Distortion, Guilt by Association

Thomas G. Borer is Swiss ambassador-at-large and head of a government task force investigating Switzerland's role during and after World War II

Three profound words guide Switzerland's current reappraisal of its role during World War II: truth, justice and solidarity. Let there be no doubt that Switzerland is determined to find truth and do justice in solidarity with those who were victimized by the Nazis and all who abhor Nazism.

The emphasis on truth as our primary watchword takes on special timeliness at this moment: A new polemic of half-truths--the second report by Alan Schom for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles--has just appeared. The first report in January thoroughly discredited its author and embarrassed those who funded him, due to shoddy scholarship and outrageous distortions. By likening Swiss wartime refugee camps to Nazi concentration camps, it invoked the condemnation of former residents of those Swiss refugee camps (both Jews and Gentiles) who came to the defense of their host country. Their testimony and the criticism of other governments, Jewish groups and historians left Schom's reputation for serious scholarship in tatters. During a radio interview in Switzerland regarding the latest report, Simon Wiesenthal himself said, "I didn't like his first report on Swiss refugee camps and distanced myself from it. I have said in the past that Mr. Schom is a historian by hobby only, and I am convinced this is the last time the center will use him as a historian."

Now Schom's follow-up report paints the Swiss government as a willing handmaiden of Hitler and his henchmen. Nothing could be more insulting or further from the truth. The Swiss Federal Council, Parliament and, most important, the Swiss people, rejected Nazism decisively. To be sure, some politicians and public figures (as in the United States and elsewhere) flirted with the German "New Order" message. But they didn't get far, once the Swiss saw the German master plan unfold. Only one politician from the German-leaning National Front, Robert Tobler, gained a seat in Parliament. He garnered only 2.9% of the vote and won his Zurich seat thanks only to proportional representation. But a series of government and police steps against the Frontists forced Tobler to forget any hope of reelection.

By 1940, the fall of France left Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis powers. Swiss public opinion hardened against the Third Reich, prompting even Joseph Goebbels to note in his diary in August 1941: "I have received a report from Switzerland. The mood there is still heavily in favor of England."

There were admittedly some shadowy characters in Swiss wartime politics--notably Justice Minister Eduard von Steiger and his police chief, Heinrich Rothmund. Their anti-Semitism cannot be denied. But even excerpts cited by Schom to document Von Steiger's hostility to Jews make clear that his policies lacked public backing. Therefore, the sweeping Schom statement that all seven members of the Swiss wartime Federal Council were Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semitic lacks credibility. It was this same Federal Council that harassed the Nazi-sympathizing National Front and effectively outlawed its activities in Switzerland.

Federal Council wartime decrees cracking down on Nazi front groups and stiffening the government's posture on spies and traitors won no praise from the German Reich. In 1941, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Schmidt summed up the official reaction in a memo: "The Fuehrer described Switzerland as having the most repugnant people and the most lamentable form of state. The Swiss are mortal enemies of the new Germany."

The Federal Council also introduced new decrees on spying and treason. From 1939 to 1945, the Swiss federal police arrested nearly 1,400 people on national security-related charges. The cantons seized another 1,600 suspects, and nearly 400 faced charges before federal civilian courts on military, political or economic espionage. Courts martial convicted 478 people during the war years; 33 (27 of them Swiss) were sentenced to death. Most of these cases concerned those who had worked for Germany.

Schom's latest report employs disturbing McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics to make an untenable case. It fails to depict significant bright spots or the vast gray areas that marked Swiss wartime politics, confining its scope to a few deplorable but unrepresentative aspects. For those of us committed to reappraising the recent Swiss past, it fails to seek the whole truth. Thus it also falls far short of our goals to attain justice and solidarity for all humanity.

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