Witnesses to genocide: a tragic tale of death, discretion and valour

The logbooks of recorded horror were locked up for 60 years rather than damage the supposed neutrality of their native land

So there I was in Locarno this week, attacking Carla del Ponte - the Judge Jeffries of the Hague - for daring to threaten journalists who would not give evidence against Serb war criminals. Why wouldn't she, along with her little "interrogators", try some of my local war criminals in the Middle East; Rifaat al-Assad, for example, or Ariel Sharon? Then, just down the road at a cramped little cinema, the Swiss provided a lesson in what war crimes were really about. Or how the knowledge of war crimes - and the failure to give witness to them - was a crime in itself. Mission in Hell is a terrifying film which recounts a hitherto secret, shameful chapter of the Second World War, as unknown in Britain as it still is in Switzerland.

All praise, therefore, to the tiny Locarno Film Festival for showing Frederic Gonseth's two-and-a-half hour exposé of the Swiss Red Cross missions to the Nazi Eastern Front between 1941 and 1944. We all know, of course, how the International Committee of the Red Cross was conned by the Germans, how it wrote glowing reports of the humanitarian treatment of Jews in Theresienstadt and other concentration camps. I am still prepared to accept the word of the Swiss historian of the Red Cross in the Second World War - when I interviewed him 16 years ago - that "Hitler's evil was on a level that left the Red Cross in a different moral world" - but I'm a lot less convinced that there's any excuse for what happened to the four Red Cross missions to Nazi-occupied Russia.

For what Gonseth's film shows us is something unique: a group of moral, neutral, non-German surgeons and doctors and nurses who set off to care for the Russian as well as the German victims of Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" - but who then slowly fell victim themselves to Nazi propaganda, moral cowardice and, most painful of all for Switzerland, the threats of a Swiss government desperate to conceal from the world their evidence of mass murder and genocide.

In all, 200 Swiss medical personnel took part in four missions to occupied eastern Europe. There is even film of these starry-eyed liberals setting off from Zurich station (all had affirmed in writing that they were 100 per cent "Aryans") and there is documentation aplenty to prove that - unknown to the Swiss doctors - they were under the direct control of the Wehrmacht. Elderly survivors of the missions talk about their horror at the death of young German soldiers around Smolensk, of amputations without anaesthetic - there is grisly footage of just such an operation - and of the Red Cross doctor who turned out to be a friend of Himmler and who later recommended that the Swiss missions should work alongside the Waffen SS.

Throughout this catalogue of evidence, the ageing Swiss medical personnel recall how they understood - all too slowly, one has to add - that they would not be permitted to help the Russian wounded. A Swiss was ordered out of a hospital for Russian prisoners; another remembers the Russian POW trains carrying up to 3,000 prisoners, "faces hidden by hair and dirt", fighting each other for bread, of their growing realisation that 200,000 Russian prisoners had been reduced to 20,000 during the winter of 1941-2. One Swiss female nurse keeps repeating that "we looked at them [the Russians] through the window ... some of them didn't even have shoes". A male doctor tells how he saw a Russian prisoner, carried by two comrades, collapse between their arms. "I did not fulfil my duty as a doctor, as a human being, for fear of troubles with our [German] hosts."

There are a few heroes. There is a doctor, dismissively referred to as "Rintelen" by one of his surviving colleagues, who could no longer be a witness to such evil. "When he saw what was going on, he couldn't take it mentally and was sent home, alone I think." Then there were the Swiss who managed to get inside - actually to enter - the Warsaw Ghetto and witness at first hand the Jewish Holocaust. Charlotte Bisregger-Breno, a nurse, for example: "There were people stretched out on the ground - everyone was dressed in rags." And Charles Waldeberger: "There were people on the ground, more or less unconscious, maybe already dead, I don't know." Or Therese Buhler: "There was a shed, a wooden shed. And the guardian of the cemetery, he came to us and said: 'Come with me, come with me.' He led us to a kind of shed and opened the door. I felt I have [sic] to vomit. The smell was so bad. There were piles of dead bodies, old, young, all types."

As Gonseth's film makes clear, the Swiss were among the first neutral witnesses of the genocide of the Russians - it was Hitler's intention to kill off his millions of Soviet prisoners - as well as of the Jewish Holocaust. But when the last Swiss mission returned to Switzerland in 1944 - their personnel narrowly escaping capture by the advancing Red Army - they chose discretion rather than valour, locking up their daily logbooks of recorded horror for the next 60 years rather than damage the supposed neutrality of their native land. One of them - Rudolf Bucher - deserves to be a Swiss hero. He lectured in Zurich, told the Swiss public what he had seen, showed ferocious photographs of the butchery on the Eastern Front and condemned the persecution of the Jews.

True to form, a Swiss secret policeman was present at the lecture to take notes and Bucher was threatened with arrest, forbidden to lecture and warned - horror of horrors, I thought as I heard this - that he might not be permitted to serve in the Swiss army. Bucher's daughter was later to refer to the "opaqueness of the political games", a gentle way, perhaps, of referring to the extraordinary statement of the Swiss foreign minister, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, who in 1941 wrote that "we [the Swiss] must continue to demonstrate the unflagging support that the German effort warrants".

No, I don't want to bash the Swiss. All praise to the Swiss who made this remarkable documentary. All praise to the elderly doctors who, albeit far too late, have given their testimony. "What could we do?" one of them miserably asks. Nor am I convinced that Ms Del Ponte has the right to coerce journalists to give evidence of war crimes today. I still want the Middle East's war criminals on trial if journalists are going to have to give evidence to her court.

But I do remember, 20 years ago, writing a long report for my then employers, The Times, about Saddam Hussein's use of gas warfare against the Iranians - I had seen the young Iranian soldiers coughing their lungs into towels on a military hospital train moving up to Tehran from the front - and I also recall how a Foreign Office official that same week told my then editor that my story was "not helpful" - because, of course, we were supporting Saddam at the time, and because Donald Rumsfeld was meeting Saddam just then, trying to persuade him to allow the US to reopen its embassy in Baghdad.

"Not helpful", of course, is exactly what the Swiss thought of their doctors' evidence from the Eastern Front.

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