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Bergier Commission to change Swiss history

Switzerland is analysing its role in the Second World War Keystone Archive

The new reports on Switzerland's actions during the Second World War could change the traditional version of Swiss history.

This content was published on November 30, 2001 - 08:07

Until the mid 1990s the popular perception of Switzerland during the war was of the plucky little country guarding its borders fearlessly against the aggressor.

It was also seen as the home of the Red Cross and the destination that refugees from occupied countries, and pilots whose planes had been shot down, were most keen to reach.

But in 1995, when the controversy over Swiss banks' handling of accounts belonging to Holocaust victims first hit the headlines, that image began to change.

Hero became the villain

As details emerged of banks demanding death certificates from the relatives of account holders who been gassed in Auschwitz, and as it became clear that the Swiss authorities had turned thousands of Jewish refugees away, the hero image changed, almost overnight, to that of villain.

Now many historians believe that the Bergier reports could shed some cool and rational light on the whole period. Dr Helen Junz, who is the most recent member of the Bergier commission, says the information contained in the reports has caused her to reassess things.

"I'm beginning to understand better the feelings in Switzerland during the war," Junz told swissinfo. "What I still find very difficult to accept is the behaviour after the war up to the present day; the way people said 'alright it's over we're done with that'.

"What can't be excused," Kunz continued, "is the policy of turning away Jewish refugees during the war."

A country under pressure

However, in the reports detailing Switzerland's financial activities during the war, what emerges most clearly is a picture of a country confused and under pressure.

While some Swiss businesses did deliberately profit from trade with the Nazis, other decisions, such as the continued relationship with Italy, were made primarily to ensure that vital food supply lines were kept open.

Konrad Mruzek, correspondent with the German newspaper the "Frankfurter Allgemeine", says he believes the work of the Bergier Commission will help people to understand the whole period better.

"You know when we all started on this topic in the mid 90s it was treated with great emotion," explained Mruzek. "But now things have changed - there is not so much attention from the media. But I hope people will read the reports - they might find the Swiss are not as bad as we all thought a few years ago."

Reports should not be buried

Mruzek says he admires the way the Bergier Commission historians have dealt with the controversy.

"The reports are very impressive," he told swissinfo. "Very Swiss, very thorough, and very long - a lot of pages!"

Helen Junz hopes that, despite the exhaustive detail of the reports, their main findings will be able to get into the Swiss history books.

"I do hope that people won't feel that when the Bergier Commission publishes its final report that that is the end of the matter," said Junz. "People should not be able to wash their hands of this all over again."

"What I really want is an educational interest in our work, so that these findings do not get buried."

by Imogen Foulkes

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