The conduct of the Swiss authorities during the Nazi persecutions against the Jews

written by GEO SERBAN

An independent commission formed of experts, the Bergier Commission, finally admits the truth.

The Swiss media echo the comments, the exchanges of opinion and even the controversies aroused by the recent revealing, in an official document, of the discriminatory treatment applied to the Jews, exposed and abandoned to the Nazi persecutions. Some questions had already been raised regarding the Swiss policy towards refugees, especially towards those who were trying to escape Hitler’s hell and were denied entrance at the frontier, although it was known they would end up in gas chambers.

When studied in detail (like in the works of the historian Edgar Bonjour), the famous neutrality (a traditional symbol of Switzerland) reveals cracks that sometimes brought about tragic consequences (see the case of the well-kown tenor Joseph Schmidt). The publicist Alfred Hössler, analyzing the 1933-1945 period, even questioned the myth of the Swiss asylum in his 1971 book, “Switzerland, country of asylum?”. Later on, the investigation undertook by Werner Rings about “the Nazis’ gold” revealed perfidious underground networks involving Swiss banks providing their complicity or at least their financial cover. Until recently, a blurry veil kept out of sight such accounts that were supplied by subsequent victims of the Holocaust. International settlements brought the necessary clarifications in the “confidentiality” issue and damages started being paid.

It is against this background of seeking and re-establishing the truth that began its activity the Independent Commission of Experts, appointed in December 1996 by the Federal Assembly to examine the conduct of the authorities during the war and the measures adopted under the humanitarian assistance procedure concerning the asylum applicants. The coordination of the research was entrusted to Professor Jean-François Bergier, who had been teaching history at the Zürich Polytechical School since 1969.
Although a final abstract is due next year, The Bergier Commission made public an 800 pages preliminary report that quickly caught the attention of the public opinion by revealing shocking sins that burden the collective conscience. “The Time”, a Geneva daily newspaper with a large audience, had it printed in large font, on the first page of the December 12th, 1999 issue: “Our history, our mistake”. The editorial underlined the need for a lucid approach of the facts that were finally being brought to light, no matter how uncomfortable they seemed: “Endless acrobatics could be deployed in an attempt to diminish the brutality of this reality, but we still have to live with it. Everything turns into mockery, except for the words of penitence, of apology and of piousness that the federal Council fortunately knew how to use in its otherwise careful declaration”.

Switzerland’s vulnerability to the dominant ideologies of the time can no longer be questioned. Nazi and fascist infiltrations with an anti-Semite bias weigh heavily in the decisions of the top-leading institutions that were previously believed to be immaculate. There was, of course, a spirit of resistence, but also a degree of cowardice; a lot of courage, but also cynicism – in proportions that are familiar to others, too. But this does not reduces the bewilderment of all those Swiss citizens who went through the critical period with a sense of terror, frightened by the foreign threat at the frontier, and who keep unaltered the rightful belief that there is nothing to blame. “It is dangerous – points the editorial – to encourage this kind of irritation and not to make the difference between reserve and the need to absolve the State of any guilt.”

An open recognition of responsibility was attempted on May 7th, 1995, upon the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Back then, federal councellor Kaspar Villinger offered apologies for the Swiss authorities’ policy regarding the Jews. These apologies were referred to by Mrs Ruth Dreifuss, president of the Confederation at that time, she herself being of Jewish origin: “The report shows that, during that dark time in the history of mankind, Switzerland did not live up as high as it should have to its humanitarian tradition… Nothing can compensate for the consequences of the decisions taken back then and we respectfully bow before the grief of those who, being denied access on our soil, were abandoned to unspeakable suffering, deportation and death… The rational recognition determined by such a report should not determine us to judge those once responsible through the bias of nowadays passions. On the contrary, it ought to make us more responsible in the future, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past… In cooperation with other countries, Switzerland wishes to continue supporting the contribution to the development of a stable international judicial order, capable of defending each and every individual against any form of persecution and violence… At the dawn of a new millennium, our country should play an active part in the tremendeous task of promoting the respect for man and the peace between all nations. It will be impossible to take such a challenge without preserving the memory of the many lessons delivered by all the tragedies this century generated. We owe this act of pious recollection to ourselves and to those who will follow.”

The same spirit of honesty and pious dignity also characterized other outstanding figures of the Swiss political stage: heads of parties, parliamentaries, intellectuals. Among them, Rolf Bloch, President of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities requested that current authorities become more involved in the fight against latent anti-Semitism. In his opinion, the report, far from being a climax in the evaluation of the errors made, should be regarded as a good background for a constructive dialogue that is yet to take place: “It is our duty not to let this period fall into oblivion. We especially insist that its debate be extended into schools, so that the young generations may learn about Shoah and the role of Switzerland. At least one more chapter should be added to the history textbooks.”

A similar request is quite urgent in our case, too!