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Swiss firms practiced forced labour in Nazi era

Forced labourers were made to produce weapons in Dachau Keystone Archive

Swiss subsidiaries in Nazi Germany had no choice but to use forced labour. But they could have treated labourers better, a report claims.

This content was published on December 29, 2001 - 10:22

The report, by historians Christian Ruch, Myriam Rais-Liechti and Roland Peter, is one of 25 academic studies released by the Independent Commission of Experts (ICE) since August this year.

The commission was set up in 1996 in the wake of the controversy over dormant Holocaust-era accounts to probe Switzerland's wartime past.

Entitled "Companies and Forced Labour: Swiss Industrial Enterprises in the 'Third Reich'", the 385-page report provides a detailed account of one of the most controversial questions of Switzerland's role before and during World War II - whether Switzerland's private sector was profiteering from Nazi atrocities.

The report was written to lay the foundation for further academic research, but also to provide non-specialist readers with insight that goes beyond the ICE's widely published findings.

Labourers' treatment

The book, which is highly readable but has been published in German only, contains a rare and concise 50-page summary of the legal, economic and political conditions that foreign-owned companies in Germany had to face after Hitler's accession to power in 1933. One such constraint was the labour shortage during the war years; it would have overrun any reluctance to use forced labourers and prisoners of war even if there had been any, the authors suggest.

"Every Swiss subsidiary in Germany simply had to use forced labour if it wanted to keep going", says author Christian Ruch. "That's not the issue. The issue is how forced labourers were treated in a given enterprise, because that is where individual firms could use their discretion."

The answer, Ruch and his team established, is that Swiss-owned firms didn't behave any differently from German firms. In the case of Maggi, a producer of foodstuffs, the brutal acts of repression used against forced labourers went beyond what could be considered "normal" in German companies.

There is nothing sensational in the conclusions drawn by the authors, but they come up with a plenitude of detailed material that has been absent from previous studies of Germano-Swiss ties during the war. Backed by an act of parliament that covered all ICE research, Ruch's team had access to company archives.

Case studies

Collecting information hitherto hidden in company files, the authors examined four case studies: the Brown Boveri (BBC) machine factory in Mannheim, Swiss Aluminium Industrie AG (AIAG), foodstuffs subsidiaries Maggi and Nestlé, as well as a number of smaller enterprises in the textile sector. (The chemical industry, which is the focus of a separate ICE study, was excluded for the purpose of this study.)

While it was impossible to give overall figures on the use of forced labour by Swiss subsidiaries, the official figure of 11,000, given after the war, was "probably an understatement", Ruch said in an interview with swissinfo. In the firms that the authors scrutinised, a third of all employees were listed as "foreigners" in 1943 and probably were forced labourers.

Ruch says it is difficult to understand why some firms still put obstacles in the way of researchers, given that they, too, were protected against claims for reparations by the -$1.25 billion (SFr2.09 billion) settlement reached in 1998 between Swiss banks and Jewish plaintiffs.

Channelling money, information

The study refutes the claim that Swiss headquarters were largely cut off from their subsidiaries during the war - a justification often raised by Swiss businesses after 1945. In fact, capital transfers as well as information vital to the maintenance of business - including statistical information concerning the use of forced labour - arrived in Switzerland through various channels.

Swiss firms differed in the ideological leeway they enjoyed vis-à-vis the Nazi authorities as well as their profitability. Put simply, the more important to the German war effort, the freer and more profitable a firm was.

At BBC Mannheim, which produced essential components for German submarines, turnover increased four-fold between 1933 and 1939. At the same time, managers were allowed to protect their Jewish wives throughout the war.

At the other end of the spectrum, production at Maggi shrank - despite the tactical compliance shown by management when, inter alias, it sacked Jews from its board immediately after Hitler's accession to power in 1933.

Textiles shrank

Many textile firms became redundant in the war economy and had to close.

Even factories with government contracts that boomed couldn't easily transfer profits to HQ due to Germany's restrictive foreign exchange policies.

The study points out, however, that Swiss parent companies gained in the long-term by expanding their German production facilities. Since these had traditionally been concentrated close to the border in southern Germany, a region that was largely spared the raids of allied bombers in 1944 and 1945, Swiss subsidiaries were mostly left intact and, as a consequence, thrived in the post-war period when markets were quickly expanding.

Describing the relationship between HQ in Switzerland and local management, which was almost exclusively German, Ruch says that, as a rule, "the Swiss wanted to be informed of the day-to-day business with an aim to continue operations, but they wanted nothing to do with political questions - they let local managers free to handle those."

by Markus Haefliger

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