This Week in Haaretz / 1997 / Swiss Banks Establish Holocaust Reparations

The affair soon broadened to include a debate about Switzerland's position in Europe during World War II.

In the late 1990s, decades after the end of World War II, the scathing criticism of Switzerland's complicity in Nazi banking had come to a boil. Jewish organizations filed suit against Swiss authorities over the conduct of Swiss banks during the Nazi Germany period, and American Jewish leaders announced their intention to call for an international boycott of Swiss banks.

Following the announcement, the three largest banks in Switzerland declared the establishment of a humanitarian fund for Holocaust victims. On February 5, 1997, the three banks - Union Bank of Switzerland, the Swiss Bank Corp., and Credit Suisse - agreed to allocate 100 million Swiss francs to the fund, worth about $71 million at the time.

Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, praised the initiative, stating, "This is the right decision by the three banks and a move in the right direction."

"Singer noted that there were 530 banks and other financial institutions operating in the country, most of which had dealt before World War II with the assets of Jews who were then killed in the Holocaust," Haaretz correspondent Shlomo Shamir reported at the time. "He emphasized that the banks' agreement to deposit [reparations] money did not solve the issue of stolen gold and other property, such as art collections that were owned by Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, and that had accumulated in Swiss banks."

While the Swiss government did not appear to be overly enthusiastic about contributing to the fund, it did so under heavy domestic and foreign pressure. "Commentators from the entire political spectrum called on Bern to stop stalling and say how much it would give to the fund," Haaretz reported.

By the end of the month, the Swiss government authorized its contribution.

The affair soon broadened to include a debate about Switzerland's position in Europe during World War II.

"What does it mean to be neutral between the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history and their victims?" Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times. "What does it mean to say that the same rules should apply to the money of both? What does it mean to put yourself outside history?"

"The reason this Nazi banking issue continues to fester is because too many Swiss still insist on being morally neutral, on trying to live off the international system without being fully part of it," Friedman wrote. "As one senior Swiss official remarked to me: 'The Swiss people are shocked by this banking affair, because they are not used to seeing themselves on CNN.'"

Journalist Eliahu Salpeter wrote that the reparations issue, including the sharp debate about Swiss neutrality and banks, arose "after the declassification, after 50 years, of hundreds of millions of documents in Washington archives."

"Many young people, in Eastern Europe as well, want to find out what happened in their countries during the Holocaust," Salpeter asserted. "Perhaps the most important reason for the increase in interest in the affair is the fact that attitudes toward Jews around the world are different in the 1990s than they were in the 1940s and '50s. Their property, like the property of others, is no longer [considered] abandoned."