Wartime probe reveals extent of Swiss links with Nazi Germany

Switzerland's wartime role has been laid bare by the commission

New studies into Switzerland's wartime role have shed light on the country's political and economic ties to Nazi Germany. The reports found that the public was largely kept in the dark about the country's support of the Nazi war machine.

This content was published on August 30, 2001 - 11:47

The findings are part of a wide-ranging report by the nine-member Independent Commission of Experts (ICE), led by the Swiss historian, Jean-François Bergier.

Eight studies, published in Bern on Thursday, show economic, financial and trade agreements struck with Germany and Italy in 1934 and 1935 helped the Axis powers to fund their war efforts. The studies also reveal that Swiss industry cooperated with the Nazi regime, particularly through its subsidiaries in Germany.

In his presentation, however, Bergier said the public sector generally "served the interests of the country as they understood them to be, honestly, faithfully, and sometimes with remarkable dedication".

He had harder words for business, saying entrepreneurs were "concerned first and foremost with business operation results and with the future of the company... [and] those who completely withdrew from the German market constitute a rare exception".

Cooperation with Nazi Germany

The ICE examination of trade relations between Switzerland and the Axis powers revealed the Swiss government's readiness to cooperate on an economic level with Germany and Italy. According to the study, this was done through a state-regulated system of payment transactions, as well as interest free credits.

Swiss controls of foreign exchange markets and capital transactions were also found to be lacking. The panel of experts says this enabled the Nazi regime to finance its war effort by acquiring war material and to buy valuable Swiss currency via the sale of gold to Switzerland.

The studies found evidence that the Swiss authorities only superficially inspected goods traffic transiting through Switzerland allowing the Nazis to transfer essential products, possibly even war material, from Germany to Italy and north Africa.

However, contrary to allegations raised in recent years, the historians did not find any evidence that the Swiss railway network was used to deport Jews from France or to transport forced labour from Italy.

Basel chemical companies

An analysis of a selected number of Swiss companies confirmed that the Basel-based chemical industry was an important supplier of Germany's wartime market for dyes and pharmaceutical products.

The study says the four companies, JR Geigy, Ciba, Sandoz (which later became Novartis) and F. Hoffmann- La Roche, mainly through their subsidiaries in Germany and its annexed areas, generally worked in the interests of the Nazi regime.

It added that Ciba and Sandoz sacked some of the Jewish directors of their German subsidiaries and replaced them with Germans as part of the Nazis' "aryanisation" programme. Geigy also participated in the aryanisation of a Jewish company in Vienna.

Other German-based Swiss subsidiaries were found to have contributed to the rallying and expansion of the German economy. These included firms active in the food, electrical-engineering, textile and chemical sectors, and also private Swiss power companies as well as their finance companies.

Like German companies, they also made use of forced labour. Some of the firms, including Nestlé and Brown Boveri(now part of ABB), have already made compensation payments to settlements for former forced labourers.

Interhandel deal

In a study into the Swiss company, IG Chemie, a former subsidiary of the Nazi chemical giant, IG Farben, the experts found no evidence that the two firms kept a business association, or that Interhandel - as IG Chemie was later renamed - acted as a front for German interests after the 1940 spin-off.

However, close connections between the Basel-based firm and IG Farben were maintained, because of common business interests and close personal trust between the main participants.

The Interhandel affair led to one of the longest financial disputes of the past century, with Switzerland and the United States both laying claim to Interhandel's American subsidiaries. The affair was finally settled in 1961.

A new debate emerged in 1983 between IG Farben, which administrates the dissolved German concern's assets, and a Swiss bank.

Cultural assets

The ICE also probed allegations that Switzerland was a trade centre for cultural assets stolen or confiscated by the Nazis. It said the country was used as a safe haven by art owners and dealers, who transferred cultural assets to Switzerland to prevent them being seized by the Nazis.

In their report, the experts say private collectors in Switzerland frequently overlooked the dubious provenance of assets on the market. Swiss museums were generally cautious when purchasing such objects, but they were less reluctant to borrow works from dubious sources to stage exhibitions.

While the bulk of looted works of art found in Switzerland after the war was returned to its rightful owners, the authors of the report said the investigating authorities did not conduct intensive searches for additional objects.

Public perception

The Independent Commission of Experts also commissioned a separate report on the public's awareness of the government's refugee policy and foreign trade relations.

Based on a comprehensive study of articles in newspapers during and after the Holocaust period, the study concludes that refugee questions were barely discussed by the media and hardly ever raised as a problem.

Similarly, the foreign trade policy was portrayed against a background of economic constraints and in the interest of Switzerland's political independence and neutrality.

From corporate archives

As a world first, findings of the eight studies released by the Independent Commission of Experts are based on documents in Swiss corporate archives.

The new studies are the first instalment of a final report by the ICE, set up by the Swiss government nearly five years ago to probe Switzerland's role as a neutral country during the Second World War. The investigation was launched at the height of the debate over Holocaust-era assets in Swiss banks.

The synthesis, comprising a total of 25 studies and costing about SFr22 million ($13 million), is due to be published in the first half of next year.

Two preliminary and controversial reports on the government's refugee policy and the gold dealings of the Swiss banks with Nazi Germany came out between 1997-99. They prompted an outcry from a conservative citizens' group and witnesses from the wartime period.

A separate investigation, led by the former United States Federal chairman, Paul Volcker, in 1999 found more than 50,000 possible accounts never disclosed before, in their search for Holocaust victims' assets in Swiss banks.


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