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Swiss banks under rising pressure over Nazi dealings

Switzerland's political leaders and bankers were under mounting domestic pressure yesterday to come clean about the country's financial dealings with the Nazis during the Second World War. More than 100 prominent Swiss writers, lawyers, doctors, university professors and film producers published a petition accusing the politicians and bankers of mishandling the scandal and damaging their nation's image.

"The standing and credibility of Switzerland as a democratic nation are compromised and imperilled," said the petition. "We consider it all the more imperative that recent Swiss history should be further freed of distortion and embellishment, and should be written with greater honesty and truth."

The petitioners were particularly critical of Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, who rounded off a one-year term as Switzerland's president last year by condemning Jewish demands for Swiss compensation for Holocaust victims as "extortion and blackmail". Many Swiss nationals were outraged by his remarks which, according to members of the country's 30,000-strong Jewish community, triggered a wave of anti-Semitism in the form of offensive telephone calls to Jewish groups and abusive letters to newspapers.

The broad accusation against the Swiss authorities and private Swiss banks is that they profited from their wartime dealings with the Nazis and later concealed that wealth, which included assets belonging to Jews, behind a wall of bank-secrecy laws. Jewish groups in the United States and in Israel say the banks may have held up to $7bn (pounds 4.35bn) in Jewish assets, but the banks say this estimate is far too high.

Switzerland's government and banks have in fact agreed to set up a compensation fund for Jews, but no amount has yet been fixed and the controversy over Swiss policies during and after the war refuses to go away. One large Swiss bank was discovered to be getting rid of historical documents only days before a law came into effect banning the destruction of data that could be used to trace Jewish assets.

Earlier this week the Swiss ambassador to Washington resigned after it was revealed that he had called, in a diplomatic note to Berne, for a "war" against Jewish American groups and others critical of Switzerland's record. New York city and state authorities said on Wednesday that they might bar government deposits with Swiss banks, or make it hard for them to operate in New York, unless they pay compensation to Jews.

Partly because of this kind of foreign pressure, the Swiss government has appointed a nine-member international commission of historians to study the country's wartime policies. According to an opinion poll for Swiss Radio released last Monday, six out of 10 Swiss people believe that criticism of Switzerland's war record is exaggerated.

However, 46 per cent of those questioned said they accepted that the authorities had incurred moral blame by cultivating financial ties with Nazi Germany and by refusing to admit thousands of German Jewish refugees from 1938 to 1945. Thirty-five per cent believed the authorities had acted correctly, and 20 per cent had no opinion.