Germany and Switzerland learn
to live with the bitter Nazi past
“No man can struggle with advantage against the spirit of his age and country, and however powerful a man may be, it is hard for him to make his contemporaries share feelings and ideas which run counter to the general run of their hopes and desires.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, quoted in Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners
With the 1997 publication of a list of inactive Swiss bank accounts, the issue of Nazi gold and the Swiss banks was again in the headlines. No less a figure than the US ambassador to Switzerland, Madeleine Kunin, was surprised to find her mother’s name on the list!
Swiss banking lost a lot of credibility after Switzerland’s top three banks admitted that the amount of deposits in dormant accounts from the Nazi era was much higher than reported earlier (see below). The government-mandated publication of some 1,800 dormant Swiss bank accounts opened before the end of World War II made the banks’ previous reluctant efforts look even worse than before. (To view the list and get information, visit the “Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation” (CRT) website and other links listed below.) In some cases the new estimated amounts of possible Holocaust victim deposits was double that of the earlier estimates.
The German Past (and even the Swiss Past) was again in the spotlight in 1997. Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, caused not one but two furors: the first when the book was published in English, the other when the German edition (Hitlers willige Vollstrecker) appeared. Goldhagen’s main premise, namely that Hitler and his Nazi government could not have achieved the mass human destruction and suffering they did without the willing cooperation of most of the German and Austrian populace, opened up the old wounds of lingering German guilt. Goldhagen, an assistant professor at Harvard, claimed there was widespread anti-semitism present in Europe, but that a particularly virulent type existed in Germany, long before the Second World War. His book combines these two premises to try to answer the question that confounds historians, social scientists, and ordinary people: How could the Holocaust have happened?
Goldhagen’s book concentrates on an area of Holocaust research that he feels has been seriously neglected. Most of the research to date has concentrated on Hitler, the Nazi leadership, and other higher-ups. Goldhagen says that more attention needs to be paid to the ordinary Germans who did most of the Nazis' work. He wants to answer this vital question: How could ordinary Germans have been convinced to carry out the terrorism and killing? He maintains that as long as this question has not been adequately answered, the myths and lies about the Holocaust will continue. His book is an effort to shed some light on this shadowy realm of German history, and in the process he can be very blunt. He tells his readers that the common practice of saying, The Nazis did this or that, needs to be replaced with, The Germans did this or that. In his introduction he makes his viewpoint quite clear: No Germans, no Holocaust.
As might be expected, Hitler’s Willing Executioners provoked intense, bitter debate in the German-speaking world — even before the German edition came out. Der Spiegel, Germany’s Time or Newsweek, published a two-page, generally unfavorable, criticism of the English-language book in April 1996. Later, after the German translation appeared, the magazine printed a conversation between Der Spiegel’s publisher, Rudolf Augstein, and Goldhagen, in which Augstein came off as very defensive in general and almost hypersensitive about German anti-semitism (Some of my best friends are Jews.). Most German critics and historians were furious about Goldhagen’s accusation that there were special and unique circumstances in Germany that made the horrible events of the Nazi era possible, even inevitable. But Goldhagen has emphasized in his book and in interviews that Nazi Germany and today’s German democracy are two different things. In fact, despite the critics’ general disapproval, many Germans who have read the book have a positive reaction, perhaps because they feel it adds to better understanding of this German problem. Die Zeit, a German weekly, even spoke of “Befreiung” or “release.” And during Goldhagen’s German tour (Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Aschaffenburg, Munich), the more historians and critics attacked the author, the more the public defended him. Indeed, it was remarkable how Goldhagen continually won over his German audiences as he swept southward across the land from Hamburg to Munich on his literary crusade (“Daniel in the lion’s den”) in September 1996.
GET THE BOOK: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Nazi Gold in Switzerland
Around the same time, the Swiss and other Europeans were also talking about a British Foreign Office report entitled Nazi Gold: Information from the British Archives. The 23-page report accuses Swiss banks of accepting Nazi-tainted gold expropriated from persecuted Jews during World War II. It reinforces information contained in US documents released earlier that indicated collaboration between Swiss bankers and the Third Reich in a type of money laundering plot.
There is no doubt that Swiss banks received looted gold from the Nazis. Even the Swiss conceded as much in 1946 when they paid reparations in the amount of about $60 million. But most estimates of the value of the Nazi loot that flowed into Swiss bank vaults run closer to $500-600 million, an amount that would be worth at least $6-7 billion in today’s dollars. Even the estimated original millions are considerably more than the 250 million Swiss francs ($60 million) the Swiss paid after the war, and Swiss bankers are coming under increasing pressure to account for what happened to the difference. Jewish and Holocaust-related organizations are demanding that the Swiss reveal what happened to all the loot and money stolen from other countries by the Nazis, and deposited in Swiss banks. The Jewish organizations are also asking for restitution, claiming that the 1946 payment was far below the correct figure. Under pressure, the Swiss finally set up a commission in late 1996 to determine how Swiss banks might resolve the matter. A Wall Street Journal editorial on the matter concluded, At this point, the best course left for the Swiss and their famous banks is to face whatever truth lies behind the indications of profiteering on Nazi crimes.
Fifty years after the fact, the Nazi gold scandal just adds substance to Switzerland’s dark little secret — namely that the neutral Swiss cooperated with the Nazis in accepting tainted money, and Switzerland’s borders were largely closed to Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi persecution. (For more about this and The German Past see page 58 of The German Way.)
Nazi Gold: February 1997
On February 3, 1997 Britain, France, and the United States agreed to freeze their remaining stores of looted Nazi gold bars that were turned over to the Allies at the end of World War II. The frozen assets are what remains of the original 337 metric tons of gold collected from secret Nazi accounts, and are intended as the basis for a fund to compensate Holocaust victims who have unsuccessfully claimed for years that Jewish assets were still illegally tied up in Swiss banks and elsewhere. A little-known Tripartite Commission, scheduled to dissolve this year, has already disbursed most of the original gold to European central banks to compensate them for gold looted by the Nazis. Jewish groups have argued that much of that gold belonged to private citizens, many of whom were Jews who had their assets seized before being sent off to the death camps. However, the $68 million of remaining gold represents only a fraction of the original gold collected, estimated to be worth $4 billion at today’s rates. This tripartite settlement is separate from the disputed Nazi gold and other assets that Jewish groups insist are still being held by Swiss banks. A separate commission is still auditing the Swiss accounts.
The Feb. 3 agreement followed closely on the heels of recent controversy over what the Swiss may or may not be hiding, and only days after the resignation of the Swiss ambassador to the US over leaked remarks he made about the Jewish gold dispute. In an effort to calm the waters, the Swiss recently agreed in principle to set up a fund to compensate Holocaust survivors, but that is separate from any possible disclosures about hidden assets still being held in Swiss banks.
As essayist William Safire pointed out in the New York Times (3 Feb. 1997), the whole Jewish gold question, however it may be finally resolved, will in the long run be good for both the Swiss people and their banks. Today’s generation of Swiss can face the country’s past with better understanding. But this coming to terms with history is not for the Swiss alone. Another neutral country, Sweden, also had a role as a haven for Nazi loot. The Allies themselves seem to have not always been forthright about the matter of Nazi booty, and the US refused to accept refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on the cruise ship St. Louis in 1939. Even Canadians have recently been talking about Canada's dirty little secret – in this case, the sheltering of perhaps 3,000 Nazi war criminals over the last fifty years.
BOOK: Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996. — Order this book directly from Amazon.com
A thought-provoking look at one of history’s great enigmas!
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