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New book reopens old wounds

The image on the cover that has led Deiss to try to stop the book's publication

(Keystone)

An American book depicting the Swiss flag covered with a swastika made of gold bars has caused outrage in Switzerland.

The government wants publication stopped, but historians who studied Switzerland's wartime past are divided over whether the cover accurately represents history.

Author Stuart Eizenstat on Monday said he had no intention of offending the Swiss and that he was willing to reconsider the cover for the French and German editions.

But he told the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation that he had nothing to apologise for, since the Swiss National Bank had processed Nazi gold during the war.

The book, entitled "Imperfect Justice", is about the struggle of Holocaust survivors to reclaim their assets.

Jean-François Bergier, head of an independent commission set up to probe Switzerland's wartime past, said the cover was "wrong".

"[It] suggests that Switzerland was the Nazis' accomplice during the Second World War," he told Switzerland's "Blick" newspaper. "That isn't just wrong, it's simply outrageous."

"The flag is the symbol of the people, and the people had nothing to do with the actions of the national bank."

Bergier's commission established that the Swiss National Bank was the main processor of Nazi gold.

But some of his colleagues have a different view.

Georg Kreis, also a member of the commission, does not agree with Bergier. "It's clear the cover is referring to Nazi gold," he told the "Tages-Anzeiger". "The fact remains that some Swiss were involved with this trade."

Laundered Nazi gold

"Rather than worry about the cover of a book nobody has read, we should be concerned that our national bank laundered Nazi gold."

Kreis adds that there is no clear separation between the Swiss and their national bank, and that in a democracy, citizens have a responsibility for what goes on. "If something is done in everybody's name, then we all have something to answer for."

Hans-Ulrich Jost, a historian known for his groundbreaking views of Swiss history, says some parts of the media and the government have overreacted. "You can't avoid this image of collaboration between Swiss finance and Nazi Germany," he told swissinfo.

Jost believes people should not be surprised by the image of gold bars in a swastika shape covering the Swiss flag. "The Swiss National Bank uses the flag as a label," he said. "It is a historical fact we have to accept."

Unpalatable facts

The historian doesn't expect many Swiss to agree with him, saying that it will probably be 20 to 30 years before these historical facts are accepted.

"The longer Switzerland stays isolated from Europe, the longer it will take to accept the dark side of our history," he told swissinfo.

The Swiss authorities haven't waited for the historians to decide what value the book actually has. The foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has ordered the Swiss embassy in Washington to explore the possibility of stopping publication - scheduled for January - through legal measures.

But the Swiss government's chances of halting publication are seen as slim. The book "Imperfect Justice", written by a former American undersecretary of state, Stuart Eizenstat, looks back at the struggle of Holocaust victims to win reparations from European countries which cooperated with the Nazis, among them Switzerland.

Freedom of speech

Charles Poncet, a Geneva-based attorney and an American law specialist, said the publishers need only invoke their constitutional right of freedom of speech to squash any attempt at halting publication.

"The American Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue during the Vietnam War," he told Switzerland's "Le Temps" newspaper. "The judges decided it was legal to burn the national flag."

In an interview with Swiss television on Monday night, Eizenstat said he was willing to reconsider the cover for the French and German versions of the book.

He apologised for any offence that the cover might have caused, saying he feared the image had been misinterpreted.

"At no stage have I wanted to hurt the government or the Swiss people," he said.

The former undersecretary of state was a key player in the negotiations between Swiss banks and Jewish organisations in the late 1990s. Both parties later agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement for owners of dormant Holocaust accounts and their heirs.

Bad taste

Jewish organisations in Switzerland have also reacted angrily to the book cover. "It is shocking, in bad taste and completely wrong," said Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities.

"Switzerland's Jews are also Swiss citizens, and they are offended their country is compared to Nazi Germany."

Given that the Swiss government has little chance of stopping publication, the former Swiss ambassador to Germany, Thomas Borer, suggested the government might target Eizenstat directly.

Borer has in mind publicising Eizenstat's affliations with - who else - Swiss banks. "Eizenstat works for a law firm that represents one of Switzerland's biggest banks," said Borer, who led the Holocaust negotiations for the Swiss. "It's the only way to get at him."

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The Swiss government is exploring the possibility of taking legal action to stop publication of the book.

Historians are divided over whether the cover is accurate, given that the Swiss National Bank processed Nazi gold, but much of the population was kept in the dark about the country's dealings with the Third Reich.

The book, entitled "Imperfect Justice", is about the struggle of Holocaust survivors to reclaim their assets.

The author, Stuart Eizenstat, says he is willing to reconsider the cover of the French and German editions.

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