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Neutrality's Wages

Switzerland's historical preference for neutrality is understandable. A tiny, mountain-ringed country in the midst of warring Europe, it opted out of its continent's turbulent politics and thus preserved independence.

What's not so easy to understand, from our perspective 50 years later, is why no moral alarms went off when Nazi Germany turned to neutral Switzerland for the financial resources to sustain the war. It's now known that the gold Hitler's government sold to Swiss banks included jewelry and dental fillings from death camp victims.

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Beyond this Nazi gold, the Swiss had custody of savings, works of art, and other items of wealth belonging to Hitler's victims. Why did they resist returning these assets to their rightful Jewish or other owners after the war?

And why has all of this has taken so long to reach the public?

Switzerland's leaders at the time may well have seen the rise of Nazism as yet another of Europe's cyclical power struggles. The enormity of the evil wrought by Hitler was dimly perceived in many world capitals then. But that excuse faded as the war and its atrocities mounted. Many in Switzerland must have known whom, and what, they were aiding.

Swiss Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss was right last week to comment that the policy of neutrality needs to be reexamined in the light of new information about the World War II era. Neutrality can't excuse amorality.

As for resistance to redistributing Nazi loot after the war, it's hard to see that as anything but greed among Swiss officials and a failure of moral purpose among Allied officials, including Americans. Agreements to reimburse the victims of Nazism were flabbily enforced and allowed to lapse.

Now the pressure is on to redress that error. Switzerland is organizing reparations for Holocaust victims. The largest such plan, to set up a fund for humanitarian purposes by selling off some gold reserves, could go before Swiss voters next year. That will be a test of national feeling, versus the statements of leaders.

Meanwhile, the US and Britain are promoting an international conference on the postwar flow of Nazi assets. US Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, who led a recent study of Allied efforts to track down Nazi assets, has suggested aiding survivors of Hitler's persecutions, particularly in Eastern Europe, through the $70 million in gold still held in a pool set up by the Allies after the war. He urges, also, that World War II "neutrals" who in various ways helped the German war machine - Sweden, Portugal, and Spain, as well as Switzerland - do more to set up funds for victims. Such steps would have symbolic, as well as practical, value.

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Information about postwar decisions regarding the claims of victims has taken a long time to start flowing, for reasons buried in bureaucratic and psychic inertia, but it's unstoppable now. And the outcome should be deeper repentance - rethinking and change - in response to one of history's darkest chapters.

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