How the victims of the Nazi plunder machine finally held some to account

Imperfect Justice
February 13, 2004

During the second world war the Third Reich was sustained by a monstrous system of organised plunder. However, in the immediate aftermath, diplomats and politicians were more concerned with European reconstruction than with providing justice for individuals who had been robbed or restoring expropriated communal property. The cold war fostered an unwillingness to hold divisive inquests or demand redress from the beneficiaries of Nazi rapaciousness. Survivors in the Soviet bloc became "double victims": their property was taken from them by the Nazis and kept by Communist regimes with little interest in the individual's pursuit of justice. As a result, the end of the cold war exposed a host of unrectified wrongs. One of the earliest to claim attention was the fate of expropriated property in eastern Europe.

It was here that Stuart Eizenstat, US under-secretary of commerce in President Bill Clinton's administration, began his work of reparation. Between January 1995 and January 2001, he was at the centre of every major effort to achieve redress for Jews and non-Jews victimised by the Nazi plunder machine. Eizenstat's remarkably candid personal account chronicles the challenge of reaching one settlement after another in negotiations between purblind bankers, stubborn chief executive officers, opportunistic politicians, recalcitrant governments, bullying billionaires, unscrupulous lobbyists and a pack of the most cynical, self-important, and voracious lawyers imaginable. Freed from the trammels of high office, he has spoken his mind. He may not have wanted to settle old scores, but he is certainly frank about old sores.

Eizenstat criticises the US and its allies for allowing the plight of shattered individuals and communities to go unrepaired. He began by dealing with the post-Soviet governments of eastern Europe and is scathing about their intransigence and inability to set up legal structures to govern property rights. Parallel with his efforts, in 1995 Edgar Bronfman and Israel Singer, leaders of the World Jewish Congress, alighted on the question of the "dormant" and heirless Swiss bank accounts that had belonged to Jews who perished during the war. He harbours no illusions about their motives: they needed "a new issue to maintain the WJC's visibility". But the Swiss handled them with breathtaking ineptitude, turning them into crusaders and handing them one validation after another.

Bronfman and Singer mobilised US Senator Alfonse D'Amato, chairman of the Senate banking committee, to turn the heat on the Swiss. D'Amato was facing an election in New York, which has a major Jewish population. He had staked his prestige on attacking Clinton's alleged financial improprieties in the Whitewater affair, but had got nowhere. So, "out went Whitewater and in came the Swiss". The senator "milked the Swiss controversy for everything it was worth". Eventually the Swiss conceded an impartial audit of the banks, to be led by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve board of governors. But when Eizenstat needed some flexibility in the conduct of the audit, Volcker was immovable. He "figuratively and literally looked down on the rest of us mortals".

The lawyers, who launched a raft of class actions against the banks, caused Eizenstat the most grief. They "hijacked the dispute". One faction was in it primarily for the fees and wanted a quick settlement. Their rivals, mainly older men acting pro bono , were in it on principle and were willing to hold out for more. It was a "witches' brew of egos and mutual jealousies". They repeatedly disrupted negotiations with the banks, but Eizenstat had no control over them despite effectively acting as a mediator for the US government. To his intense ire, the Swiss government refused to influence the bankers either. Eizenstat was caught in a maelstrom of warring private parties that were wrecking US foreign relations. At times he felt like "the manager of an insane asylum".

The Swiss banking scandal set off a chain reaction that engulfed Germany, Austria, France, and the art world. Eizenstat learnt that, in future negotiations, government had to be a partner, but even this did not ensure a just settlement with a minimum of turbulence. Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, was morally willing but fiscally weak. Getting concessions from Austria's chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel, in a coalition with ultra-rightwinger Jorg Haider (who lived on an estate once owned by Jews) was "like pulling teeth when there were none left". In each country, Jewish leaders were quarrelsome and petty.

Yet this compendious and at times grimly funny chronicle delivers more than the inside story on how Holocaust-era issues played out in the public arena. Eizenstat's career spanned a chapter in the history of US Jews and the Democratic Party, in which he was deeply involved. Alongside his insights into the negotiations and incisive character sketches, there are glimpses into the Clinton White House and reflections on being Jewish in postwar America.

By locating the campaigns for redress in the context of interest group politics, Eizenstat also nails the myth that US Jews wield an unusual degree of power. He demolishes the spurious notion of a "Holocaust industry". The restitution process, for example, was driven by the US government, which saw it as essential to establishing the rule of law and correcting property relations in post-Communist countries. Eizenstat notes that the rewards reaped by lawyers acting for survivors were dwarfed by the outcome of other class-action suits in US courts, such as those against tobacco companies.

Finally, Eizenstat asks if it was worth the effort. Many thousands of aged Jewish and non-Jewish survivors of appalling treatment got payments that eased their lives. Small renascent Jewish communities in eastern Europe received a financial lifeline. And although the court actions failed to create a legal precedent, they set a benchmark for holding regimes and private companies to account for profiting from persecution and genocide.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.

Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II

Author - Stuart E. Eizenstat
Publisher - PublicAffairs
Pages - 401
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 1 58648 110 X

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments