How to Think About the Swiss

Movements of Nazi Gold: Uncovering the Trail

by Sidney Zabludoff
World Jewish Congress, 28 pp., $9.95 (paper)

In the modern history of Switzerland, the heroic days were those of 1847 and 1848. It was then that the Swiss liberals founded a new nation by defeating an attempted secession of the Catholic cantons in a short but crucial conflict, the Sonderbundskrieg, and then by providing the restored union with an effective constitution and the institutions that would help make it work.

No less remarkable than this impressive beginning was the country’s ability to defend its independence from external threats during its first vulnerable decade. These were perilous days for the new federal state. The revolutions in Central Europe in 1848 and 1849 posed in its most acute form the problem of reconciling Switzerland’s policy of neutrality with its long tradition of providing asylum for political refugees. The conservative powers of Europe, irritated by the proud independence of the new federal state’s foreign policy, seemed on more than one occasion to be searching for a pretext for intervention. From this eventuality Switzerland saved itself by stubbornness and inspired diplomacy, while at the same time giving refuge to the fragments of the defeated revolutionary army in Baden and those who had fought on the barricades of Dresden and Milan. A hundred years later Max Frisch’s stern critic of his country’s fortunes, Anatole Stiller, was to say of its founders, “In those days they had a blueprint. In those days…they rejoiced in tomorrow and the day after. In those days they had a historical present.”

The 150th anniversary of the Swiss federal constitution will come in September of this year, but it is to be doubted that it will be quite as self-celebratory an occasion as it would have been in quieter times. Since the beginning of this decade the Swiss government has been buffeted by charges, from domestic and international critics alike, that its conduct during the Second World War systematically betrayed all of the principles laid down and defended by its founding fathers. Specifically, the Swiss authorities are accused of pretending to a status of neutrality which was from the beginning fraudulent, slanted as it was in favor of Germany, and, with respect to the right of asylum, of following a highly selective immigration policy, which in particular discriminated against Jewish refugees; while the Swiss banks are accused of helping finance German aggression by laundering Nazi gold that had been looted from countries throughout Europe.

From the beginning of the war the Swiss government was attentive to the desires of its dangerous northern neighbor and, particularly after the fall of France, anxious not to annoy its unpredictable leader. This led it to be deferential in many ways: it yielded to the German insistence on a Swiss blackout that would confuse Allied bombers, for example, and adopted a press policy that forbade the publication of items that might be offensive to the Germans. But these were small things in comparison with its tolerating a policy of financial collaboration between Swiss and German banks …

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