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Confronting Holocaust History: The Bergier Commission’s Research on Switzerland’s Past

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

The incomplete accounting of the spoliation of victims of the Nazi regime had been an unresolved issue for half a century when it suddenly moved center stage in the mid-1990s. Much has been written about the reasons why events in 1995 were able to break the inertia of the preceding decades. Suffice it to say here that the questions leveled at Switzerland regarding dormant Swiss bank accounts of Nazi victims sparked a wholesale questioning into the economic facts of the Holocaust.

The subsequent intense discussion of the treatment of Holocaust era assets centered on the restoration of property rights and the sanctity of contracts, and eventually led 24 governments to set up national commissions to document and assess how this issue had been dealt with within their respective countries. The commission with the widest mandate undoubtedly was the Swiss Independent Commission of Experts, more generally known as the Bergier Commission, after its chairman Jean Francois Bergier.1

The question of unclaimed assets in Swiss banks did not suddenly emerge in 1995: the preceding fifty years tell a story of how Swiss banks – through obfuscation, non-compliance and de minimus action – successfully fought off continuous efforts for the release of more than just token information on victims’ dormant accounts.

From 1945 through 1962, the Swiss banking community, mainly responding to outside pressure, made a number of efforts to identify what assets that had belonged to victims of Nazi persecution still remained on their books. In every case they came up with insignificant results, but each time they reported higher numbers than before. The most serious of these attempts, the 1962 survey, though yielding seven times the amount the banks had reported six years earlier, still came up with only a paltry SF 6.2 million. This survey, for the first time, also covered non-bank asset managers. They reported unclaimed assets of a further SF 3.6 million, i.e. more than half the banks’ purported holdings. A partial return of these funds to heirs and other designated purposes appeared to end the matter, at least as far as the banks were concerned.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the Swiss banking community in 1995, when persistent publicity regarding the amounts of victims’ assets in their possession forced a response, once again fell back on a self-assessment survey. This time they identified SF 37.8 million worth of assets belonging to foreign depositors who had not been heard from since May 9, 1945, and assumed this would put the matter to rest as the earlier surveys had done. But 1995 proved not to be business as usual.2


The Volcker Committee and the Bergier Commission

The banks’ miscalculation only served to roil the waters further, leading to the establishment on May 2, 1996, of the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (ICEP or Volcker Committee, after its chairman Paul Volcker), mandated to investigate the specific issue of dormant accounts.3 As the set of questions broadened to include Nazi gold and other matters, external criticism mounted, and the Swiss government adopted a number of measures to defuse the situation.

Among these measures was the establishment on December 13, 1996, of a historical commission, the Independent Commission of Experts (ICE). The Commission’s name triggers two questions: First, were those individuals appointed, including this author, really “experts” with a capital “E”? Like many others involved in these inquiries the commission members found themselves on a steep learning curve. Second, were the ICE’s members really independent? After all, this was history commissioned by the Swiss government itself, which had formulated the mandate and had appointed the members. In the case of the Bergier Commission there was never any attempt to interfere with either the research program or its execution. In several other countries, however, the experts appointed may have felt constrained in their search for facts by the limits set by their respective commission’s mandates.

The Bergier Commission was given an extremely broad mandate, covering the scope and fate of all types of assets acquired or transferred by any and all types of intermediaries before, during, and after the war. The mandate was further broadened to include economic relations with the Axis, arms production, “aryanisation,” the monetary system, refugee policy and, at the Commission’s own initiative, slave labor, as pertinent to the assessment of Switzerland’s role during the period 1933-45. Research into the post-war period was to cover issues concerning restitution of assets, handling of property claims and, more generally, how Switzerland confronted its past and its memories thereof.


A Long Life and Major Financial Resources

To deal with this major task, the Commission was given five years and SF 22 million.4 Furthermore, it was granted legal powers to access hitherto closed private archives. All this was virtually unprecedented, but so were the circumstances, which were widely regarded as creating a foreign and domestic policy crisis. Perhaps it also was not accidental that the establishment of the Commission came shortly after a U.S. interagency group began work on a study entitled “U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II.” This group was coordinated by Stuart E. Eizenstat, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs.

The Commission – which initially consisted of eight historians (four of whom were Swiss) and one jurist (Swiss) – began its work in 1997. The fact that the Commission drew almost half its members from abroad and later increased its multidisciplinary composition, helped assure a diversity of approach and experience that could not but enrich the outcome. In this the Commission was – with the one exception of Liechtenstein – unique. It published interim reports on Switzerland’s gold transactions and on refugee policy in 1998 and 1999, respectively, but brought out its first set of complete studies only in August 2001.

In 1999 the Commission lost one of its most important members with the death of Sybil Milton. Subsequently, this author was asked to join and did so in March 2000, when most of the research studies were already in their final drafting stages, but work on the final report had yet to begin.

The Bergier Commission research resulted in 22 volumes of studies, five research papers and a final report, all in all approximately 11,000 pages. It is obviously a most difficult task to distill the essentials from such an enormous amount of documentation and analysis. Having come to the project at a late stage – and as an outsider at that – this author perhaps has an advantage in attempting to provide an overall sense of what was accomplished and what yet needs to be done.


What Was Accomplished?

What was accomplished? Did the Commission arrive at clear answers to the questions it was asked and, if so, did it in the process discover much that was new? The short answer to the first half of the question is “Yes, in part,” and “No, not really” to the latter.

Most issues included in the Commission’s mandate had been the focus of earlier research, especially since the 1970s. Consequently, while many of the sources – especially those in the private sector – involved “green field” investigation and new and important material was uncovered, they mainly helped confirm much of what was already known. The main value added was in putting earlier findings on a firmer basis, adding perspectives and providing a broader context.

The core questions of the mandate concerned – in addition to the treatment of victims’ assets and that of refugees – whether Swiss economic and financial support of the Axis had prolonged the war; whether Switzerland had served as a hub for laundering looted and/or enemy assets (from cloaking Nazi assets to fencing looted art); and whether the financial sector specifically, and the business sector more generally, had enriched itself at the expense of victims of Nazi persecution.


Clear and Harsh Answers

The Commission gave its clearest and harshest answers with respect to refugee policy. The notorious role played by the Swiss authorities in the introduction of the J-stamp in passports of Jewish residents of the Reich (including Swiss nationals!) was not sui generis. It was in line with Swiss policies initiated after World War I to guard against Uberfremdung (an excess of foreigners)5 and Uberjudung (an excess of Jews). These had entailed amongst other things, frequent marking of personal documents with a Star of David or J-stamp.

While the tightening of Swiss admission policies in 1938 was similar to that in other countries, only Switzerland, and Sweden until 1942, applied racist selection criteria based on Nazi definitions. One example was the introduction of a visa for German “non-Aryans” in October 1938, with which the Nuremberg laws were incorporated into Swiss immigration requirements. In 1942 the authorities closed Swiss borders altogether, though well aware of the tragic consequences of this act and in the face of increasing public protest. The Commission thus concluded that “By…making it more difficult for refugees to reach safety, and by handing over the refugees caught directly to their persecutors, the Swiss authorities were instrumental in helping the Nazi regime to attain its goals.”6


Did the Swiss Help Prolong the War?

Second, did Swiss economic and financial cooperation with the Axis prolong the war? The Commission found that in the case of transit policy, the export of war materials from federally-owned plants and the extension of overly generous official credits to the Axis, the Swiss authorities went beyond the limits of neutrality. Indeed, the neutrality argument was often “improperly invoked to justify not only decisions made in all kinds of spheres, but also inaction on the part of the State.”7

In the private sector, where transactions were not legally inhibited by considerations of neutrality, much business was done with an eye to profit only, without further thought to what adopting Nazi rules for doing business meant in ethical terms. Even when it became clear that Germany would lose the war, the conviction that not long after defeat it would once again become an important market, ruled business behavior in many instances.

But did all of this serve to prolong the war? The Commission found no evidence of such an impact. Though access to Swiss resources could not be said to have been of no significance, it also was clear that, given the reserves remaining in the German economy and Germany’s determination to continue to fight, the absence of Swiss cooperation could not have shortened the war in any material way.8 The Commission found, therefore, that the question put to it had not been formulated correctly: it should not have focused on the possible prolongation of the war, but rather on whether those acting at the time asked themselves any such question, and whether they considered seriously what latitude of action existed.9


Studies Yet To Be Undertaken

The important topic of Switzerland’s role as a hub for laundering looted or enemy assets still needs to be analyzed in detail. While the Commission’s research teams made important efforts, especially in the studies on cloaking and trade in securities, evidence remained based on already known cases, and no conclusions could be drawn about the extent of these activities. This also was lacking in the area of looted art, where evidence remained confined to that uncovered by British Wing Commander Douglas Cooper, an art historian and collector, who had been assigned to participate in the Allies’ efforts to recover looted art. In this capacity he was sent to Switzerland early in 1945. This topic is prominent on the list of things still to be done, particularly as much new documentation recently has become accessible.

On the question of enrichment at the expense of Nazi victims, the Commission came to the same conclusion as the Volcker Committee: there was no evidence of systematic attempts in this respect. This was much heralded in the Swiss press, to the obvious relief of the banking community. But what does this actually mean? Obviously, “dormant assets” could only concern those that had escaped the reach of the Nazi regime.

But equally, if not more important, is the ample evidence showing that clients’ accounts were also released to the Nazi authorities – either directly to the Reichsbank, or indirectly into frozen accounts at financial institutions designated by the Nazi regime. To what extent does the release of such accounts to Berlin – directly or indirectly – indicate the sacrifice of the interests of one set of clients, to more “interesting” ones who were more powerful or offered better business prospects, or both? Should one consider such actions based on “business logic” as enrichment? The answer is not clear, as many circumstances surrounding the closing of victims’ accounts by Swiss banks remain ambiguous. But the question of the balance between cooperation with the Nazi authorities and action in the genuine interest of the client loses some of the benefit of the doubt when seen in relation to the post-war treatment of victims and their assets.


Business Logic First

The recurrent theme that runs like a red thread through thousands of pages of analysis is, indeed, that of a “business logic first” attitude. The consequence was at best myopia, and more often than not blindness, with respect to the property rights of persecutees of the Nazi regime. Allied pressures during the war and repeated warnings that the validity of transactions in looted property would not be recognized once the war was over, were largely disregarded.

The Swiss authorities explained this behavior, in part, by the perceived threat to the continued independence of a “small, neutral country encircled by the Axis powers.” But there was no change in attitude after the end of the war, especially not once Allied pressure diminished with the advent of the Cold War. Restitution did not fit in with new business strategies, particularly in the financial sector. The much vaunted Bank Secrecy Act of 1934, which in many instances had not been able to protect victims’ assets, was cited to bar access to information on those accounts that had remained in Switzerland.


Facing the Past

If the Commission’s findings were not startlingly new, what then was the contribution of five years of work and the expenditure of SF 22 million? In this respect, it is perhaps most important to consider how the questions the Commission was charged to research are now perceived; for while answers may change over time as more is learned, the underlying questions remain the same. For this reason, the main contribution the Swiss made in setting up the Bergier Commission – and that the Commission made in responding – may well be the broad range of interlinked and intertemporal questions, unasked for half a century, which were finally asked coherently.

In seeking to know the facts of the Holocaust era, Switzerland did not act alone. As of today, 24 national commissions are looking or have looked into their country’s handling of Holocaust era assets. But for Switzerland there is a difference: as noted before, it was Swiss conduct that triggered the virtually worldwide investigative effort. In this process, Switzerland mandated a wider search and, therefore, gave its commission a longer life than did any of the other countries.

The fact that the main motivation was a defensive one probably does not matter. Within Switzerland, the existence of the Commission added a much-needed domestic dimension to the debate of the issues. From the beginning the Commission was faced with a public that asked, “Why Switzerland?” and even more emphatically, “Why Switzerland in such critical terms?”

“Why Switzerland?” is a question that, for an outsider like this author, is perhaps a little easier to answer. After all, as a center of asset management, Switzerland actively sought to attract funds looking for “safe haven” – a term that later acquired a special meaning, but one that describes motivations quite precisely. In doing so, it offered legal protection of property rights and, uniquely, of anonymity. (In fact, two of the Commission’s studies investigated these matters.) Switzerland, in this particular respect, served a non-resident population. Thus, post-war problems involving Holocaust era assets and victims did not have much home grown interest that could be engaged, and resolution of these problems required a departure from business as usual.

This was very different from circumstances in the formerly occupied countries. Their post-war governments were faced directly and immediately with problems of the recovery and restitution of looted assets. How adequately they dealt with these questions is – or was – the work of their national commissions. It is clear from results so far, that they also fell short of a full resolution. Nevertheless, all of them had walked this road at least part of the way in the years after the war.


Comparisons with the U.S.

The point made about Switzerland was that, for whatever reasons, it was seen as never having begun that journey in earnest, even though it had been a main center of attraction for the assets in question. Though comparisons were often drawn with the United States, which also had been a major refuge for assets of persecutees, there actually were major differences. First, the U.S. had not actively sought to harbor such assets. Second, many of the assets that had come into the United States, before and during the war, flowed back to their countries of origin, and along with them, the associated restitution problems. Although the U.S. harbored quite large resident interest groups, too many questions remained open. It was not until 1999, two years after the birth of the Bergier Commission, that the U.S. established a commission to investigate its own handling of Holocaust era assets.10

The fact that Switzerland had never comprehensively addressed the question of its attitude to and handling of Holocaust victims and their assets, together with half a century of obfuscation, if not denial of the facts, somewhat explains why it was singled out and why criticism became so virulent.

During that time two perspectives of the Swiss role during the Nazi period became ingrained: the Frosch and Vogel Perspektive (worm’s and bird’s eye view) of Switzerland. From one perspective, Switzerland is seen as a country full of profiteers looking only to their bottom line, and from the other, it is seen as a valiant little democracy that, against all odds, resisted the Axis in thought and deed. Leaving aside which is the Frosch and which is the Vogel of course, neither provides a true insight into facts of the period. It was thus the ICE’s task to fill in the facts that lay buried in the past and to help build what one might call a Mensch Perspektiv (human perspective).


Should the Commission Have Researched Differently?

Did the ICE succeed? Though one cannot give an unqualified answer to this question, it went a considerable way. More properly phrased, the question might be: Would the Commission have done things differently if it were starting now? This author believes so. The learning process, even for experts in the field, was enormous. One can only hope that in conveying what has been learned, the Commission’s members will have shown that they asked the right questions, filled in some gaps of knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, pointed the way for others to carry this work forward.

In thinking about what motivates our quest, this author may, to some extent, be parting company with some colleagues on the Commission and elsewhere. While it is true that uncovering the facts of the period is the least we owe the memory of the victims, posing these questions – as uncomfortable as they may be – and seeking their answers, is something we also owe ourselves.

In that sense the Commission was largely successful. This is because the debate that surrounded the Bergier Commission’s work – much of it supportive, but also much of it not constructive and often defensive – broke the silence. Because the Commission tried to address the issues coherently, it did much to break down the still prevailing self-image of a Switzerland that in the words of the Berner Zeitung, was of a country “standing aside, neutral, decent, innocent….The positive (army, neutrality) was stressed, the negative (industry, banks, trade) was repressed.” It added: “The contribution of the Bergier Commission is that it is hastening the unmasking of this image and that it has grounded [this unmasking] in a multitude of facts.”11


Remembrance Is Teaching the Findings

It is crucially important to ensure the conclusion of the Commission’s work is not taken as an opportunity to draw a line under this uncomfortable part of the past and to relegate it to another fifty years of dormancy. Recognizing this danger, shortly before the Commission finished its work, a question was asked in the Swiss Parliament about what concrete steps the Federal Council was contemplating to ensure the results would be accessible to the public generally, and specifically, to schools at all levels and to teacher-training institutions.12

This triggered a lively, largely supportive debate in the media, which helped point out that at least some school texts continue to contain the old images. The Federal Council’s response was non-committal at best. Since education is a cantonal and not a federal matter, they could look only with sympathy at what could be done. To this author’s knowledge, nothing so far has transpired.

A number of Swiss teachers recently participated at Yad Vashem in a training session on Holocaust education. This is an important sign, of course, but it falls far short of what is needed to ensure that what was uncovered of Switzerland’s own past also gets into the minds of those who will be making its contemporary history.

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* This essay is based on Dr. Junz’s lecture at the Yad Vashem Conference “Confronting History: The Historical Commissions of Inquiry,” December 2002.
1. Among the 24 national commissions, Switzerland’s Bergier Commission was the second to be established; the Norwegian commission was the first, established in March 1996.
2. Report on Dormant Accounts of Victims of Nazi Persecution in Swiss Banks, Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, December 1999, Annex 5 C, p. 87ff.
3. This committee was established by formal agreement between the Swiss Bankers Association, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
4. The initial amount of SF 5 million was soon increased by a further SF 17 million.
5. A phrase coined by the Swiss.
6. ICE, Final Report, p. 168.
7. Ibid., p. 508.
8. Ibid., p. 518.
9. Ibid., p. 519.
10. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.
11. Berner Zeitung, November 30, 2001.
12. Interpellation Vreni Müller-Hemi: “Umsetzung der Forschungsergebnisse der Unabhangigen Expertenkommission Schweiz-Zweiter Weltkrieg,” Nationalrat, November 28, 2001.

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Dr. Helen B. Junz served as an economist with the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund before establishing her economic consultancy service in 1996. She has worked with the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (Volcker Committee), served as a member of the Independent Commission of Experts, Switzerland (Bergier Commission), as Director of Research non-gold financial and economic assets for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Era Assets in the United States and as advisor to the van Kemenade Commission (Netherlands) and to the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam and a M.A. from the New School for Social Research, New York. Her doctoral thesis “Where did all the money go?” (Berne, Staempfli, 1992) deals with pre-Nazi era wealth of European Jewry