Wanted: Historians to deliberate tellingly on the role of the gnomes

Advertisements have appeared in the Swiss press seeking historians with an interest in banking and the Second World War. But academics in a hurry need not apply. The commission set up to investigate Switzerland's Nazi links will first meet next month, and the jobs touted are on a five-year contract.

That the announcement appeared at all is progress, of sorts: an inquiry will go ahead in Switzerland, just as similar investigations are launched across Europe. But Europe is only beginning to get to grips with the bigger questions about what happened to Jewish assets looted or stolen during the war.

The Swiss are meticulous and even though the last Holocaust survivors who might benefit from the study are approaching the end of their natural life-span, the authorities will not condone haste. The scholars are expected to submit their first report in summer, upon which the government will decide whether it should pay compensation.

The verdict from the ivory tower will be the last piece in a jigsaw being assembled in New York and in Swiss vaults. In the past three months researchers have established that Switzerland did knowingly buy gold looted by the Nazis. It is also now beyond dispute that much Jewish money deposited in Swiss banks might not have been collected because of the obduracy of the Gnomes of Zurich. Was it really necessary, for instance, to demand of the heirs of Holocaust victims the account number, plus the password, plus the death certificate of the deceased? One does not need to have a PhD in history to be aware that Auschwitz did not issue the latter.

The three biggest banks admitted as much when they launched a compensation fund this week in anticipation of stashes yet to be uncovered. Who will benefit will be known soon, certainly sooner than five years from now, when Jewish groups working since May with three accounting firms have finished looking through the books - the ones not shredded "accidentally". The banking authorities waived secrecy laws to facilitate this study, chaired by Paul Volcker, ex-head of the US Federal Reserve, and the work is said to be well advanced.

The only catch is that disbursement of compensation will be co-ordinated by the government, which will not start handing out money until it is convinced of its predecessors' guilt. Back to the ivory tower. This is not, however, another case of Swiss obfuscation. The federal government fears that if it were to hand over public funds without good reason, it could be vetoed by plebiscites.

The issue has gone way beyond the frontiers of Switzerland. Portugal, in particular, has been shocked into action by claims from the US that in 1943-1944 Germany sent to Spain and Portugal 280 truckloads of looted gold laundered through Swiss banks. Portuguese press reports reckon the lion's share, 100 tons, could have gone into the vaults of the Bank of Portugal. US-based Nazi-hunters claim the gold, worth perhaps $250m to $500m, was plundered from banks in occupied Europe or from melted-down teeth and jewellery of concentration-camp victims. The Bank of Portugal has appointed the historian Joaquim da Costa Leite to comb its 1939-1945 archives.

France this week appointed Jean Matteoli, a civil servant and camp survivor, as head of a commission to investigate the fate of Jewish property. Its targets include hundreds of flats left vacant by Jews, which may have been taken over by the city authorities in Paris; and 2,000 works of art thought to be in "care" of French museums.

The Dutch Finance Ministry has also appointed a commission to trace looted gold and Italy has set up an inquiry to trace owners of a stash of gold and other valuables in a Treasury Ministry store in Rome.

But behind the search is a more profound issue: Europe has yet to uncover, let alone come to terms with, what happened during the war. "This is not a question of monetary compensation, it is a moral issue where the truth must be made known so that we can make peace with the past," said Henri Hajdenberg, president of the Council of French Jewish Institutions.

Disclosures about Portugal's role have shaken public opinion. The Socialist government is struggling to find out more about the dictator Antonio Salazar's collusion with Hitler's Germany. Portugal was neutral but Salazar supplied the Reich with clothing, food and tons of tungsten, vital for making cannons and armoured vehicles.

The Portuguese historian Antonio Jose Telo supports claims by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that Portugal transferred Nazi funds to German officers who fled to South America. "Portugal ... enabled the Nazis and their possessions to leave for Latin America and Brazil," he said recently.

Despite recent disclosures, many Swiss refuse to accept that their country did anything wrong in the war. The issue has divided them along ideological, generational and linguistic lines. German-speakers wish the controversy would go away, while in French cantons the people talk of little else. Phobias, including anti-Semitism, have risen to the surface, exposing even the elite's ignorance about what is acceptable and what is not in the outside world.

Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, the outgoing Swiss president, dropped careless words about "Jewish" blackmail and is still stunned by the ensuing furore. Switzerland's Washington ambassador, Carlo Jagmetti, spoke of the need to wage "war" against those trying to besmirch the country's good name. At least he recognised his error, and Mr Jagmetti is now the outgoing ambassador.

On the other side of the debate, artists have launched petitions demanding a Swiss mea culpa and full restitution for the people ripped off by the banks. Children are collecting for Holocaust survivors, church groups are staging vigils.

Swiss Railways this week cancelled plans to celebrate its 150th anniversary with a "Golden Locomotive", because the company felt it would have been in bad taste. "The complacency is gone," said Gian Trapp, a historian no longer enjoying his former obscurity as one of the few scholars who bothered to investigate the banks' Nazi links. "The people who really think about it can have no doubt that Switzerland profited from the Nazis. The only question now is who profited and by how much."