Rules of neutrality were a casualty of World War II Small nations gave in to Nazi intimidation

June 21, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Ever since the current uproar erupted over the fate of looted Nazi gold, the role Switzerland played in helping to finance Hitler's war machine has been the focus of debate.

But as investigators in the United States and other countries have scoured archives of World War II for clues, they have repeatedly stumbled over evidence raising broader questions about the nature of neutrality during the war.

Those questions have come to the fore in a State Department report that takes a broad look at the role played by all of the major neutral countries in aiding Nazi Germany.

The report -- which looks at Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Portugal and Argentina in addition to Switzerland -- highlights the degree to which each country created its own definition of neutrality to survive and prosper at a time when all the old rules had been thrown to the wind.

"Our report indicates the complexity of the notion of neutrality," said Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs.

The standards for acceptable behavior by belligerents and neutral countries had been part of the European tradition for hundreds of years. But they offered little guidance to countries facing the German blitzkrieg, legal scholars and historians said.

"The rules in place were designed for wars that were not crusades," said Detlev Vagts, an expert on international law at Harvard Law School. "The rules were designed for much smaller wars."

Gordon Craig, a leading scholar of German history and professor emeritus at Stanford University, said, "When you come right down to it, what standards could be applied to the neutrals during that war? It was very difficult to be a small nation in a Europe dominated by Hitler."

As a result, legal guidelines were often discarded or consistently violated by many of the neutrals.

"It is clear that these countries were committing un-neutral acts, even by the standards of the times," Eizenstat said.

Sweden was among the most aggressive in stretching the meaning of neutrality throughout the war, the report found. With German forces in neighboring Norway, Denmark and Finland, Sweden was vulnerable to German intimidation throughout the first few years of the war.

The Swedes allowed German troops to cross their neutral territory to join the German invasion of the Soviet Union and allowed 250,000 German troops to use the Swedish railroad system to travel between occupied Norway and Germany.

The Swedish navy provided escort service for German military supply ships, and Swedish industry helped the Germans make up for the losses Allied bombers inflicted on their vital ball-bearing industry.

Spain went further, creating a new international status by declaring that it was a "nonbelligerent," rather than a neutral. Franco's fascist regime intended the claim of nonbelligerence to signal that it was leaning Hitler's way but was not willing to give up the benefits of staying on the sidelines. Even without officially joining the Axis, Spain provided as many as 40,000 troops, supposedly volunteers, to fight on the Russian front alongside the Germans in what was called the Spanish Blue Division.

Spain also remained an important German source of wolfram ore, a mineral used in making tungsten, a hard metal that was critical to German industry, the report says.

The State Department report is most critical of the neutrals for their refusal to give up their trade and financial relationships with the Nazis late in the war, when Germany had long since lost its ability to threaten or intimidate. In many cases, the neutrals kept trading with the Germans until the end.

"The war could have been shortened by months or years if the neutrals had cut back on their trade with Germany by 1943," Eizenstat said.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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