Long After War, Taint of Nazis Remains in Europe

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

In ancient times the most effective laundry bleach was produced from human wastes. The Emperor Tiberias held a monopoly on the collection and processing of sewage used in this process.

Aren't you ashamed, he was once asked, to be involved in such a smelly business?

Not at all, the emperor replied, "Pecunia non olet"--"The money doesn't stink."

Tiberias should have been a Swiss banker, or maybe a French politician. Forget Whitewater and Lippogate. The biggest scandal in postwar Western history is spreading across Europe, engulfing governments, banks and prominent people in sordid intrigues connected to Adolf Hitler's war against the Jews. One by one, the cans of worms are opening all over Europe as Nazigate, the biggest and ugliest scandal in postwar Western history, continues to mushroom.

The Swiss have been reeling from a series of disclosures and allegations. Not only did the Swiss refuse to help the heirs of Holocaust victims regain possession of family assets after the war; during the war, Swiss banks eagerly collaborated with top Nazis attempting to smuggle ill-gotten gains abroad.

Billions of dollars in Jewish gold--including, possibly, gold from fillings pulled from the jaws of Holocaust victims in Nazi death camps--flowed through see-no-evil Swiss banks during and after the war years. Cynical diplomats from Switzerland colluded with Polish communists to use the assets of Polish-born Holocaust victims to compensate Swiss citizens when Poland's communists nationalized foreign property.

The Swiss, accustomed to a benevolent global image based on chocolate bars, the International Red Cross and discreet, honest bankers, are taking a new look at themselves--and they don't like what they see. Bank secrecy laws originally developed to protect Jewish wealth from Nazi inquisitors were used against the heirs of Holocaust victims. Banks refused to release funds to heirs without death certificates--unobtainable at places like Auschwitz. Apparently some banks continued charging fees and earning profits on "dormant" accounts for 50 years, making no effort to restore assets to their rightful owners.

The Swiss have been getting most of the Holocaust headlines lately, but Switzerland isn't alone. The shame is spreading all over Europe.

The Austrian government promised the World War Two Allies to return works of art stolen from Austria's Jews during the Hitler era. The art was then stored in a monastery for almost a half-century until last week's sale raised $14.6 million for Holocaust victims and other opponents of the Nazi regime.

The German-speaking countries aren't alone with this shame. When French President Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris, his son-in-law lived in a building seized from Jews by French quislings during World War II. Now it turns out this is only one of many properties owned by the Parisian government that was originally taken from Jews.

According to reports by French journalist Brigitte Vital-Durand, up to 100 formerly Jewish-owned buildings ended up "belonging" to the city of Paris after their owners were deported to Nazi death camps during the war.

Portugal may have used looted Jewish gold to buy coal from Poland in 1946. France has been torn by one Vichy-era scandal after another, including the revelation that former President Francois Mitterand worked for the puppet Vichy regime after France's ignominious surrender to the Nazis in 1940. Italy is still trying to bring war criminals to trial, and dark questions remain about the role of right-wing Catholic prelates in sheltering war criminals after the fall of the Reich.

Some cans of worms are still sealed. The full story of Sweden's collaboration with Hitler remains to be told. Finland actually sided with Hitler in the war, joining the German blitzkrieg attack on Russia and participating actively in the bloodiest campaign in human history. The Baltic Republics, used to posing as plucky little victims of Soviet tyranny, have not yet fully faced up to the enthusiastic participation of many of their citizens in the Final Solution against the Jews.

Americans like to feel smug about all this, but we should look a little harder in the mirror. During the 1930s, Hitler repeatedly offered to send Europe's Jews to the United States if we were so worried about German anti-Semitism. Washington refused to accept more than a handful, and so left millions with no refuge from the death camps. Major U.S. corporations collaborated with Hitler throughout the '30s and into the Second World War.

The rest of the world is slowly and painfully learning something that Holocaust victims and their families have known all along: The death camps have been shut down, but the Holocaust lives on. Those who lost their families, those who lost their homes and properties, those who still remember the horrors of the death camps--they suffer every day.

They are not alone. The Holocaust, and the willingness of so many "decent" people in Europe and North America to say and do nothing as it unfolded, left a terrible scar on the face of Western civilization that has not yet begun to heal.

Perhaps this wound will never heal. The horrors of the Third Reich--organized, cold-blooded murder and pillage in the heart of European civilization--are, if anything, more vivid in the mind of the world today than they were at the end of the war. Now the world must come to grips with new revelations of cowardice, hatred and greed as we face the willingness of respectable bankers, business people and politicians to profit from Hitler's crimes.

Those who planned the Holocaust and those who just pocketed its profits hoped their deeds would remain secret and soon be forgotten. But crimes this terrible cannot be swept under the rug. The evil done in those years will be remembered as long as our civilization stands.

Every piece of stolen property must be paid for; every accomplice made to bear the shame; every child and grandchild must know what forbears did or failed to do. We cannot wash this stain away; all we can do is document it--to leave a clear record for future generations so that they, too, will maintain eternal vigilance against the prophets of hatred and death. The investigators now tracking the shadowy trails of Holocaust profiteering, and the historians piecing together the shameful story of collaboration and cowardice, are heroes of humanity.

Swiss bankers and French politicians might agree that the money of the Holocaust victims didn't stink. But what does stink, and stinks worse every day, is the legacy of those who knowingly and willingly participated, for profit, in the murder of millions and the theft of their wealth.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World