Germany and Russia must join this uncomfortable quest for the truth

Louise Jury the nazi gold conference

Share
Related Topics
Every nation with a Nazi gold connection has been invited to next month's international conference on the issue. Probably more than 40 countries will be represented there. The Swiss have at last confirmed that they will be coming. But the most troubling sign in the run-up to this long- awaited event is that two of the most important affected nations - Germany and Russia - are still uncommitted to attending.

A flurry of meetings have taken place between embassy officials and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to provide reassurances that the purpose is not to put them in the dock (though there will be some who think that is not an unreasonable place for them to be). The diplomacy is delicate.

Nazi gold is a subject which raises passionate emotions. The term has become shorthand for assets looted by the Nazis, most poignantly from Jews who they then killed in concentration camps. The Nazi gold affair has also embraced the question of the wealth which many Jewish families secreted away in bank accounts, notably in Switzerland, where an inflexible adherence to its secretive banking laws prevented the accounts being reclaimed by survivors or their descendants when the war was over.

Many camp survivors are now elderly, and sorely in need of the money which was wrongly taken from them. Lord (Greville) Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, a lobbying group, has spoken emotionally on this. It was he who first suggested a conference as a way of speeding what recompense may still be possible for those in desperate want of it.

But, for once, even his language has been moderated. Lord Janner, like the Foreign Office, is conscious that some countries could be scared away if it looks as though demands may be made of them. He wants maximum attendance for a meeting on which much is being pinned.

The stated aims of the three-day gathering are: to pool available knowledge on the historical facts on gold looted by the Nazis from countries and individuals; to examine steps taken up until now to reimburse countries and compensate individual victims; and to examine the case for further compensation of individuals.

It is point three that is causing the problem. Inside Switzerland, there have been strong mutterings that its efforts so far - launching an investigation into the role of Swiss banks and setting up a historical commission and two different funds for those who suffered - have won it little credit in the outside world. The foreign minister, Flavio Cotti, appears determined to show contrition, but some Swiss remain suspicious that the conference will provide another opportunity for critics to point a finger. Only after British reassurances that Switzerland will not be made a scapegoat has attendance been agreed.

Germany has noted the international criticism heaped upon Switzerland with concern. Senior German officials are understood to feel they have gone to great lengths already to make amends for their country's wartime activities and are worried that the conference will not acknowledge that. Russia, meanwhile, is simply adamant it will return no "spoils of war", whatever their origin. Earlier this year, its lower house of parliament, the Duma, overturned a seven-year-old agreement that spoils plundered by the Red Army at the end of the war should be returned to Germany. Millions of Russians suffered; what it seized in 1945 from the Germans was only reasonable recompense, they argued. That some of the goods seized from Germany were not Germany's in the first place is a point they wish to ignore.

Yet the conference could certainly benefit Switzerland and possibly Germany and Russia too. Although all three will undoubtedly come under the spotlight, the Jewish organisations who are attending are just as interested in countries whose role has not been publicly questioned hitherto.

It is believed that the banks of Liechtenstein, for instance, whose secrecy laws are no less inflexible than the Swiss, could shed light on the whereabouts of some assets if they chose to do so. Although the Vatican is sending a couple of priests, it is unwilling to bend rules that prevent the opening of its files for 100 years, even though those, too, might help in giving clues to what was going on during the war years.

Yet without willingness and openness, attendance means little. Getting 150 delegates to Lancaster House is an achievement of sorts, particularly in the comparatively short time- scale of six months, but it must not be an end in itself. The Jewish community, to whom this conference means so much, has every right to expect that action will follow. This is the most promising opportunity yet to discover what happened to gold - and possibly other assets, such as paintings - whose whereabouts are unknown.

That is the problem with delicate diplomacy. There is a limit to how delicate you can be when the whole point of the conference is to raise difficult questions to which some may not want to provide answers. There are many countries, such as Portugal, Sweden, Turkey and Spain, where looted gold was traded by the Nazis to buy imports during the war. There are others, such as Argentina and Brazil, which were known Nazi boltholes. It is inevitable that confronting their involvement will prove uncomfortable.

Everyone knows that really. The logic of getting everyone together is that the moral pressure for further action will be inescapable, which is, of course, why countries like Germany and Russia are dithering. But if ever an issue demanded the setting aside of self-interest, this must be it. All those who might be able to help must take part.

Robin Cook may not quite have realised the diplomatic minefield into which he was leading his officials when he agreed to host the conference, but it was undoubtedly an appropriate grand gesture from a Foreign Secretary espousing a new ethical foreign policy. The Government should not be shy of it and the delegates should do their utmost to settle the matter. Whatever assets remain must be identified and given back to the Jewish community while those who have suffered are still alive to benefit from them.

Some people have asked why Jews are pursuing their outstanding claims only now, more than half a century after the end of World War Two. The answer is simple: it had not seemed possible before. It does now. When Mr Cook opens the conference in three weeks' time, the opportunity must not be wasted.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor