At Best, Selective Neutrality

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the center's associate dean

For more than 50 years, the Swiss have denied that they were Nazi Germany's bankers of choice during World War II.

Today, their own independent commission acknowledges that they plundered at least $444 million ($4 billion in today's values) from the victims of Nazism. For more than half a century, this carefully nurtured lie was strengthened by the silent acquiescence of many governments, including our own, and every effort by outside agencies to expose the truth was repeatedly rebuffed by the Swiss. Even when Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the World Jewish Congress and others forced the issue, the Swiss government insisted that the campaign was also a vilification of the entire Swiss people, motivated by greed, not justice. Sadly, because of intense pressure then, as now, that sentiment also is echoed by some Swiss Jews and others.

Now the Swiss government is at it again, launching a sophisticated damage control effort to mischaracterize the core findings of our report, "A Survey of Nazi and Pro-Nazi Groups in Switzerland, 1930-1945," written by historian Alan Morris Schom. The report breaks new ground on the question of Swiss government neutrality during World War II.

What has Schom found in the Bern archives that the Swiss prefer to ignore?

That on Oct. 17, 1942--at the height of the Nazi Holocaust--a senior Cabinet minister and future president of Switzerland, Eduard von Steiger, held meetings in his office and conspired with an elitist anti-Semitic group, the Swiss Fatherland Assn., to "choke off in a most fundamental manner" the flow of Jewish refugees into Switzerland. He told them, "The Swiss people must learn what it means to have foreign Jews among us until they react to it with 'that's it, no more.'J" He then requested that the association "work quietly with him in this task of enlightenment." But he cautioned them, to "disguise your help! Rabble-rousing rhetoric on your part only helps the opposition." A few weeks later, Swiss customs officials received orders that no Jew could be eligible for political asylum, sealing the fate of thousands. When the war ended, after the horrors of Auschwitz were known to the entire civilized world, Von Steiger again met with the association on Jan. 26, 1946, confirming that he had frequently given them "classified official secrets."

This was no small matter. He was a senior member of the government sharing secret documents with an anti-Semitic, extremist organization. Does anyone believe that his was a rogue operation?

Then there were the medical teams sent by Switzerland to assist the Nazis on the Eastern Front. When one of the returning physicians, Dr. Rudolf Bucher, attempted to speak out against the mass murder of Jews that he had witnessed in Smolensk, his case was brought before the Swiss Parliament. Senior government ministers unanimously joined in condemning him for violating Swiss neutrality and stripped him of his army commission, even though the tide of the war now favored the Allies. What was Bucher's crime? He was protesting genocide in the name of humanity.

And what about the dozens of photographs the Wiesenthal Center uncovered in the Library of Congress of pro-Nazi rallies held in 1941 and 1942 in Basel, Zurich, Lucerne, Biel, Leysin--with enormous swastika banners and posters of Adolf Hitler--attended by thousands. Where was the government to protect neutrality then?

Our current report is not about Swiss democratic institutions, of which there were many. It is about extremist groups and their influence on the government. It does not condemn the entire Swiss people during World War II. That would be unfair and untrue.

According to the Swiss press, critics, including Swiss Jews and even Simon Wiesenthal, have disagreed with aspects of the author's conclusions. That is their prerogative. But it is crucial to remember that some of those same critics felt similarly about the Nazi gold issue, only to change their minds later. They know that when Swiss officials talk about a "solidarity foundation," they are not acting as philanthropists, but merely returning stolen property.

But even more important than the gold is the issue of historic truth. And the most telling thing about wartime Switzerland is that while the humanitarian Rudolf Bucher was dishonored, Von Steiger was rewarded with the presidency of Switzerland. There is something very troubling about that kind of neutrality.

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