News Analysis: Swiss-sanctioned report confirms Nazi gold dealings

WASHINGTON — A long-awaited report examining Switzerland's hand in the Nazi gold trade is fueling Jewish demands for more Swiss compensation and accountability.

The report, commissioned by the Swiss government and issued by an independent panel of historians, concludes that during the war, Swiss National Bank officials knew they were buying looted gold from Nazi Germany, but turned a blind eye and went ahead with "business as usual."

That charge has been put forth — even documented — by the U.S. government and Jewish officials before, but this is the first time a study sanctioned by Switzerland has reached that conclusion.

The report of the so-called Bergier Commission once again throws the spotlight on Switzerland's wartime role, even as the United States is preparing to issue its own report that some observers says is intended, in part, to underscore the fact that other countries were involved in wartime transactions with the Nazis.

The U.S. report, on gold transactions between Nazi Germany and other wartime neutrals, is a follow-up to a report last year that focused largely on Switzerland's World War II-era financial dealings.

Like last year's U.S. report, this week's Bergier Commission study criticized Switzerland for its extensive financial dealings with Nazi Germany.

The Bergier report specifically targeted the Swiss National Bank for following an "ethic of the least effort" to trace the origins of the looted gold during the war, even though bank officials "became increasingly aware that Jews and other persecuted groups were being robbed."

The study by historians from Switzerland, the United States, Israel, England and Poland confirmed that Switzerland was the main center of German gold transactions and that the Swiss National Bank was the biggest client.

Overall, the report estimates, Switzerland's central bank bought $280 million worth of gold from the Nazis, which would be valued at $2.5 billion today.

Switzerland has defended its wartime purchases of gold from the German Reichsbank as necessary for maintaining the country's economic stability.

Jewish officials immediately seized on the report's findings as they renewed calls for Switzerland to agree to be part of a global settlement of all Holocaust-era claims stemming from Swiss actions during World War II.

The World Jewish Congress, lawyers representing Holocaust victims and Switzerland's three largest private banks have been holding settlement talks in recent weeks under the aegis of the U.S. State Department.

But the Swiss government has so far refused to join the commercial banks in the talks.

Thomas Borer, Switzerland's point man on Holocaust restitution issues, said as the Bergier report was released that his government "won't take part in any settlement that involves taxpayers' money."

The World Jewish Congress called on Switzerland to provide compensation for all looted gold it took in during the war — not just the $58 million it turned over to the Allies as part of a 1946 accord reached in Washington.

Under the terms of that agreement, the Allies agreed to drop all claims for looted gold bought from Nazi Germany.

The Swiss government, however, said this week there were no grounds for any reparation by the government or the Swiss National Bank.

"The report provides no new basic facts and offers no basis for new demands, specifically regarding renegotiating the Washington Agreement," a Swiss government statement said.

Although the government criticized the central bank's wartime managers for lacking "the necessary sensitivity for moral and political considerations," it said the bank had already made a sufficient gesture by contributing $68 million last year to a humanitarian fund set up to benefit Holocaust victims.

The World Jewish Congress said Switzerland's refusal to provide additional restitution "desecrates the memory of the victims of the Nazis" and is a "moral stain on Switzerland."

"In effect, they have ignored the findings of their own commission," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC. "Why appoint a commission if you are not going to act on its findings?"

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the Swiss government's reaction "an exercise in damage control rather than full commitment to the truth."

He said Switzerland must follow up the report by confronting the basic moral issues and come clean with all relevant historical facts if it wants to attain closure.