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Switzerland "failed" would-be Hitler assassin

Maurice Bavaud failed in an attempt to kill Hitler and was abandoned by the Swiss authorities

(Keystone)

The government has officially rehabilitated the reputation of the young Swiss man executed in Germany after his failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler in 1938.

President Pascal Couchepin admitted on Friday that the Swiss government at the time could have done more to defend Maurice Bavaud.

The theology student was guillotined in a Berlin prison in 1941 aged 25, having been publicly condemned by the Swiss ambassador to Germany.

"With hindsight, the then Swiss authorities did too little to intervene on behalf of the condemned person... he deserves our recognition," Couchepin said.

"Bavaud anticipated the disaster Hitler would wreak upon the world. Switzerland failed him."

The government announcement comes in response to a motion by parliamentarian Paul Rechsteiner.

"It's a shame that the Swiss authorities have been unable until now to give Bavaud the honour that he deserves," Rechsteiner told swissinfo on Friday. "It was not only the [Swiss] embassy in Berlin that behaved in an unacceptable manner at the time, but also the authorities in Bern."

During Bavaud's imprisonment, the Swiss ambassador to Germany, Hans Fröhlicher, described the assassination attempt as a "despicable act" and never visited him. In 1940 the Swiss government was offered the chance to exchange Bavaud for a German hostage held in Switzerland – but they rejected the offer.

Peter Spinatsch from the Maurice Bavaud Committee says the Swiss authorities "practically signed Bavaud's death warrant".

Even worse than Frölicher's comments in his view was the Swiss police's collaboration with the Gestapo in 1940 when they wrote a report suspecting Bavaud of being a homosexual – "which would also have been a death sentence".

"That deserved an apology at the least," Spinatsch told swissinfo. "What the Swiss police did was reprehensible."

"Lack of courage"

In his confession Bavaud said he had four motives for assassinating Hitler: the threat to Catholicism, the threat to Christianity in general, the threat to humanity and to Swiss independence.

"Even though it was only the end of 1938, he understood what Hitler would mean and took his statements seriously – even if politicians around the world didn't," Rechsteiner said.

As for the Swiss authorities' reaction, Rechsteiner blames a "lack of courage".

"The case resembles that of Paul Grüninger, who saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives but who wasn't rehabilitated until 1995," he said.

Grüninger was a police commander in St Gallen who was prosecuted for forging documents that allowed Jewish refugees into Switzerland.

"Swiss history has to be looked at in a new way and we must pay tribute to those people who had the courage to do something."

Collaboration

Spinatsch believes fears of compromising their neutrality can only explain the Swiss government's behaviour to a certain extent.

"We can obviously judge Swiss history differently today, but at the time, in 1939-40, people were understandably terrified that the Germans would invade Switzerland. There was an almost exaggerated obedience and servility towards the Germans," he said.

"And to a certain degree that is understandable – at least the fear is understandable. But in my opinion there was more behind it. When Fröhlicher didn't even visit Bavaud in prison and bring him trousers – an act of humanity that every Swiss could do – there's more behind it than fear. That's collaboration with a criminal regime and contempt for someone like Bavaud. And that deserves an apology as well."

Bavaud's case does however raise ethical questions. Political assassinations are illegal under international law and it's hard to imagine that if a Swiss shot a controversial leader today, the Swiss authorities would jump to their defence.

"It was a very special case," Rechsteiner said. "The fundamental role Hitler played in the implementation of the Holocaust and the destruction of millions of people. Bavaud had the courage to do something which was illegal, but which would have changed world history."

Pride

Spinatsch has mixed feelings about Couchepin's official acknowledgement.

"I find it still somewhat half-hearted. Bavaud's courage to act was extraordinary – he was on his own. So I would have expected more in response to his courage," he said.

"I find it good that the president himself has reacted – and the fact that he did this two days before the [anniversary] sends a strong signal that will make people aware of Bavaud as they weren't before. But one still doesn't get the feeling that people are really proud of him. We should be proud of someone who gave his life for a clearly justified cause."

Rechsteiner agrees. "It wasn't an accident that after Bavaud's attempt Hitler banned Schiller's play William Tell because there is a connection in the plot," he said.

"Switzerland can be proud of Maurice Bavaud – his story must be told in schools."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Maurice Bavaud (1916-1941)

It was 70 years on November 9 since Bavaud, born in Neuchâtel, failed in his attempt to shoot Hitler at a rally in Munich because spectators in front of him raised their hands for the Nazi salute.

He was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris and eventually admitted his plans under torture. He was tried on December 18, 1938 and sentenced to death. He was guillotined in the Berlin-Plötzensee prison on May 14, 1941.

Bavaud's father attempted to rehabilitate his son, resulting in a court decision of December 12, 1955 reversing the death sentence but posthumously condemning Bavaud to a five-year sentence, arguing that Hitler's life was protected by law just like any other life.

A second verdict of 1956 reversed the prison sentence and Germany paid Bavaud's family the sum of SFr40,000 in reparation.

The Swiss government admitted in 1989 and again in 1998 that the Swiss authorities had not made a sufficient effort to save Bavaud.

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Bergier report

Switzerland's record during the Second World War is debatable and several historians say the country "could have done better".

As peace returned to Europe, the Swiss felt proud of both their neutrality, which in their view had saved the country from destruction, and of their army, whose formidable defences had played a role in deterring the Nazis from invading.

But in the 1990s, uncomfortable revelations surfaced about Swiss banks handling assets looted by the Nazis and refusing to release details of dormant accounts held by Holocaust victims.

The scandals prompted the government to set up an independent commission of experts, led by Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier, to investigate Switzerland's wartime past.

The final report, published in 2002, shattered many myths about the country's wartime history. Bergier's commission found that government and industry had cooperated with the Nazis, and that Switzerland had turned away thousands of Jewish refugees at its borders.

The report also destroyed the idea that Switzerland's defences had saved it from Nazi invasion, and highlighted the uneasy relationship the Swiss had had with Germany.

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