Swiss firms block access to records of Nazi-era slave labor

BERN — Officials with the international panel of historians probing Switzerland's wartime past are complaining that some Swiss companies are refusing access to records dating back to the Nazi years.

The companies are "refusing to open their archives because they are afraid of compensation claims," according to one member of the Independent Commission of Experts, also known as the Bergier Commission, after its chairman, historian Jean-Francois Bergier.

The international panel of historians was created by Switzerland last December to study the extent of the country's financial dealings with the Nazis.

Difficulties arose, according to members of the panel, when they attempted to investigate the operations of Swiss subsidiaries that operated in Nazi Germany. Some Swiss companies, they said, maintained that the commission had no legal authority to investigate the companies' subsidiaries.

Panel members cited the chocolate manufacturer Nestlé as an example, saying the company refused to cooperate when the commission sought records about its Maggi subsidiary, which employed thousands of war prisoners and Jewish slave laborers at its factory located in Germany near the Swiss border.

"We are in a very delicate situation," said Linus von Castelmur, a historian who serves as secretary-general of the commission.

"These records are absolutely necessary to investigate our history."

In a related development, some Swiss legislators are seeking to block parliamentary approval to provide additional funding for the commission's activities.

The Federal Council, as the Swiss Cabinet is known, has called on Parliament to approve $11.5 million to cover the commission's operating costs during the next four years.

But some legislators want to block this funding, a move that would force the Bergier Commission to stop its activities by end of the year.