From outrage to cant

December 19, 1997

David Cesarani argues that Swiss banks hid looted Jewish gold not because they were Nazis but because business is business

The recent London conference on "Nazi gold" brought together from 40 countries scholars, archivists and researchers concerned with the Nazi era.Lord Janner, whose initiative it was, declared the conference a "modern miracle". Survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald rubbed their eyes in disbelief. The contrast between this lavish attention and the indifference to the history of the Holocaust during the 1950s and 1960s was painful to contemplate.

Why did it take so long to focus on the Nazi plunder of individuals, mainly the Jews? And why did the trade between the neutral powers and the Third Reich, along with the flawed Allied efforts to achieve compensation for the victims of Nazism, escape scrutiny?

According to the historical report presented by the American delegation, the Allies' prime concern in 1945-46 was to restitute gold to plundered central banks to restart the European economy quickly. The heirless assets of victims of Nazi persecution "never became a significant issue in the postwar negotiations". A full investigation into the trade and gold dealings between the neutral states and the Third Reich was sacrificed in the haste to forge an alliance against the Soviet Union and to rehabilitate Germany. Changed political and scholarly conditions have brought that analysis into question.

Formerly closed archives have been opened in Eastern Europe and key documents declassified by western governments. Ageing Holocaust survivors have made a last push for justice, abetted by "a younger generation (that) seeks a deeper understanding of one of the most profound events of the 20th century".

Yet this explanation neglects psychological factors. Today we inhabit a culture of compensation in which misfortune connotes its very opposite. Survivors of Nazi brutality witness vast sums paid to the victims of wrongful imprisonment and medical error. Such awards were unheard of 50 years ago. Now the survivors feel short-changed. Jewish historians, who were first to chronicle the "Final Solution", reflected the early priorities of the survivors and were not inclined to make cash central to their narratives. To have done so would sully the memory of the slaughtered. Thomas Borer, head of the Swiss task force on "Nazi gold", exploited this reticence when he told an audience in Israel: "I don't want the last chapter of the Holocaust to be about money." But the piles of documents generated by the London conference demonstrate that Jewish historians were wrong: the economic history of the genocide and its aftermath clamours to be written.

It is now clear that Switzerland, although Germany's most significant wartime trading partner, was by no means the only important one. Nor was the conduct of Swiss banks after the war exceptional. British banks took deposits from Jews intending to flee Nazi domination who never escaped. Their assets were sequestered by the Custodian of Enemy Property during the war and ultimately used for Britain's economic needs. When "enemy alien" Jews who survived the war sought to recover their assets, they faced the kind of insensate treatment that has been endlessly cited in belabouring the Swiss.

An even more interesting case belies the notion that the Swiss are particularly culpable. During the 1930s, thousands of Central and East European Jews invested in Palestine with an eye to emigration. Most perished in the Holocaust. After the war some 11,000 lots of property were left "ownerless". Paltry efforts were made to locate heirs to this wealth; the land was mostly appropriated by the Israeli government.

While Palestine was under British rule the Custodian of Enemy Property was busy there, too. About Pounds 3 million in the accounts of the Anglo-Palestine Bank (today Bank Leumi) were seized: the fate of that money is unknown. The bank refuses to publish lists of "dormant accounts" and behaves in a way that would bring a blush of pride to any unreconstructed Swiss bank.

The behaviour of banks and corporations in the 1940s shows that trade and commerce coexisted happily with war and genocide. Ethnic or religious factors played as small a role in economic policy as ethical or political ones. Swiss bankers did not deal with the Nazis because they liked them or because they had to. They did it because the business of business is business. The dark, dirty secret of the trade in looted gold and the retention of "heirless assets" is that capitalism is amoral.

Behind the attack on the neutrals and the Allies there is an assumption that banking can and ought to be conducted ethically. If so, it is time to bring the lessons of the past to bear on global capitalism. Otherwise, in 50 years' time, the experts will be gathering to rake over the profits of another war and another genocide. If not, let us see the cant about Switzerland for what it is.

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

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