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Holocaust bank settlement “cleansed” Swiss

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Ten years after Swiss banks agreed to pay back assets to Holocaust victims, one of the deal's chief architects said it helped lift a cloud over the country.

But the $1.25 billion (SFr1.33 billion) settlement, sealed in 1998, also caused significant upheaval in Switzerland as the country faced allegations of colluding with Nazis during the Second World War.

When Jewish organisations again raised questions in the mid-1990s about dormant Swiss bank accounts containing the assets of Holocaust victims, nobody could predict the storm that was about to follow.

The pressure was ratcheted up when the United States administration joined the debate. Two investigations, one commissioned by the Swiss government, also uncovered evidence of Jewish refugees being turned away, Swiss companies profiting from the Nazi war machine and the central bank buying gold looted from Jews.

The final straw came in the shape of individual class actions launched in the US, claiming damages against Swiss banks.

“There was a very polarised and aggressive atmosphere with each side playing off against the other,” Stuart Eizenstat, who represented the US government during the negotiations, told swissinfo. “This was a traumatic event for Switzerland and a shock to the whole psyche of the country.”

Faced with allegations and threats of boycotts against Swiss business interests, the two biggest Swiss banks – UBS and Credit Suisse – released details of accounts belonging to Holocaust victims and to pay money back to descendants.

Government stays out

Another key to the decision may have been the merger of two Swiss banks to form UBS – a deal that required US regulatory approval.

“At the time UBS was merging, and to get this through in US it was not helpful to have these class actions about. It was a financial deal in the interest of all parties,” Rolf Bloch, the then president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, told swissinfo.

But while the banks negotiated their final settlement, the Swiss government and central bank stayed at arm’s length from the process, having independently set up a SFr300 million humanitarian fund in 1997.

Eizenstat was particularly aggrieved that the Swiss government played no role in the banking settlement a year later. He felt that the central bank should have shouldered some of the costs.

“The national governments participated in the German, Austrian and French settlements. In Switzerland’s case, the government and the central bank left it all to the private banks to bear the burden. I think that was inappropriate and unfortunate,” he said.

Swiss “cleansed”

However, Eizenstat believes that the final $1.25 billion settlement was “fair and just”.

By the end of June this year it had paid out all but $200 million to Jewish, homosexual, disabled, Jehovah’s Witness and Roma Holocaust victims and their descendants. The pay-out process has been slowed by the many thousands of claims and the legal procedures employed to test their validity.

Bloch believes the payments have drawn a line under Switzerland’s wartime past “financially, but not morally”. But Eizenstat thinks the settlement has had a cathartic effect on the nation and helped push Swiss banks into cleaning up their record on money laundering.

“Part of the problem was Switzerland had been isolated from world public opinion and they did not appreciate how much this would turn against them. This cataclysmic event had a cleansing effect. The fact the Swiss finally came to terms with this has created positives for going forward,” he said.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

In 1995, Jewish groups demanded that Swiss banks release details of accounts suspected to belong to Holocaust victims. Swiss banking secrecy laws made this extremely difficult.

In 1996, a series of class action lawsuits filed in the US against Swiss banks sparked the creation of two commissions to look into Swiss wartime activities.

The Independent Committee of Eminent Persons uncovered tens of thousands of dormant Swiss bank accounts possibly belonging to Holocaust victims.

The Independent Commissions of Experts Switzerland, set up by the Swiss government, found evidence of the Swiss central bank buying Nazi gold and Jewish refugees being turned away from Swiss borders.

In 1997, the Swiss government, the Swiss National Bank and private firms set up a SFr300 million fund for Holocaust victims.

On August 12, 1998, UBS and Credit Suisse agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle claims by Holocaust victims and their descendents. The fund is administered in the US.

The Claims Resolution Tribunal website (the body that awards payments), says that just over $1.05 billion of the settlement had been paid out to 448,703 recipients by the end of June this year.

Close to $490 million was paid to 16,601 people from bank accounts.

Some $205 million of looted assets were repatriated, nearly $300 million was paid to victims of forced labour and $11.6 million to refugees refused at Swiss borders. The remaining payouts are listed as “insurance” or “other”.

Most of the recipients (349,885) were Jewish.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR