Switzerland’s notoriously discreet banking establishment has kept its World War II secrets for a long time. A series of investigations over the last few months, however, shines an international spotlight into the old vaults, revealing a number of ugly wartime violations that Swiss bank officials kept hidden beneath the nation’s neutral veneer. Grisly evidence has now been recovered indicating that Swiss banks stole billions of dollars of conveniently forgotten accounts from Holocaust victims and their survivors. A separate but related string of inquiries indicates that Switzerland failed to return to the occupied nations of wartime Europe all of the stolen money, jewelry and other loot the Nazi regime stole from them and deposited in Swiss banks.
Many Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe saw Switzerland as their only financial safe haven in the tumultuous period leading up to the war. Its banking secrecy laws, established explicitly to protect clients’ deposits from Nazi scrutiny, appeared secure. Contrary to its claims of wartime neutrality, however, Switzerland’s apparent financial exploitation of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, combined with the dirty business of profiting from Nazi plundering, verges on complicity with the Third Reich. Consequently, Switzerland must now be made internationally accountable for its ethical and financial violations.
Recently declassified wartime documents indicate Swiss banks are still sitting on as much as $7 billion of accounts deposited by Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation. The reports provide further evidence that on many occasions in the years following the end of World War II, bank officials refused to return money and other valuables to the survivors of their Jewish clients unless a death certificate could be produced — impossible, of course, for Jews whose relatives were killed in concentration camps. Similarly indicting is newfound evidence that bank officials deliberately failed to notify the families of Holocaust victims that their loved ones had deposited money in their banks.
Swiss historian Peter Hug published a report two weeks ago showing that Switzerland used some of the involuntarily abandoned assets to settle claims of its own citizens for property confiscated by the new Communist governments in Eastern Europe. Hug has turned up documents demonstrating that in 1949, Switzerland secretly agreed with Poland that unclaimed accounts of Polish citizens that were held in Swiss banks could be used by the Polish Communist government to compensate Swiss business owners for expropriated property. Hug’s study indicates that Switzerland established similar agreements with Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
While no monetary restitution now can efface the blight of what the Swiss bankers and government officials have done, Switzerland’s foreign ministry’s commitment to consider ethics as well as the law in handling the unclaimed wealth of Holocaust victims is reassuring. For credibility’s sake, however, the Swiss government must bring international observers into the investigations. Switzerland must answer for its apparent role in prolonging the war’s atrocious injustices. Hiding behind a banner of neutrality is no longer an option. The Swiss are at the center of this foul matter whether they like it or not.