WASHINGTON (Oct. 7)
It may well be the last chapter of the Holocaust. Half a century after Nazi Germany plundered billions of dollars worth of gold from Jews and from occupied countries in its march across Europe, Switzerland has been forced into a financial and moral accounting of its own actions during the war.
A storm of international criticism has engulfed Swiss society in recent weeks as newly declassified documents show that the neutral Swiss turned a substantial profit — and helped finance the German war effort — by acting as the Nazis’ bankers during World War II.
Allegations have mounted that the Swiss National Bank knowingly purchased and laundered millions of dollars in looted Nazi assets during the war years, including jewels stolen from Jews on their way to death camps.
Switzerland is known to have made its banks available for the safekeeping of tons of so-called Nazi gold — some of it believed to have been melted down from wedding bands and from the fillings of Holocaust victims.
The Swiss agreed after the war to turn over $60 million worth of gold to the United States, Britain and France for eventual return to the countries from which it was pilfered. But according to a recent British government report based on newly revealed documents, that figure accounted for only one-tenth of the Nazi gold stash.
The remaining gold — estimated now to be worth some $6 billion — may still be sitting in Swiss vaults, the report said.
The recent revelations — and the flurry of media reports focusing on them – - have placed Switzerland at the center of an international inquiry into the fate of Nazi gold.
The questions Switzerland faces, however, run far deeper than the whereabouts of the precious metal.
For 50 years, Switzerland has sidestepped inquiries about its relationship with Nazi Germany, citing bank secrecy laws and its neutral posture.
But now, under increasing pressure from Jewish organizations as well as from U.S. and British officials, Switzerland has been forced into an uncomfortable and belated reckoning with its past.
The unearthing of historical documents have fed mounting speculation that Switzerland may have, in effect, bought its neutrality during the war by developing an expedient relationship with the Nazis.
That relationship, in turn, caused considerable “damage” to the Allied war effort, as stated in a U.S. intelligence report from 1945 on the “objectionable activities of Swiss banks.”
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said, “It is safe to say that without the financial and economic assistance rendered to Nazi Germany by use of Switzerland as a clearinghouse, the war could not have continued as long as it had.”
Some have leveled more stinging indictments against Switzerland.
“Because of actions the Swiss government took, Jews died,” said one U.S. official who asked not to be identified.
The revelations are based on documents uncovered from the U.S. National Archives and foreign archives in recent months by the WJC and the Senate Banking Committee. Researchers uncovered the 50-year-old documents as part of a parallel investigation into assets deposited in Swiss banks by Jewish Holocaust victims.
The exhaustive search of the intelligence documents, some of which have been obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, has produced additional evidence that Nazi-Swiss cooperation may not have been limited to bank dealings.
One confidential 1945 letter written by then-U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for example, stated that Switzerland “is more interested in retaining German goodwill than in properly protecting American prisoners under the Geneva Convention.”
Steinberg said, “What we’re talking about is collaboration at every level in the political, economic and, indeed, the social sphere.”
Swiss officials say that the war years, as one put it, were not the “most brilliant chapter” in the history of the national bank. But so far, that is about all they are conceding.
When asked for his response to the recent revelations, a spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington would only say, “If you go into the history, there is certainly no doubt that Switzerland was surrounded by the Nazi powers and was in a very difficult situation at that time.
“It was neutral and it conducted commercial activities throughout the war with the Allies and with the German Reich and it played a role as a financial place.”
Some historians suggest that because Switzerland’s army was not strong enough to prevent occupation by an encroaching Germany, it had to find another way to stay out of the war. Providing safe haven and a market for looted Nazi assets may have served that end, historians say.
“We had to give the Germans something, to survive,” Robert Vogler, a Swiss historian who wrote a 1985 study of wartime gold transactions told The New York Times.
The sudden and intensive international speculation about the nature of the Nazi-Swiss relationship has been met by both protestation and embarrassment among the Swiss.
It is not a country that is accustomed to confronting its past. It was only last year, 50 years after the war ended, that the Swiss government finally apologized for a secret 1938 deal it had reached with Hitler to turn back German Jewish refugees seeking safety in Switzerland.
Recently, the government promised to pay Jewish groups more than $800,000, with half of it to go toward preservation efforts at Auschwitz and half to AMCHA, an Israeli organization that counsels Holocaust survivors and their children.
Swiss officials said the move was not linked to the Nazi gold controversy.
Switzerland’s Parliament, meanwhile, has promised a comprehensive investigation, exempt from all bank secrecy laws, into the fate of all assets that reached Switzerland as a result of Nazi rule.
Such an investigation will likely take five years, Swiss officials say.
A separate inquiry by the Swiss Bankers Association and the World Jewish Congress, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, will determine the value of dormant Swiss bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims.
The WJC claims that up to $7 billion in Jewish money is languishing in those accounts, while Swiss bankers say they have only found about $32 million in unclaimed assets.
“What is needed now is an unimpeded search for the truth,” Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti said recently.
After reports that Switzerland may have held on to 90 percent of the Nazi gold stash, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, called for a renegotiation of the postwar agreement between Switzerland and the Allies on the redistribution of looted assets.
After the war, the Allies had settled for $60 million, believing that was the most they could get.
In response to a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher from D’Amato, the State Department promised a “thorough and immediate study” of all aspects of the agreement, including the extent of U.S. knowledge about the disbursement of Nazi assets.
Indeed, Jewish officials say Switzerland is not the only country that owes an accounting.
Part of the $60 million gold stash Switzerland turned over to the Allies 50 years ago is now lying in central banks in the United States and Britain, according to documents uncovered by the WJC.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is believed to be housing 2 tons of looted Nazi gold, estimated to be worth about $28 million. An additional 3.5 tons of gold, worth about $56 million, is in the Bank of England, WJC officials said.
After allegations about the gold holdings, Edgar Bronfman, president of the WJC and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, appealed to top American, British and French officials to make the money available to “individual sufferers from Nazi persecution, their heirs and their families.”
None of the Nazi gold has ever found its way back to Holocaust victims, according to WJC officials.
“What we’re talking about here has nothing to do with money,” Steinberg said. “It has everything to do with justice.
“What is important is that this last bit of gold, as a final measure, as a final bit of justice, go back to some of the victims from whom it came.”