As a student of these issues, I am fascinated by the prominence of such stories. The fascination stems from the timing of the release of this information, their tone, and the claims of new evidence. Factually, there has been almost no new evidence. The really new startling information will come when the former Soviet files and other Eastern European archives are mined and when the Swiss and French open their archives. The Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) materials, which are often cited, are very sloppily compiled, mostly known, and contain a wondrous mixture of fact and fiction. Scholars, and more importantly journalists, who take these documents uncritically will find themselves on thin ice. So why have these questions received such publicity recently, and why have they had such an effect on the former neutral countries themselves? |
Two factors appear to have brought this issue to the world's attention now: a determined set of protagonists and the end of the cold war. Jewish organizations, both inside Israel and outside, have wrestled with many of these issues for five decades. Indeed, both in Sweden and to a lesser extent in Switzerland, controversial agreements were reached in the sixties related to partial settlement of claims from Jewish victims of Nazi persecution with assets within the neutral countries. These agreements were modest in size and avoided any full-scale examination of the neutral's policies and potential "collaboration" with Nazi officials.
The recent efforts have gained prominence by combining the continuing engagement of Jewish and Israeli organizations with powerful political figures in the United States. The initiating organizations have both approached the neutrals (and Norway) directly and have attempted to build pressure within the U.S. Congress to demand action. Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York, among others, has been a key person in building American opinion in favor of forcing a positive response out of Switzerland. The threat of congressional action elevates the concerns of the exposed nations beyond any legal or moral responsibility to one of high politics--a contemporary threat to their economic well-being.
The power of this threat has been easily visible in the Swiss case. At the outset of the current controversy, both an outgoing president of the Swiss Federation and the Swiss ambassador to the U.S. stated that these efforts bordered on "blackmail" and threatened Switzerland in fundamental ways. The Swiss ambassador proposed an active Swiss campaign to meet the threats head on. He was forced to resign; the ex-president apologized publicly. Clearly, the Swiss have chosen accommodation: the private banks established a special fund for Holocaust survivors, and the sitting Swiss government has proposed a $5 billion fund for victims of the Holocaust and other calamities. The latter proposal may face a referendum in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
Above, a group of Nazis on the steps
of the University of Vienna bars Jews from the building, circa 1938.
It is hardly news that Switzerland accepts funds from the scum of the earth as well as normal, law-abiding individuals as part of their secret banking system. Nor is it news that relatives who attempt to claim these accounts often run afoul of the Swiss banking and legal system. Moreover, the general Swiss policy towards the Jews during the war--the boat is full--has been well known for over a decade. What is going on is that Switzerland wants to avoid a direct international attack on their banking system and/or some form of international economic reprisal. They have concluded that accommodation is better than confrontation. It should also be noted that the proposed $5 billion fund could, in effect, be used for activities of the Red Cross and other traditional Swiss foreign policies--hardly as dramatic a shift as the proposal appears to be.
While the Swiss were hesitating about their responses and embarrassing themselves internationally, the Norwegians reached agreement with Israeli groups quickly and quietly. Sweden followed shortly thereafter with an agreement to establish a commission to study the problems in Sweden and to have the power to propose any additional, appropriate settlements. Even the U.S. and Great Britain have agreed that they would halt final disbursement of gold seized in Germany by the Allies during the war. Austria too (the infamous first victim of Nazi aggression) finally auctioned off recaptured Jewish property to benefit Holocaust survivors. Why are we seeing these responses 50 years late?