Coming to terms with a tarnished Swiss wartime record

January 27, 2018 marks Holocaust Memorial Day, to remember the six million Jews killed during World War II

This content was published on January 27, 2018 - 11:00

swissinfo.chExternal link looks back at Switzerland’s questionable wartime policies towards Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

After the war, in order to safeguard banking secrecy, Swiss banks refused to release details of dormant accounts held by Holocaust victims. This led to the government setting an independent commissionExternal link of experts led by historian Jean-François Bergier to investigate specific aspects of Switzerland’s wartime behaviour. The work began in 1996 and took five years to complete. 

It concluded that Swiss officials "helped the Nazi regime achieve its goals" by closing the country's borders to thousands of Jewish refugees, effectively sending them back to near certain death. During the war, a total of some 300,000 people crossed the borders from Nazi-occupied countries. Of the civilian refugees, around 30,000 were Jews. However, an estimated 24,500 civilians, mainly Jews, were turned away.

Racism at play

The commission played down the theory that government actions against refugees were dictated by the country's isolation in the middle of Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1942, the Swiss authorities definitely closed their borders to refugees fleeing "only for racial reasons", it found.

The Swiss government welcomed the report and, in 1999, repeated a formal apology offered to Jewish people in 1995.

In 1998, Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse reached an agreement with the World Jewish Congress in a US lawsuit filed in 1995 in New York. The banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion (CHF1.16 billion) to victims of the Holocaust or their heirs.

Of that, $800 (CHF770) million was earmarked for repayment to people whose money had remained in Swiss bank accounts after the war. Another $425 (CHF409) million was designated for Holocaust survivors, refugees turned away at Swiss borders, and people detained in Switzerland to perform forced labour.

(Julie Hunt, swissinfo.chExternal link/SRF)

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