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Swiss assail U.S. report on Nazi deals

Published May 23, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

The Swiss government Thursday denounced a Clinton administration study that criticized Switzerland's business deals with the Nazis, insisting that any balanced review would vindicate the nation's behavior during the war as the only way to ensure its survival.

In its first detailed response to the U.S. findings released two weeks ago, the ruling Swiss Federal Council acknowledged that some financial transactions with Adolf Hitler's Germany were "questionable" but rejected the portrayal of the Swiss as bankers to the Nazis, calling it "a one-sided package judgment."

The Swiss government said the foreword of the U.S. report, written by Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat and the State Department's chief historian, "contains political and moral judgments that go beyond the historical report."

The combative declaration by the government Thursday stood in sharp contrast to a more conciliatory response by Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti on May 7, the day the report was published. He praised the U.S. study for its integrity and fair-minded conclusions, and expressed shock and horror upon learning that gold smelted from jewelry and tooth fillings of Holocaust victims had found its way into Swiss bank vaults.

In Thursday's statement, the government said it cannot accept implications in the U.S. report that the Swiss had acted largely as greedy bankers and businessmen, solely interested in maximizing their commercial profits with both sides during the war.

Instead, it defended neutrality as the only way the country could preserve its status as a haven for tens of thousands of refugees and as "an oasis of democracy and freedom" in a totalitarian Europe.

"Would Switzerland have achieved this goal better if it had taken the initiative militarily as a party favoring the Allies? All current insights suggest the contrary," the Bern government declared.

Ever since the controversy erupted two years ago with revelations that Swiss banks were hoarding Nazi gold and refusing to release assets deposited by Holocaust victims, Bern has stoutly defended the country's wartime policy as the only plausible course for a tiny nation in constant danger of being engulfed by the fighting.

"That Switzerland traded with the Axis powers as well as the Allies was a question of national political and economic survival," the Swiss Cabinet said. "All in all, neutrality led to a difficult tightrope walk between adaptation and resistance."

The government acknowledged that mistakes occurred. It lamented "questionable deals which did not affect the survival of Switzerland" but noted it was hard to say whether the country could have broken all business ties in 1943-44 without provoking an invasion by Germany and its Fascist allies in Italy.

Most of all, the government deplored the manner in which up to 30,000 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were turned away at the border and consigned to almost certain death in the concentration camps. Those Jews allowed to enter Switzerland were forced to pay for their room and board.

But the government reserved its most vehement criticism for the section in the report that challenged Switzerland's attitude for refusing to return gold bought from Germany, much of it looted by the Nazis from occupied countries.

The Swiss reached agreement with the Allies in 1946 to pay 250-million Swiss francs (then worth $58-million) as a voluntary contribution to Europe's reconstruction in return for dropping all further claims to the gold.

The government firmly rejected calls by Western allies to reopen the treaty and declared that attempts to seek further compensation would violate international law.

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