Nazi gold: Swiss decree openness on gold 'Opening time' for Swiss banks US pressured Swiss on Nazi gold

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The Swiss government will today tear the thick veil of secrecy which has protected Swiss banks since 1938 when laws were passed to conceal all Swiss bank accounts from prying eyes.

The move follows a week of embarrassing revelations. Recently discovered documents from United States intelligence proved that Swiss banks assisted the Nazis in hiding assets worth billions stolen from Holocaust victims. The banks used Swiss secrecy laws to conceal the extent of the stolen goods from a post-war Allied inquiry.

The Swiss government may also have been prompted to act against its banks after threats made through diplomatic channels. Sources in the US Treasury say that the Swiss government was told that banks could lose their US trading rights unless they co-operated with a growing international search for property stolen by prominent Nazis between 1938 and 1945.

The decree suspending secrecy will have to be confirmed by a referendum. Swiss bank inspectors will then be given blanket powers to examine all relevant bank records. Anyone who destroys any document to prevent its publication will be sent to jail or fined up to SFr50,000 (pounds 28,000).

Documents obtained last week by the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in New York revealed that the Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC) and Credit Suisse, two significant players in the global financial market, were key protagonists in collaboration with the Nazis.

The documents held by the WJC show that the two corporations were the subjects of a "criminal investigation" by secret agents of the US Treasury between 1942 and 1946.

A just-declassified secret memorandum from March 1947 names the Swiss Bank Corporation repeatedly in the practice of falsifying affidavits of ownership so that securities owned by Holocaust victims could be "legally" transferred into German hands.

Another intelligence report reveals for the first time that the SBC's practices in falsifying documents came to the attention of the Swiss government in 1942. Officials apparently tried to bring the culprits to justice but the case was quashed.

Before these latest revelations the Swiss banks had played down the extent of Nazi deposits in Switzerland. But the truth emerged also in a secret US memo of January 1945 which says intelligence intercepts throughout 1944 showed that Swiss banks "gave tremendous assistance to the enemy" in operations dictated not by necessity but "solely by the profit motive of Swiss banks".

All Swiss banks will now be under profound pressure to tell the truth about wartime activities and neither the US government nor the WJC will allow the Swiss investigation to proceed without close monitoring.

Senior US Commerce Department officials have just completed a tour of 13 countries collecting evidence against the Swiss banks and the WJC will continue to mine US intelligence archives for further evidence of illegal acts. "The arm of the law has a long reach," said a WJC official. "It has now caught up with the Swiss banks and justice may at last be done."