Envoy tries to salvage the Swiss image in U.S. Ambassador: Alfred Defago has been touring the United States in his effort to lessen the fallout from allegations that the Swiss benefited from plundered Nazi gold.

September 28, 1997|By Peter Gorner

The small democratic nation of Switzerland was spared from World War II, at least until recently. The Swiss people's pride in their patriotism and their vaunted tradition of strict neutrality were rocked by the release last year of historical documents by the U.S. National Archives that had been submerged for a half-century.

A furor has arisen over charges of Swiss accommodations to the Nazis - profiteering and brokering gold looted from conquered nations and Holocaust victims ` followed by the postwar stonewalling of attempts by survivors and heirs to claim what was rightfully theirs.

In July, Swiss banks published the names of 1,800 dormant accounts, the discovery of which exacerbated the scandal.

It has fallen upon the younger generation of Swiss to try to clean up the mess and salvage the national image.

The latest attempt at damage control is represented by Alfred Defago, the new ambassador to the United States, a former journalist and top public broadcasting executive with a doctorate in history. He has been touring the United States, meeting with Jewish groups and business leaders, while back home his fellow citizens are struggling with an identity crisis of epic proportions.

Even for a diplomat, you seem to face an impossible task. What do you hope to accomplish?

We're trying to come to terms with our past. Switzerland has dark spots in its history. On the other hand, we did some good things during World War II. Neutrality was a means to survive. We were surrounded by the Nazis, their acolytes and satellites, yet we managed to survive. Maybe our ancestors compromised too much.

We turned back thousands of Jews at the border on the ground ""the boat was full." Moreover, it was a senior Swiss official who suggested to the Germans they use the infamous ""J" stamp on the passports of Jewish citizens. And the Swiss National Bank's gold policy was anything but a study in glory. Early on, senior bank managers clearly did not know the gold they purchased from the German Reichsbank also contained smelted victims' gold, but in the last years of the war they surely must have known.

Yet it's important to remember Switzerland was not th perpetrator. It was perceived by the Nazis as a hostile country with free elections, a free press and a free radio that was the voice of hope for democratic values all over Europe.

Nobody would deny Switzerland's delicate position, even thoug an equally imperiled country such as Denmark performed differently. Yet after the war, the bankers had to know about the secret that lay in their vaults. Why didn't somebody speak up?

There was no real discussion ` even by Jewish organization throughout the world. That didn't occur until Communism collapsed. It's as if the Communist threat blocked all soul-searching after the war. We've had internal debates, as had the French and Germans. Three times, our government pushed the banks to go to the heart of the problem, and they always found something, but not everything. Dormant accounts are not limited to Switzerland ` the British are finding them, too, as is the United States.

Yet two generations of Swiss bankers did nothing until they wer forced to. Why?

There was a great lack of sensitivity. They underestimated th moral impact of the Holocaust. They made no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. They just said, ""Dormant accounts? You must prove you're the rightful owner." They asked for such stupid things as death certificates from the families of the Holocaust.

Bureaucrats are not only with the government. They can be wit businesses too.

Is this something in the Swiss character?

I think that small-mindedness and tight-fistedness are no beyond us. Of course, you also will find very warm and open-minded Swiss people. But I must draw the distinction between the bankers and the Swiss state.

In fairness, the independence of the bankers and the secrecy o numbered accounts have always made the system unusually autonomous from the state, except in cases of fraud. Still, there must be regret for not going public sooner.

Certainly. We missed the chance. Now, as stated in the report b U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat, the Swiss have taken the lead in establishing a fund for restitution. In December, the government approved creation of an independent commission and granted it access to all sources, including the banks, to get the full story. An interim report on gold transactions with Nazi Germany is due in a few months. Another independent commission, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is unearthing dormant accounts and publishing the names. In the meantime, the government established a $190 million fund to assist victims of poverty, injustice and attempted genocide.

How serious is anti-Semitism in Switzerland?

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