Switzerland: cold hearts in a cold climate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 1997, 12:00am

Switzerland's mountainous terrain can make it a cold place. When it comes to money it can be even colder. Last week, a United States Government report into the Swiss banks' failure to return assets to relatives of Jewish victims of the Nazi death camps after World War II offered further proof of just how callous a society can become when its wealth is at stake.

It confirmed, with some fresh evidence, much of the information that has been pouring out over the past two years, mainly from recently declassified Allied archive material from the war and immediately after. The banks are thought to be sitting on about US$5 billion (HK$38.7 billion) in today's prices of gold and assets looted by the Nazis. It came not only from the bank reserves of countries overrun by the Germans, but also of individuals murdered in the camps. Some of the gold came not from jewellery and private holdings, but from the victims' teeth. Many Swiss, who knew nothing of the financiers' actions, are contrite. Now the matter is in the open, so are many of the nation's politicians and bankers. But contrition is not enough. Compensation for the victims is now 50 years overdue, but due it still is.

That the Swiss were slow to own up to the origins of so much of the country's wealth is hardly surprising. It is not only that the Nazis' stolen gold provided such a cushion against economic ruin during the war and the basis for much of the nation's post war success. The whole ethos of Swiss banking is one that puts the good of the vilest client above the good of his victims. For years, the banks have made secrecy an obsession. The ill-gotten fortunes of drug barons and kleptocratic former dictators were stashed away there for one very good reason. It was, until international pressure began to change Swiss attitudes, impossible to trace their secret numbered accounts.

Switzerland's willingness to play banker and money launderer to the Third Reich probably prolonged Hitler's reign of horror for years after it might otherwise have collapsed for lack of funds. One can have some sympathy for the view that the Swiss were forced to co-operate. Failure to succumb to the Nazis' demands for banking services would have been suicidal.

The German war machine would have swept across Switzerland as brutally as it marched through the rest of Europe. Not only would Switzerland's own Jewish population have been herded off to its death in the concentration camps, but most of the quarter of a million refugees from Nazi occupied Europe to whom the Swiss offered shelter would have gone too. Despite its criminal rejection of at least 38,000 refugees, many of whom were Jews sent back to face certain death at the hands of the Nazis, Switzerland did also emerge from the war with a record of saving others.

There are also serious questions about the role of the US and Britain in helping to cover Switzerland's tracks. Much of the material which has now become available was stored in classified Allied documents. Why were they hidden away for 50 years in the first place? There are also claims the Allies themselves took over some of the looted assets and then restored them to Poland and even Germany and Italy after the war to shore them up against communism.

But no mitigation can absolve the Swiss of their complicity in the theft of victims' gold and the looting of the wealth of the conquered. Receiving stolen goods is a crime. What makes the Swiss crime so much worse is the failure, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, to confess to its role or to pay compensation to the victims. Even after the war, when the victorious Allies tried to get at least some of the gold and assets returned to the countries from which they were stolen, only a relatively small amount was paid out - in return for which the Allies agreed to drop other claims.

As new revelations emerged, Switzerland has gone from defiance - with Government ministers accusing Jewish organisations of 'blackmail' and 'extortion' for demanding a reckoning - to embarrassment and self-loathing. Parts of Swiss society are going through an agonising reassessment of their past.

Finally, this year, bankers agreed to pay HK$543 million into a fund for the families of Holocaust victims. The Government followed up with a proposal to endow a much larger HK$36.54 billion fund from official gold reserves for the 'victims of poverty and catastrophes, genocide and other serious human rights abuses' as well as Holocaust victims.

But that proposal remains just that: a proposal. There are many Swiss opponents of the plan for a fund and even more who believe a ceiling should be put on payments now before any new revelations raise the pressure for even more compensation. It is time Switzerland drowned out those dissenting voices and paid up.