SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

The Swiss didn't just hang on to Holocaust victims' bank accounts. They used them to bankroll Hitler's war machine.


Jonathan Broder
July 25, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

the next time you're hungry for a Nestli's Crunch or a box of Quik, consider this: In 1933, the same year that Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, the food giant was helping to finance the creation of a Nazi Party in its native Switzerland. It was a political investment that paid off handsomely. During World War II, Nestli won the contract to supply the entire Germany army with chocolate -- a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

While much of the media's attention continues to be focused on what Swiss banks did with Holocaust victims' money, the supposedly neutral country's complicity with the Nazi war effort ran much deeper. In effect, the land of the cuckoo clock essentially acted as Hitler's banker, taking in all the gold that the Nazis looted from the treasuries of Europe and exchanging it for the hard currency that kept Germany's war machine running.

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As we now know, some of that gold was taken from the homes and teeth of Jewish victims whose relatives are still alive today. Jewish groups, backed by the United States, are demanding an accounting of the gold so that these relatives and a diminishing number of survivors can be compensated.

Also at issue is how Swiss banks handled the accounts of Jews who hid their money in Switzerland -- they thought for safekeeping -- as storm clouds gathered over Europe in the 1930s. For the past 50 years, relatives and a few survivors have tried to reclaim their assets, but their efforts have been stymied by Swiss banks. Some bank officials demanded official death certificates, as if Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen maintained such documents. In one instance, a bank was discovered shredding wartime records that likely contained the details of unclaimed Jewish accounts.

Until recently, Swiss banks claimed to have located dormant accounts worth only some $27 million. Now, after more than two years of entreaties by Jewish groups and the U.S. Congress, Swiss banks earlier this week finally published a list of more than 2,000 dormant accounts worth $42 million. But in many respects, the list raises even more questions than it answers. Why would it have taken so long for the banks to track down account holders, many of whose names can be found in Swiss and German phone books? And how, for example, did the name of the former head of the Nazi puppet state of Slovakia wind up on the list? Or a former aide to Adolf Eichmann or a deputy commandant of a Nazi concentration camp?

It is also worth asking why the Swiss are now seeming as if they are trying to come clean on the issue of the dormant accounts. One answer is that a team of independent auditors, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is about to pore over Swiss Bank records. The audit is part of a larger international effort to resolve not only the outstanding claims of Holocaust survivors against Switzerland but also to probe and publish the truth about Switzerland's wartime role. An international team of historians and scholars is set to begin its investigation before the end of the year.

If the documents that I encountered as co-author of a documentary ("Blood Money: Switzerland's Nazi Gold," to be broadcast on A&E this Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT, 10 p.m. PDT) are any indication, these historians will find a wealth of materials that will shatter Switzerland's wartime image as an oasis of neutrality and humanitarianism amid a sea of war and savagery.

Our researchers uncovered Allied intelligence documents that describe how, in addition to chocolate, Swiss factories also sold Nazi Germany weapons and weapons parts, munitions, optical equipment, timers, machinery and electrical power, all of which kept the German army on the march -- and Switzerland's wartime economy thriving. President Franklin Roosevelt was so angry about Switzerland's complicity with the Nazis that in 1942 U.S. warplanes bombed a Swiss ball bearing factory at Schaffhausen on the Swiss-German border. Officially, the bombing was described as a mistake. But the documents show the allies were trying to send the Swiss a message.

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Such messages did little to dissuade the Swiss. To this day, Berne still argues that it was surrounded by Germany and Nazi-occupied countries and therefore had little choice but to deal with Hitler during the war. Really? Then why, as our research revealed, did the Swiss continue to do business with Berlin even as the Nazi regime was in retreat? In addition to its factories continuing to produce war materiel for the Germans, the Swiss allowed German troop trains to traverse the country en route to Italy. Most important, it continued to buy looted gold long after the other neutrals -- Sweden, Spain and Portugal -- acceded to Allied demands to halt their purchases in 1943.

Switzerland served as the clearinghouse for stolen Nazi art. Swiss art dealers made a fortune selling the impressionist and abstract painting that the Nazis considered "degenerate." Switzerland also benefited handsomely from the Nazi conquest and looting of Belgium, a major diamond industry center. By the middle of the war, Switzerland had replaced Antwerp as one of the diamond capitals of the world.

Another little-know fact that we discovered was how Switzerland allowed the International Committee for the Red Cross -- the best-known symbol of Swiss neutrality and good deeds -- to be infiltrated and corrupted by Nazi agents. U.S. intelligence documents describe how the Nazis used the Red Cross to smuggle money into Turkey and the Balkans and to plant Nazi agents among Free French refugees in North Africa.

Even the end of the war in 1945 didn't stop the Swiss from cashing in on their Nazi connections. As the Allies scrambled to recapture millions of dollars worth of stolen Nazi treasure, the Swiss continued to fill their pockets by helping fugitive Nazis flee to South America, along with untold fortunes in loot, in what U.S. intelligence described as "the largest transfer of wealth in history."

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For a brief time after the war, the Allies tried to force Switzerland to return the Nazi gold to its rightful owners. At first the Swiss denied it dealt with any stolen gold -- a claim the Allies quickly disproved by producing records of Belgian gold found in Portugal and shipped through Switzerland. Then the Swiss, playing for time and falling back on their neutrality, refused to recognize the Allies' authority over this matter. Their ploy worked. The Allies, now more concerned about rebuilding war-ravaged Europe and blunting the threat of communism, agreed to let the Swiss pay back only $58 million out of an estimated $250 million in the looted gold it had taken in. Officially, the payment was described as a humanitarian contribution to the reconstruction of Europe. Even then, the Swiss didn't come through, eventually paying out only half the agreed amount.

With the commission of scholars about to begin its probe, the Swiss appear headed for a painful confrontation with themselves. But an anti-American and anti-Semitic backlash is gathering steam in Switzerland, with right-wing politicians campaigning against more payments to Holocaust victims. If the right wingers win, what could have been a welcome reckoning with history will be one more exercise in Swiss denial.
July 25, 1997

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The rabbi vs. the governor

Arkansas' chief executive, a Baptist minister, vetoed a flood-relief bill because it referred to a tornado as an "act of God." Here he debates a New York rabbi about disasters, God and the separation of church and state.

BY DAVID WALLIS | Hurricane Danny finally limped into the Atlantic Ocean Thursday after killing at least one person, wreaking havoc to parts of Virginia and North Carolina and causing millions of dollars worth of damage, which somebody will have to pay for. If it is up to the politicians, flood victims could be kept waiting a long time. Witness the hold-up in Washington on federal disaster relief recently.

Another, less publicized delay in disaster relief occurred in the president's home state of Arkansas earlier this year when Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, refused to sign a state disaster relief bill because it referred to a tornado as an "act of God." Curious as to whether such sentiments were shared by all religious ministers, Salon contacted New York Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and got him on the phone with Huckabee to discuss disasters, acts of God and that evergreen American issue, the separation of church and state.

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Governor, please explain your decision to reject a bill aiding disaster victims because the legislation included the phrase "Acts of God"?

Gov. Mike Huckabee: It seemed unreasonable that the one time the government acknowledges His existence would be in response to something that killed 25 people. When I walked through the tornado damage, I saw many acts of God. But I saw it in the miracles of those who survived. I saw acts of God in the heroic efforts of people who risked their own lives to rescue their friends and neighbors.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg: Governor, we may be moved by survivors and their acts of heroism and compassion after a tornado, but the question remains: Why did those 25 die? The answer in our biblical tradition, as you know, is that God is both the creator of light and the maker of darkness. And as God says to Job: "My plans are not your plans." The act of faith is to believe that both the courage and the tragedy have meaning.

Huckabee: I think there are two debates. One is the theological and the other is whether or not any one religious interpretation should be codified into law.

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Should the phrase "In God We Trust" be removed from dollar bills?

Huckabee: No. My position, frankly, is that I regret that we have so carefully taken God out of our society. It's one thing to acknowledge His existence and presence, it's another to begin to interpret what He does and get into a sectarian and theological discussion of how we interpret Him.

Hertzberg: Governor, America is a religious country precisely because we don't impose sectarian pressures on each other. That's been the motivation for much of the removal of God from public life. Let me mention an example that I found particularly disturbing. The inauguration of the president of the United States belongs to all Americans. Last January, the inaugural invocation was given by the Rev. Billy Graham. It was a fine invocation which spoke for the general sentiment of all Americans until he got to the sectarian conclusion: "Jesus Christ, our Lord." That immediately introduced, at a sacred moment, something which made non-Christians uncomfortable. When we talk of religion in public places and try to give some religious and moral sense to our public life, it ought to be a religious and moral sense which is as near consensus as we can possibly reach.

Huckabee: I think our public discussions of faith should be candid. We should be free, encouraged in fact, to express them as genuinely as they are to us.

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Hertzberg: On state occasions as well?

Huckabee: There's a difference between being honest and candid about one's own views and seeking to evangelize. I think there's a distinction there.

Hertzberg: It's a distinction which I do not accept. I accept the notion that when you as a Southern Baptist minister pray in public at a church, it is incumbent upon you to be as candid and as authentic in your faith as possible. But when you as governor are being inaugurated, it would seem to me that all the citizens of Arkansas are involved. What does the Declaration of Independence say? "A decent regard for the opinion of mankind ..."

Huckabee: I understand what you are saying. I think, however, when a person is expressing his or her own opinions or framework, that it is not inappropriate to describe that framework in honest terms, any more than it would be for an African-American ...

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Hertzberg: I continue to insist that there is a difference between a state function and a more personal occasion. By the way, this was litigated in the 1840s in South Carolina. South Carolina's governor at the time was giving a Thanksgiving proclamation that was Christological. The handful of Jews took their courage in both their hands and said: "We too are Americans."

What specific language is appropriate to be included in a government proclamation, invocation or inauguration?

Huckabee: It's been my understanding of reading the First Amendment that laws should not prohibit or prefer religious expression. Otherwise, it's strictly a matter left to the individual. Congress must do everything possible not to take away those individual rights and liberties, and if prohibiting or preferring one's religious expression would do that, then that would be clearly out of synch.

Hertzberg: I really do not accept that. The separation of church and state in America means that in the public domain we safeguard every citizen's dignity equally.

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Huckabee: Those in the majority should never seek out of arrogance or any other spirit to create discomfort for the minority. In fact, being in the majority brings with it a responsibility to ensure that there's going to be a place for a minority viewpoint. But I do not think the answer is to stifle expression.

Hertzberg: What Christian expression is being stifled in America?

Huckabee: I don't know that there is an expression. I think it's a matter of simply allowing people to express themselves.

Hertzberg: No one is stifling the majority in America. Not at all.

Huckabee: It's a matter of being respectful. I am an extreme political minority in this state. Does that mean that when I go to an event all the Democrats should suddenly no longer acknowledge that they are Democrats? It would be nice. But that doesn't happen, I can assure you.

Hertzberg: But that is not protected by the Constitution. That's part of the political process. The public arena must be managed so that we are equal.

Let's move on. Mark Twain once wrote: "We brazenly call our God the source of mercy, while we are aware all the time that there is not an authentic time in history of his ever having exercised that virtue." Do you agree with Twain?

Huckabee: I Strongly disagree. The mercies of God are evident everywhere. The basic issue goes back to, why is there suffering in the world? There were no tornadoes in the beginning. There wasn't so much as sunburn. Perfect balance and harmony. When the Fall came a complete breakdown resulted. Man was suddenly at odds with God. At odds with nature. At odds with himself. The brokenness of the world has had cataclysmic effects, which include the weather getting bad. But a natural disaster doesn't mean that God says, "Today, I think I'll kill some twins in Arkadelphia and rip their bodies apart." God isn't so arbitrary. But in a world where sin is so prevalent, God's judgment is the consequence of mankind's rebellion against God. God's mercy is that He is not finished with the world. He still identifies with us. For a Christian, that's demonstrated by the personification of Christ.

Hertzberg: I fundamentally disagree with Twain, but for quite different reasons than the governor. I have never been able to understand the Christian doctrine of original sin. What the governor is saying is that God created a perfect world and man's sin of eating the apple from the tree of knowledge brought, to quote Milton, "all our woe into the world." Therefore, there are tornadoes, the Holocaust and infants who die of cancer. That seems to me to be fundamentally wrong. The notion that an omnipotent, benevolent God would stand away from the world and say, "Let these horrors happen because once upon a time Adam disobeyed me" seems to attribute a lack of compassion to God. Children don't obey their parents, but we expect our Heavenly father, as well as our earthly father, to forgive us. Therefore, the answer to Twain is that mankind is a mystery. We are given free will and yet our actions are foreseen. What is within human power is to get up after the tornado and start rebuilding. The belief that is central to biblical religion is that God's plans are not man's plans. But what we can do is join him in the act of building and rebuilding.

What would you tell a flood victim who asked, "Why did this happen to me?"

Huckabee: I don't know if I can answer the question why did it happen, any more than why didn't it happen to me. I may have been far more deserving of the calamity. The issue then becomes, what can I do at this point to take this horrid experience and to grow from and survive from it, then pass on those survival skills to others who may face a similar storm.

Hertzberg: On this point the governor and I agree. I would say I do not know what God intended in that flood. I can only say that we do not control the hand that life deals us. We only control how we play it. Noah and his family did not call a philosophical conference to examine why the flood happened. They started rebuilding civilization. That is the response that we've always had to disasters -- natural or personal.


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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