Hitler's Industrious Silent Helpers

Those who take note of key dates in Jewish history would naturally see a link between the last few days of the month of August and the city of Basel. In late August 1897, the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel.

Eliahu Salpeter
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Eliahu Salpeter

Those who take note of key dates in Jewish history would naturally see a link between the last few days of the month of August and the city of Basel. In late August 1897, the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel.

In late August 2001 a rare archaeological find was unearthed - a ring decorated with the images of a lulav (a palm branch, associated with the autumn Sukkot festival), an etrog (a citrus species, also associated with Sukkot), and a shofar (a ram's horn, associated with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana). The ring dates from the second century and is mute evidence that Jews reached this region a hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Late August 2001 also saw the appearance of eight volumes (with a total of 3,000 pages) containing the first part of the report of the Independent Commission of Experts (the Bergier Commission), which was appointed to investigate collaboration between the Swiss and Hitler's Germany.

The Bergier Commission was created in 1996 in the wake of revelations that Swiss banks tried to conceal bank accounts of Holocaust victims. In addition to the role of Swiss banks during World War II, the Swiss parliament established the commission to study as well all aspects of Switzerland's performance during that period. Historian Jean-Francois Bergier was appointed to head the commission, which consists of four Swiss historians and four historians from the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland respectively.

The second portion of the report, which will be published in 17 volumes, is due to appear by December 31, 2001. This second portion will study economic and political contexts, the behavior of Switzerland from the standpoint of both international law and Swiss law, and Switzerland's attitude toward Jewish refugees.

The list of topics that the commission is studying graphically illustrates the immense extent of Swiss collaboration with the Nazis but also indicates the commission's determination to study these topics and to publish its findings. It should be recalled here that, for most of World War II, Switzerland was surrounded by countries that had been overrun by either the Germans or the Italians.

Thus, for a considerable period of time, Switzerland had genuine fears of a German invasion. However, those fears do not justify the fact that the commission has emphasized, namely, that Swiss government agencies and Swiss companies did not use the narrow margin of maneuverability that they had in order to avoid collaboration with the Nazis.

The commission's report points out that the chief reason for the widespread cooperation between Switzerland and Nazi Germany was the profit motive. Swiss citizens who refused to do business with the Nazis were a very small minority, notes the report.

The eight volumes that have already appeared consider, among other things, the movement of looted property to Switzerland and the quantity of the assets that Holocaust victims transferred to that country. The report also deals with the use of forced laborers by Swiss companies and with the particularly close collaboration between Switzerland and the IG Farben company, one of the pillars of the German war effort.

There are extensive descriptions of the assistance that Switzerland provided to Germany in such areas as obtaining foreign currency and conveying of products between Switzerland and Germany through the Swiss railway system.

The additional volumes of the report will focus primarily on details of the economic and financial contacts between the two countries as well as details of Switzerland's contribution to the Nazi war machine.

Switzerland was a center for handling deals connected with art treasures looted by the Nazis. Even Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe and president of the Reichstag, obtained paintings and sculptures through Swiss art dealers. Hundreds of costly art treasures made their way through this mechanism to the Fuehrer's own museum in Linz, Austria, and to Goering's immense collection of (mainly looted) art objects. The government authorities that were supposed to monitor the activities of the Swiss banking system looked the other way and deliberately ignored Swiss foreign currency regulations in order to enable the transfer to Germany of the funds generated by international business deals and by the sale of looted gold.

The heads of Swiss industry, especially Swiss chemical firms that operated branch plants in Germany - across the Swiss-German border just opposite Basel - lost no time, after Hitler's rise to power, in arranging meetings with the leaders of the new Nazi regime in order to discuss continued cooperation between Switzerland and Germany. These heads of industries were also quick to fire Jewish workers, even before the Nuremberg Laws went into effect.

The chapters on Switzerland's chemical industry are the most embarrassing section of the commission's report. It is now clear that the directors of Swiss companies in Basel were very well aware what was going on at the time in Germany and had knowledge of the coerced employment of forced laborers in their branch plants in Germany as well as of the fact that forced laborers died as a result of the conditions in which they were held.

Swiss chemical companies also knew that their products were being used for medical experiments carried out on prisoners of war and on concentration camp inmates. Roche, for example, actually participated in research studies conducted by the German navy, while Sandoz was aware of the research studies carried out on epileptic patients murdered by the Nazis.

Ciba knew that its products were being employed in experiments conducted on young women, who were contaminated with various infections and who were exposed to disinfectant materials in order to test the effectiveness of those materials. Some of these victims died in the course of the experiments, while the others were executed at a later stage.

However, it was not just Swiss companies that were Hitler's silent helpers. There were also many officials in the Swiss ministry of the interior who collaborated with the Nazis. The report describes extensively the harsh rebuke that one of the top commanders of the Swiss police delivered, as early as 1939, to two directors of Swiss companies because the directors of their subsidiaries in Germany had "smuggled" their Jewish wives into Switzerland.

A spokesperson for Novartis - which was established through a merger of Ciba, Geigy and Sandoz - has declared, in response to the Bergier Commission's report: "It can be said with absolute certainty that our companies did not sympathize with the Nazis."

What would these companies have done if they had sympathized with the Nazis?