speech by Prof. Jean-François Bergier at the press conference of
22 March 2002
(Check against Delivery)
The time has come for the final meeting between the press and the Independent
Commission of Experts - a Commission which, as you are well aware, itself
became a part of history three months ago. The members of the Commission
take pride in presenting you today with its Final Report - the Synthesis
of its historical research published simultaneously in four languages.
Yet today's meeting also provides us with an opportunity to express our
thanks to the representatives of the press, both Swiss and international,
as well as to the public at large for their unwaveringly devoted attention
to the activity of our Commission. These five years have been characterized
by a genuine dialogue, albeit one which perhaps has not always been marked
by the serenity that we would have hoped for. Indeed we were venturing
out onto a territory of highly charged and conflicting emotions. And it
is this emotional atmosphere which in fact bears witness to the importance
and the necessity of the task with which we were entrusted. Nonetheless,
the Commission was successful in pursing its course independently in whatever
The Synthesis we are presenting you today serves four purposes. It provides
a resumé of the results emerging from the full scope of our historical
research - as detailed in the twenty-five volumes of studies, research
contributions, and legal analyses -- so as to facilitate their availability
to the public, while at the same time highlighting the major findings.
As the very word «synthesis» implies, it strives to illustrate
the manner and the extent to which the various aspects studied are intertwined
and together form a complex yet indissoluble whole from which the meaning
of the individual parts draw their logic. It places our results within
their national and international context, within an environment, and within
a system - or rather within systems - of values and references in whose
face-to-face encounter over the years 1933 to 1945 lies the origin of
the tragedy. And lastly, this work serves as a reminder of the limits
our undertaking ran up against, of those questions that we were unable
to solve for lack of sources or lack of the time necessary to scrutinize
all of those which were available to us; it foreshadows the direction
for future research.
The five-year lifespan of the ICE was essentially consecrated to research
in the archives, both public and private. So there remained but a few
months for the task of writing this synthesis, translating it, and preparing
it for publication, all of which took place in rather peculiar and inconvenient
structural conditions for which the Federal Council bears the responsibility.
This explains why our final report falls short of the level of perfection
in form that we would like to have attained. Our rush has left its mark
on the editorial work and on the translations. They are not devoid of
redundancies and slight inconsistencies in terms of the evaluation of
the facts on the part of the different authors. In chapter II, for instance,
the 1946 Washington Accords are presented as a failure for Swiss diplomacy;
however in Chapter VII, they are characterized as a success. It boils
down to one's point of view, as in the image of the glass which is half-empty
for one person, but half-full for another
. Such instances of minor
incongruity are elements which are inherent to collective authorship.
We have preferred to make do with these imperfections and to keep to the
deadlines given us rather than to drag out our work in the pursuit of
what might well have been an illusory perfection.
And now, let us turn our attention to the heart of the matter. I am delighted
to point out - and this is something which in my opinion is most essential
- that the Commission in its entirety stands firmly behind this report.
For the major part, it has been written by the members themselves and
was subject to lengthy discussions and modifications before receiving
their seal of approval. Together, we take full responsibility for everything
that has been put down in this work. It is evident that every one of us,
had he or she been given the opportunity to write the report alone, would
have expressed himself or herself differently. We did not always agree
on the manner in which the facts should be presented or on how they should
be interpreted, but we were always able to come to a compromise and this,
I believe, in no way alters the validity of what is stated. Quite the
contrary. Be that as it may, we are in full agreement with the contents
of this book, its structure, and its conclusions.
As you know, we were not expressly commissioned to write a general history
of Switzerland during the Nazi era and beyond. Our task was to shed light
upon certain controversial or insufficiently analyzed aspects of this
history, aspects in which it appeared that Switzerland, that is to say
its political authorities and economic decision-makers, had perhaps been
derelict in assuming their responsibilities.
In fact, our research has led us to identify three areas in which there
were failures, even quite egregious failures, in carrying out these responsibilities.
The first is that of the Swiss government and its cantons' policy with
respect to the refugees. This is by far the most delicate area as it concerns
the lives of thousands of human beings. As other historians before us,
we were forced to acknowledge that this policy was excessively restrictive,
and uselessly so. The uncertainty as to the figures and the speculation
they give rise to, do nothing to alter the fact that a large number of
persons whose lives were in danger were turned away - needlessly. Others
were welcomed in, yet their human dignity was not always respected. The
courage of certain citizens along with their sense of justice, plus the
selfless commitment of large segments of the population succeeded in toning
down official policy. But they were unable to bend it. Yet the authorities
knew the fate that was in store for the victims. They also knew that a
more flexible and magnanimous attitude would not have generated consequences
of an unbearable nature either for the country's sovereignty or for it's
inhabitants' living standard however precarious it might have been at
the time. It is in this sense that we are obliged to sustain the affirmation,
perhaps provocative in form, but nonetheless in conformity with the facts:
the refugee policy of our authorities contributed to the most atrocious
of Nazi objectives - the Holocaust.
The second area which we must point out is that which regards the concessions
which the Federal state and a part of the private economy made to the
Axis powers. The issue is a delicate one. No one can call into question
that these concessions were necessary: Switzerland's economic and political
survival quite clearly depended on them. It may appear contradictory,
but a certain degree of cooperation with the Nazi economy constituted
an element of resistance to the clutches of the powerful German neighbor
and represented a component of national defense strategy. At the time,
it was difficult to judge just how far one could go without venturing
too far. Still, we have established that we oftentimes did go too far
both in Bern and at the head offices of certain companies - certain, but
not all. This demonstrates that there existed a certain amount of maneuvering
leeway, and that this leeway was diversely and largely inconsistently
identified and utilized. There were no instances at all in which our research
revealed any cooperation that may have been based on ideological motivation
or some type of sympathy for the Nazi regime either on the part of our
public institutions or on that of Swiss companies. Businesses saw the
chance to make a profit; others, like the Federal state itself, viewed
their actions as a condition for survival. However, cooperation was not
consonant with the strict respect of Swiss neutrality. A neutrality to
be preached in official statements, one which serves at times to legitimize
improper actions or refusals to act. A maxim for any and every situation.
And still, one which looks on as the duties imposed by neutrality law
are twisted out of shape: the so-called billion-franc credit, the shipments
of federal war materials, and the lack of appropriate control of the railway
traffic between Germany and Italy are the most conspicuous examples.
Finally, the third area of responsibilities that were inadequately discharged
is that which concerns the issue of restitution once the war had ended.
Neither the Swiss Confederation by virtue of its insufficient and inadequate
legal provisions, nor the private sector of industry, banks, insurance
and trust companies, art galleries and museums, accorded the matter its
due importance by undertaking in a timely manner the measures necessary
for the legitimate beneficiaries to regain possession of their assets.
There is no maliciousness at the origin of this shortcoming, nor is it
to be imputed to a desire to capitalize on the misfortune of the victims.
First and foremost, it was due to negligence and to the non-recognition
of a problem which was at best perceived as marginal; or even more, due
to a concern for safeguarding the strategic trump card of discretion,
namely banking secrecy. This is the policy which led to the existence
of what we call "heirless assets" or "dormant accounts"
and which is at the root of the property claims along with the problems
of Switzerland's image and history, problems which Switzerland was forced
to confront in recent years since it had neglected to do so back when
the time was ripe for them to be resolved.
The issues that I have just mentioned, however, are not the only ones
which we have endeavored to elucidate. There are many others attached
to them, for instance the use of some 11,000 forced laborers in Swiss
production plants located in Nazi Germany, the camouflage of German and
Italian interest, the transit of Nazi funds (as well as Nazi criminals
in flight), and so on and so forth.
Moreover, the last word has not been said on all of these issues, nor
have they been resolved in a full and definitive manner. Research must
continue. Henceforth, it must go beyond the limits of national horizons
and be conducted on a universal scale. For indeed the majority of questions
which justifiably merit our concern are indifferent to national borders;
they elude the limited vantage points of each individual nation concerned.
The ICE has ceased to exist. But its members continue to be present, vigilant
lest the momentum attained here and elsewhere begins to falter.