain" with the Germans. They say the Swiss avoided Nazi invasion by doing virtually all they could for the Germans -- and at the same time benefiting greatly from the business the "bargain" involved. Many defenders of Swiss behavior say, in effect, "We had no choice: it was cooperation or occupation."
That argument was expressed to RFE/RL by Ambassador Thomas Borer, head of the Swiss government task force negotiating with international critics of his country's behavior.
In a telephone interview, Borer said Switzerland was in a "very difficult" situation starting from 1942. "We were surrounded by Nazi Germany and the Axis powers," he said. "Therefore, we had to deal with Nazi Germany...We had to make economic deals with the Nazi Government."
Another major issue that has inflamed passions on both sides is the postwar actions of the Swiss national and private banks refusing to return money belonging to relatives of Nazi Holocaust victims who sought funds deposited before the outbreak of the war. Scores of such relatives of Jews murdered by the Nazis have reported that the banks refused them these funds because they could not prove the original depositors were dead -- "as if," said one, "the Nazis provided death certificates for the six million Jews they exterminated!"
In addition, estimates of how much money deposited in Swiss banks before the war was never returned vary greatly. The Swiss Banking Association says their banks have only been able to find some $37 million so far, although they are still looking for more. Jewish organizations in the United States and Israel speak in terms of thousands of millions of dollars still unaccounted for.
A few months ago, the New York-based World Jewish Congress (WJC) suggested that the Swiss Government set up a substantial "memorial compensation fund" to pay funds due to the rapidly diminishing number of relatives of Holocaust victims with genuine claims on bank deposits. Bern has so far refused to do so.
On December 31, the last day of his one-year term, outgoing Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz told a Geneva newspaper that foreign critics were "blackmailing" Switzerland. In the same interview, he also called the requested compensation fund "ransom" money.
His remarks triggered angry reactions from the WJC and other Jewish organizations, who said they smacked of anti-Semitism. They threatened a boycott of Swiss banks unless he apologized for them. A U.S. government spokesman called Delamuraz's comments "ludicrous." Later, a former Swiss deputy, Jacques Marseiller, was reported to have brought legal action against Delamuraz for alleged breaches of laws on racism and anti-Semitism.
For two weeks, Delamuraz, now Swiss Economics Minister, refused to retract his remarks. But under intense pressure from his cabinet colleagues, Delamuraz gave in and last week formally apologized in a letter to the WJC. His apology lifted the threat of a boycott of Swiss banks. On the same day, in another reversal, the Swiss government announced it would examine the possibility of soon reimbursing Jews to make amends for the country's anti-Jewish wartime refugee policy.
Both actions reflect a consistent pattern of Swiss official behavior during a year when the entire controversy about its decades-old conduct has been in public view: Critics, notably Jewish organizations and U.S. congressmen, make demands based on historical research and recently declassified, mostly U.S. official documents. The Swiss Government at first refuses the demands. Then, under strong criticism from abroad and from its own media, it caves in and accedes to the demand.
As a result of these concessions, Switzerland has agreed to the creation of two important investigative, Swiss-foreign commissions to explore its past behavior. One commission is made up of Swiss historians -- including Professors Jacob Tanner and Jacques Picard, both known critics of Swiss wartime conduct -- and Israeli and U.S. scholars. This commission will look into the entire record of how Switzerland conducted itself during World War II.