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Switzerland's wartime role: how much did the public know?

The Swiss public was largely kept in the dark about the government's policies towards refugees and trade during the Nazi era, according to the Independent Commission of Experts (ICE), which has investigated Switzerland's wartime past.

The ICE's finding is based on a comprehensive study of Swiss news coverage during and just after the Second World War. The study forms part of a series of investigations undertaken by the commission over a five-year period to provide a comprehensive view of Switzerland's role during the war era.

The commission was set up in 1996 in the wake of scandals over Nazi gold and dormant accounts in Swiss banks, to investigate the volume and fate of financial assets which were moved to Switzerland before and during the war.

The commission concluded that reporting on refugee policy and foreign trade "was marginal in the leading newspapers of German-speaking Switzerland" to the extent that they did not even mention that most refugees were Jews.

It added that, until 1942, newspapers largely failed to link the flight of refugees with the "continuous coverage on their persecution in the areas under Nazi control. Thus articles about refugees largely omitted the reasons for their flight."

The picture conveyed by the media, said the report, "was marked by those groups whose return to their homes was certain or could at least be expected...".

Switzerland a "transit country"

It said the public, in all language regions, saw Switzerland as a "transit country" for refugees and as "a stronghold of humanitarian tradition", which "influenced... the way in which [refugees] were portrayed".

"Reporting on generous children aid programmes plays a key role here," the report said, "for this removed the latent contradiction between Switzerland's humanitarian tradition and the transit country doctrine, imposed by reasons of state".

On the issue of trade relations with the Third Reich, the report makes clear that the media largely refrained from criticising the government's policies.

"All analysed newspapers adopted the official terminology... and thus contributed to avoiding problems problems in economic relations and to the legitimation of the political authorities responsible."

The ICE found that the press stuck to the line that Swiss neutrality was not compromised by its trade dealings with Nazi Germany, and presented trade negotiations as a success "despite the concessions made - which mostly went unmentioned."

Indeed, the report said that when the Allies began to question Swiss neutrality in light of its dealings with the Third Reich, the media did not examine the issue but rather presented "Switzerland as a ping-pong ball, the victim of the geo-political interests of other powers".

The ICE goes on to say: "Reporting varied between arguments based on international law, used to justify Switzerland's behaviour during the war [and] portraits of the country in the role of victim..."

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