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Switzerland forced to reassess its World War II past

The Bergier report is a highly controversial document, not least because it forces Swiss historians and the public to reassess Switzerland’s role during World War II.

This content was published on December 10, 1999 - 10:30

The Bergier report is a highly controversial document, not least because it forces Swiss historians and the public to reassess Switzerland’s role during World War II.

As the report criticises the Swiss government’s refugee policy at the time, as well as the often dubious gold dealings with Nazi Germany, the Bergier commission in many ways touches at the heart of Swiss identity: Political neutrality and a long tradition of humanitarian activity.

The document is likely to force a reassessment of Swiss neutrality, international dealings and refugee policies at a time when all of Switzerland’s neighbours were either occupied or collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Once historians in the post-war period began to screen Switzerland’s role during the war, it soon became a well-documented fact that Switzerland took in tens of thousands of refugees who fled Nazi persecution and the Third Reich’s war machine.

But it is also a historic fact, that Switzerland turned back thousands of others – including Jews who were sent back to often certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

A preliminary Bergier report released in May makes clear that Switzerland was “the most important conduit for gold originating from countries occupied or controlled by the Third Reich.” The panel of historians strongly criticises the Swiss National Bank for displaying an attitude of “business as usual,” even though the bank must have been aware that much of the gold was stolen, looted or robbed from occupied countries’ national banks and many individual -- often Jewish -- citizens.

One of the key reasons why some politicians have attacked the Bergier report so vehemently – including the right-wing Swiss People’s Party – is the fact that it criticises the decisions made by political and financial leaders of the time.

Critics have argued that the report is too harsh, ignores the massive military threat posed by Nazi Germany, denigrates Swiss neutrality and generally paints Switzerland in too negative a light.

But even if some people in Switzerland do not like the conclusions drawn by the commission, the document will no doubt influence the review of Switzerland’s role during the war.

The issue of financial compensation for refugees turned back at the Swiss border may may well surface in this context. As it stands, the idea is to meet such financial claims by drawing on the $1.25 billion Holocaust settlement fund agreed by the leaders of the World Jewish Congress and Swiss banks.

From staff and wire reports.

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