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Were the Swiss Banks so Different?

Moral relativism is an insult to tyrrany's victims

Recently, newspapers in major cities around the world published the names of holders of Swiss bank accounts inactive since World War II.

This was part of the Swiss government's effort to restore its reputation for its role as bankers of the Nazis' laundered money and holders of deposits fleeing the Nazis that the Swiss have not returned to their owners or heirs.

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The names on the list evoked that dull, inescapable ache that comes particularly to Jews of European origin, at the sound of the bell tolling. "Goldstein, Berek - Warsaw; Levy, Klara - Dantzig; Halff, Robert and Andre and Bertrand and Bruno and Liliane and Marie-Claire - Paris."

I wonder, how did Berek Goldstein get the family's money into Switzerland? Did any of the Halffs survive? What did they know at the end? There go I, but for the luck of being born in Britain. There went my grandmother's family and cousins I never knew.

But the hostility to Switzerland and the moral opprobrium we are now dishing out to that country has problematic aspects. At the very least, it is an exercise in moral relativism, and surely to heavens, that insult to tyranny's victims must stop.

The background is clear. The Germans had some gold, but were scrambling for cash, war being expensive. They could only sell gold to neutral countries, which meant Switzerland, Portugal, and Sweden. Some of that gold belonged to the German Reich, some of it was looted from countries the Germans occupied and some expropriated, largely from Jews in both Germany and occupied countries.

Unfortunately when such terrifying practices as extracting gold from teeth, possibly of Robert Halff and his family, were in full swing, the Germans did not mark the resulting gold bars with their awful provenance.

I don't doubt that the Swiss were unaware of the details of the Holocaust and knew as little as anyone else about the death camps.

On the other hand, anyone dealing with the Nazis during that period would have known that some of their money was looted, just as anyone dealing with Al Capone would have known that all his bank deposits were not legitimately acquired.

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In that sense the Swiss put themselves in the position of potential receivers of stolen goods, much as one does when tapped on the shoulder and "Psst...," offered a brand-new Chanel outfit or genuine Rolex watch for half price. The question then becomes, should the Swiss have dealt with the Nazis at all?

Every country that wishes to stay neutral in a belligerent or morally reprehensive situation faces this question.

Switzerland was surrounded by countries under German occupation. Those of us far away from conflicts or nasty regimes can simply stick our tongues out at them. Once in a while, we restrict trade or decide not to sell some technology or arms, but on the whole we prefer not to know too much.

Has Canada stopped selling wheat to China after its extermination of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans? The contintent of Africa has been awash in blood for 50 years, while the West traded and subsidized its murderers.

Probably only Stalin can rival Hitler for murderous brutality, but no moral precepts stopped the West from dealing with Stalin when he exiled and murdered the Volga Germans or the Don Cossacks. When we sold wheat to the Soviet Union on credit, we never attempted to work out what portion of repayment came from the property of Gulag inhabitants.

Canada has now established a probe, headed by a Carleton University "financial historian" into our role in laundering Nazi gold. Our Bank of Canada might have swapped some dirty Portuguese gold for nice, clean Canadian gold. Even as this inquiry goes on, Canada not only trades with Cuba but positively juts out its chin with pride at dealing in property looted from Americans. Castro is no Hitler, but Fidel's concentration camps are no joy, either.

Banking laws vary. After 10 years of inactivity, a Swiss account is declared dormant until the depositor or heirs reactivate it. In Canada, Israel, or America, the state grabs dormant accounts.

The Swiss would have been better off to have established a fund for Holocaust victims long ago from such dormant accounts. But are the Swiss really so different from anyone else?

The key to all this is that most people try to do business as usual. They don't feel duty-bound to determine whether or not a garment was made by child labor in the Philippines or in India.

I'll bet that between 1946 and 1948 one could find a number of people in Central and Eastern Europe who, sensing an Iron Curtain descending, put their money into banks in the free West. Some of them were able to squeeze under that descending curtain and follow their money. But many more were trapped, and ended up in gulags. Who cares a fig about their dormant accounts?

None of this is right, and I'm not trying to whitewash the Swiss, only to say they are no different from anyone else.

* Barbara Amiel is a columnist for Maclean's, the Canadian weekly newsmagazine from which this article was excerpted.

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