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News Analysis: Confronting Wartime Past Consumes Swiss Daily Life

June 2, 1997
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The tidy Swiss people are trying to cope with a decidedly untidy situation.

Months of mounting accusations about how their government and banks conducted business with the Nazis during World War II — and how the banks refused to return the assets of Holocaust victims after the war — have taken a toll on the Swiss.

On the one hand, they are stung by the accusations and revelations based on a growing stack of recently declassified wartime documents, and they are searching for a way to protect their country’s reputation.

But along with what they perceive as an external attack, they are facing an "internal front" as well: The governmental responses to those accusations are forcing the Swiss to reevaluate what they had long considered the truths of their wartime history.

For many, it has been a wrenching process to realize that much of that history was little more than a myth.

Swiss newspapers are filled almost daily with accusations about the active trade in gold between the central banks of Switzerland and Nazi Germany, or about how Swiss governmental and business leaders blithely overlooked questions of morality as they maintained close links to the Nazis under the cloak of neutrality.

The papers also devote page after page to letters from readers, who use the opportunity to vent their anger at their accusers — or to express embarrassment that their country had collaborated with the Nazis and had profited handsomely from those ties.

In a reflection of how all-consuming the issue has become for the country at large, Swiss Television devoted three hours of air time on a recent night for a debate of the issues.

Filled with angry outbursts, charges and countercharges, the debate was not the sort of gentlemanly airing of views the fastidious Swiss are used to.

In interviews after the debate, several of the participants described it as a difficult night before the cameras. They stopped short of admitting that they were sorry they had subjected themselves to it, but they clearly were.

Rolf Bloch, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland, explained the Swiss reaction to the torrent of accusations and revelations by comparing them to another people — the Jews.

"Jews are very sensitive when they feel under attack. The Swiss now feel very much the same way," Bloch said.

The Swiss, proud for so long of their wartime past, "still have to learn that they are not better than other people," he added.

Parliamentarian Verena Grendelmeier spoke in an interview about the pain of the Swiss people as they witness the tarnishing of their country’s reputation.

As an example of the new way the Swiss are being perceived, she spoke of a recent international soccer match at which a Swiss player was taunted by calls of "Nazi, Nazi" from the stands.

"This was particularly shameful for us," she said. "We have never had to contend with this sort of thing before."

Linus von Castelmur, a historian who serves as secretary general of the Independent Commission of Experts — the international panel of historians created by federal decree last December to study Switzerland’s dealings with the Nazis — spoke of a traditional Swiss tendency to recoil from an outside threat.

"Very often, the prompting to confront one’s history comes from outside" one’s native country, he said.

"The Swiss frustration is very understandable," he said, given the Swiss people’s long history of withdrawing to their alpine redoubts when under attack.

Castelmur divided the Swiss response into three categories.

"Some 15 percent actively refuse to accept the revelations about their past. Another 15 percent are now embarrassed to be Swiss," he said. "The rest are genuinely concerned and are seeking answers."

No matter who voices the accusations or produces documentary evidence to back up the charges, many Swiss view them as emanating from Jewish groups.

As a case in point, U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, one of Switzerland’s leading critics and arguably the least popular individual among the Swiss at this time, is widely believed to be a Jewish pawn.

In a recent poll published by the Swiss magazine L’Illustre, an overwhelming number of respondents to the question of why Jewish groups were targeting Switzerland chose the answer: "Because they are only interested in the money."

A far smaller number chose the response, "Because they want to get to the truth."

Doris Angst Yilmaz, secretary general of the Federal Commission Against Racism, was particularly disturbed by the phrasing of the response "only interested in the money" used by the pollsters.

She described it as a reflection of the anti-Semitism "that lurks beneath the surface" among many Swiss.

She found this latent anti-Semitism more disturbing — because she sees it as far more widespread — than the few overt racist acts against Jews that surface from time to time.

Jews, Yilmaz said, "are the traditional targets of racism" in Switzerland.

She described how Switzerland was the last European country to allow Jewish immigration — in the 17th century — and how Jews were only granted full civil rights in 1866.

Anti-Semitic attitudes were certain to be found among some members of the country’s wartime government, she added.

An example of this latent anti-Semitism "boiling to the surface," she said, were the comments of former Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz who, in late December, dismissed Jewish calls for compensation to Holocaust victims as "extortion and blackmail."

The Federal Commission Against Racism, which was created in 1995 and operates under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, is planning to issue a report this fall about the extent and nature of Swiss racism, Yilmaz said.

After the report is issued, she hopes to obtain government funds for a project to combat racism, which she described as extending not only to the country’s Jews, but also toward Muslims and other ethnic minorities now living in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Swiss government officials, reacting to the steady weight of accusations about Switzerland’s role during the war, have gradually begun to admit that their predecessors approved a policy of close financial links with Nazi Germany to prevent their country from being overrun.

"We know that neutrality alone would not have saved Switzerland," Vice President and Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti said in an interview, adding that it was Switzerland’s business and financial links with the Nazis — which he admitted were too extensive — that spared his country the ravages of war.

But when they hear such explanations, the Swiss people are bewildered. They had always believed that it was their 400,000-member army, mobilized at the borders throughout the war — rather than Swiss financial dealings with the Germans – – that had made the prospect of an invasion too costly for the Nazis.

This is not only true for surviving members of the wartime generation, who left hearth and home to serve at the borders and who heard as much from their government during the war years.

Younger people, who learned this version of Swiss history from their school textbooks, also came to believe the myth.

Cotti spoke of the difficulty of "modifying Swiss attitudes" toward what really happened during the war, a process he said that would be "especially hard among older people."

Bloch, the leader of Swiss Jewry, saw the difficulty in similar terms: "The more we prove that the army was not responsible for the protection of Switzerland, the more we tell the people that the result of the war would have been the same without the army’s efforts, the more they feel frustrated.

"We have to address that frustration," he added.

Indeed, the Swiss government is being very careful not to get out ahead of the people on the issue, since the electorate has the right under Swiss law to hold a referendum on most any legislative initiative.

One such referendum is expected to be held next year over a proposed Swiss Foundation for Solidarity, whose investment income from its $5 billion in reserves would provide help to victims of catastrophes, and could include some support for needy Holocaust survivors.

A recent poll shows the Swiss people evenly split over whether to support the foundation.

Many of those against the foundation oppose it on the grounds that it may devote some of its estimated $230 million in annual income to Holocaust survivors. This has prompted some people — including Jewish leaders — to predict that it will not be approved by the Swiss people if survivors are among the beneficiaries.

But government officials say they are optimistic that they can use the coming year to get popular approval for the foundation — provided outside pressures abate.

The foundation is only one of many hurdles that the Swiss must deal with as they confront their past.

For Bloch, the task facing Swiss leaders will be to reconcile the "Machiavellian approach" of the country’s wartime officialdom with the "moral issues" surrounding a war in which genocide was the state policy of one of Switzerland’s leading trade partners.

Cotti maintained that Switzerland operated under the terms of international law governing neutral nations. But at the same time, he, too, admitted that it is "difficult to reconcile matters of international law with matters of one’s conscience."

Achieving this reconciliation is likely to occupy the Swiss for years to come.

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