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Why a commission to probe Swiss refugee policy?

The Bergier commission of experts, set up by the Swiss authorities, has been investigating Switzerland’s wartime history since 1996. Why was the commission set up and what has it achieved so far?

This content was published on December 9, 1999 - 18:12

The Bergier commission of experts, set up by the Swiss authorities, has been investigating Switzerland’s wartime history since 1996.

After initial quibbling about its composition, the government set up the nine-member historians’ commission under the leadership of Professor Jean-Francois Bergier (picture). Four of the members came from the United States, Britain, Israel and Poland and the other four were Swiss. The commission gained unanimous parliamentary approval in December, 1996.

Its mandate was to throw light on a series of issues stemming from Switzerland’s wartime role, including its gold dealings with Nazi Germany, stolen goods, Switzerland’s refugee policy, and the general problem of unclaimed assets left in Swiss banks either by victims of the Holocaust or by agents of the Nazi regime.

Backed up by a staff of 30 researchers in Switzerland and abroad, the commission examined the records of banks, including the Swiss National Bank, insurance agencies, and intermediaries such as auditors, lawyers and notaries. Documents, normally covered by banking and professional secrecy, were ordered opened up for examination.

Part of the far-reaching mandate was also to investigate measures taken by federal officials after World War II. Overall, the Bergier commission has been trying to provide the detailed historical information to allow Switzerland to understand and come to terms with its past.

As the historians and researchers got down to their painstaking work, international attention focussed on a series of other events relating to Swiss relations with Nazi Germany.

Just two weeks after parliamentary approval of the commission, the then federal president, Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, sparked international criticism by likening Jewish calls for restitution to extortion and blackmail.

Headlines in 1997 were dominated by other events: A UBS security guard who revealed the bank shredded pre-war and Nazi era documents; a Swiss government proposal to set up a Solidarity Foundation using the proceeds of official gold sales for the victims of poverty, catastrophes and human rights abuses; threatened boycotts of Swiss banks in the United States; the publication of a first list of dormant accounts in the banks; and an international gold conference in London.

The Bergier commission published its first report on Switzerland’s wartime gold transactions in May l998. It said 79 percent of the gold transactions abroad carried out by the Nazi central bank, the Reichsbank, came through Switzerland.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) was implicated in 87 percent of the transactions, with gold shipments worth about SFr 1.6 billion. The statistics added to accusations by Switzerland’s critics that the bank’s policy helped the Nazi war effort and prolonged the war.

"From today’s vantage point, the arguments which were used by the SNB in justifying its gold purchases from the Reichsbank lack the power to convince. The claims of having acted in good faith and of having adhered to the policy of Swiss neutrality in making these gold purchases are not credible,“ commented the Bergier gold report.

"Reservations must also be expressed with respect to the reasoning that the SNB purchased gold from the Reichsbank for the purpose of dissuading the Third Reich from invading Switzerland,“ it added.

The latest findings on Switzerland’s refugee policy constitute the second interim report by the Bergier commission. A final report wrapping up the commission’s findings is expected in the next two years.

From staff and wire reports

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