Neutrality, when practiced by nations, is not always neutral. It does not preclude involvement in international affairs, or even partisanship. According to international law, there are varying kinds of neutrality. For example, Switzerland adopted "differentiated" neutrality in 1920, a decision which indicated a willingness to employ economic sanctions to communicate disapprobation of another nation; in 1938 the Swiss embraced "integral," or supposedly unconditional, neutrality.
Despite the apparent precision of these legal terms, neutrality for Switzerland during World War II, as well as for the other continental European countries that claimed neutral status during that period -- Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and the Vatican -- can best be summed up by the phrase, self-interested noncombatant. 1 These nations shared the common objectives of preserving relative independence in foreign policy and resisting encroachment into domestic affairs. But the costs were high: Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal and Spain, at certain points, deserved the unpleasant label -- to borrow the title from Donald Waters' book on Switzerland -- "Hitler's Secret Ally." 2 From a late-twentieth century perspective, these nations can be seen to have occupied a grey area on the continuum between black complicity with the Third Reich and white resistance to the Nazi regime. What is striking about this in relation to Switzerland is not only that it puts that country on a par with fascist Spain, but that it challenges a pervasive myth the Swiss have about their wartime virtue and innocence. Indeed, the Swiss are tainted not just by their collaboration with the Reich, but by their postwar failure to confront a problematic past. To comprehend the magnitude of this "taint," it is necessary both to understand Switzerland's degree of involvement in Nazi crimes, and to place that involvement in the context of the wartime behaviour of the other three "neutrals".
The Swiss and the Nazi Regime
The Swiss bolstered the Nazi regime in many ways, ways that can be summarized by the following categories: border policies, opportunities for trade, and financial transactions. Behavior in all of these categories was either immoral or amoral, but Switzerland's closing of escape routes over its border is probably the most troubling. Because the Swiss feared that the appearance of "softness" with respect to its borders adjoining Nazi Germany would be an incentive for Hitler to attack (to undertake "Operation Tannenbaum"), they were highly vigilant in guarding against those attempting to cross those borders into Switzerland without the appropriate visas. The Swiss did establish a series of internment camps during the war to provide sanctuary for a precious few: 200,000 refugees of whom 20,000 were Jews. 3 The Swiss Jewish community and other organizations were then charged a head tax to support them. 4 Many others who were fleeing the Nazis were turned away by the Swiss -- 30,000 Jews in 1942 alone were denied entry. 5 Very often, those who sought sanctuary were apprehended by Swiss authorities and then delivered either to the Germans themselves, or, in the case of refugees trying to enter Switzerland from France, to officials of the collaborationist Vichy government. Moreover, it was the Swiss, specifically the head of the Federal Justice and Police Department, Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, who suggested to the Reich in 1938 that German Jews have their passports stamped with a red letter J. Rothmund is also credited with coining the now-famous phrase, "the lifeboat is full." 6 The tradition of Swiss asylum, then, was effectively undermined during this period. 7
Switzerland did not guard its borders solely to placate the Germans: many individual Swiss citizens happened to harbour racist and xenophobic sentiments. 8 Although the Swiss Nazi movement was quite small -- it numbered only a few thousand -- and the party was even temporarily banned in 1936 to prevent disturbances after the assassination of Landesgruppenleiter Wilhelm Gustloff by a Jewish student, many Swiss were quite sympathetic to the racial agenda of the National Socialists. There were a variety of indigenous fascist parties, such as the Nationale Front and the Eidgenössische Soziale Arbeiter-Partei. Additionally, the Auslandsorganisation der NSDAP (Foreign Organization of the Nazi Party) was active in Switzerland, exploiting attitudes that were "anti-Jewish, anti-Free Mason, anti-Marxist, anti-pacifist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal." 9
And despite the paucity of support for the idea of joining Hitler's Reich, there were many Swiss who envisioned some kind of role for Switzerland in the Nazi New Order. 10
The second way that Switzerland sustained the Reich was through trade ventures with the Nazi regime; these undertakings can best be summarized as cynical opportunism. Because Nazi government officials dominated Germany's foreign trade -- the "New Plan" conceived by Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht in 1934 centralized economic policy and gave the Reich government control over imports and exports as well as precious foreign currency -- trade with Germany effectively meant doing business with the Nazi leaders themselves. The Germans traded their coal for Swiss steel (among other products); Swiss armament producers, such as Oerlikon (known for multibarrel antiaircraft guns), also sent their wares northward. Swiss rail officials cooperated completely with the Nazi government: "[T]hrough the transalpine lifeline of Switzerland's St. Gotthard rail tunnel flowed supplies between the Axis partners Germany and Italy." 11 As far as rail transport was concerned, Switzerland was effectively part of the Greater German Reich.
The immorality of Swiss trade policies with respect to Germany can, perhaps, best be seen in the way the two nations collaborated together to traffic in works of art. These transactions, as with so many business deals involving Switzerland and the Reich, put Swiss businessmen in direct contact with prominent Nazis. The Lucerne art dealer Theodor Fischer, for example, who held two auctions (in June and August 1939) of modern art purged from German state museums, corresponded directly with Martin Bormann in the party Chancellery, Josef Göbbels in the Propaganda Ministry, and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, among other important individuals. Furthermore, Fischer often dealt with the German art dealers who catered to the Nazi leaders, such as the Berliner Karl Haberstock. Using a favourite strategy of Swiss businessmen, Fischer entered into a partnership with a German dealer -- C. W. Bümming of Darmstadt -- which facilitated transfers of art and money between the two countries. 12 Needless to say, Fischer profited handsomely from these transactions. 13 Besides Swiss art dealers, other Swiss citizens and institutions also exploited the traffic in art between Switzerland and Nazi Germany. The Kunstmuseum Basel, for example, took advantage of the favourable deals engendered by the Nazis' sale of state-owned modern art. At the Lucerne auction of June 1939, the institution's director, Georg Schmidt, purchased eight works banished from German museums. 14 Showing support for this sordid Nazi venture, and profiting from it, evinced a certain mindset.
As the war progressed and Switzerland emerged as one of the centres of the international art market, the Swiss dealers altered their areas of specialization to better serve their Nazi clientele. One Office of Strategic Services (OSS) report noted, for example, that "[t]he normal Swiss market had never been interesting to Göring because it offered mostly Impressionists and Modern Art. However, during the war, there appeared suddenly a large number of pictures of the German school and it was in Switzerland that he bought his best Cranachs. . . .The Swiss import taxes for works of art were almost non-existent and the prospect of payment in Swiss francs, one of the most stable currencies, made this a most attractive proposition." 15 Göring's art agent, Walter Andreas Hofer, reported that "many of the objects which were proposed to him by middlemen were located in the banks, which he describes as being 'full of pictures.'" 16 The collusion of Swiss bankers in this commerce with Nazi leaders should come as no surprise by this point. Important Nazis used German officials stationed in Switzerland to transfer funds and transport objects in the diplomatic pouch. OSS investigators, for example, found that Consul Rieckman of the German legation in Bern "received funds and pictures from Berlin for delivery to Hofer in Bern. [He] also sent pictures through the diplomatic pouch to Berlin." 17
Because of the Germans' need for foreign currency and their hostility toward modern art, they were eager to dispatch impressionist and expressionist paintings to Switzerland. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of German-Swiss art trafficking involved works looted from French Jews by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (this was a plundering unit, under the leadership of the Nazi "philosopher" Alfred Rosenberg, that stole cultural property from "enemies" of National Socialism throughout occupied Europe. 18 Paintings belonging to the dealer Paul Rosenberg, as well as to such prominent families as the Rothschilds, Levy-Benzions, Kanns, and Lindenbaums, were traded to Swiss dealers for more ideologically acceptable old masters and German nineteenth-century paintings. One transaction, in 1942, involved Göring and his agent Hofer, and the Swiss dealer Hans Wendland. Göring received Rembrandt's Portrait of an Old Man with a Beard and two sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries in exchange for 28 impressionist and postimpressionist works, 16 of which came from Paul Rosenberg's plundered collection. The works traded by Göring included paintings by Corot, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Seurat. It should be stated that this deal violated Swiss laws. It should also be stated that these laws were frequently ignored by Swiss citizens -- by corrupt art dealers, to be sure, but also by others. OSS reports detailed the illicit trafficking in art by such prominent Swiss as Herr Buerhle, the primary owner of the Oerlikon armaments factory. 19
There were financial transactions involving Switzerland and the Third Reich's looted gold, and Swiss banks and the deposited assets of Jewish Holocaust victims; Swiss bankers accepted deposits from Nazi leaders of vast sums of both currency and gold. Hitler appears to have placed revenues derived from the sale of Mein Kampf in a Swiss bank, and a December 10, 1941 report from the British embassy in Washington to the U.S. Treasury Department noted that "every leading member of the governing groups in all the Axis countries have funds in Switzerland. Some have fortunes." 20 A Nazi official responsible for foreign exchanges estimated after the war that German assets worth 15 billion Reichsmarks entered Switzerland. 21 Some of these assets were expropriated from Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and some of the gold sent to Switzerland was looted from the reserves of conquered European countries.
By 1942 there were only 9,150 foreign Jews legally resident in Switzerland, 980 more than in 1931. Many of these were the richer Jews who had fled Germany leaving behind their shops, factories and other properties. These were quickly snapped up, dirt cheap, by unscrupulous Swiss businessmen who made their fortunes out of Jewish miseries.
Switzerland remained un-invaded.
In March 1943, Swiss General Henri Guisan made a formal pledge to the chief of the German SD to fight against the Allies if they tried to use Swiss airspace as a corridor. During the war 6 USAAF aircraft were shot down by the Swiss Air Force, and 4 USAAF aircraft were shot down by Swiss anti-aircraft batteries, resulting in 22 American KIA.
On a bombing raid on German military installations near the German/Swiss border on April 1, 1944, a force of 23 B-24 bombers from the USAF 392nd Bombardment Group, on its 59th mission, inadvertently entered Swiss air-space and owing to a navigational error mistakenly bombed the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. Fifty Swiss civilians were killed. The real target was to have been the chemical works at Ludwigshafen, 120 miles away. In 1949, the US agreed to pay $64 million in compensation. This was an attempt to secure Switzerland as an ally in the 'Cold War'. The greedy Swiss demanded that interest be paid on the $64 million, claiming that the damaged property had not been able to earn any money since the bombing. This demand was rejected.
The British Royal Air Force also flouted Swiss neutrality a couple of times and attempted to bomb a ball-bearing factory in Basel suspected of producing ball bearings for the German Army but both times the bombs missed the target. During the war a total of 167 American bombers and 12 British bombers made emergency landings in Switzerland. Severely damaged in combat over Germany and unable to return to their bases in England their only alternative was to head for neutral Switzerland. In one day, on March 18, 1944, no less than eleven American bombers made emergency landings at the Dubendorf airfield. The crews were interned by the Swiss authorities in camps at Adelboden, Grippen, Les Diablerets and in the notorious punishment camp at Wauwilermoos (for escapees). They were supposed to be treated like POW's under the rules of war but in many cases living conditions were little better than German concentration camps.
Over 1,500 USAAF aircrew were interned in Switzerland during World War II, and approximately 600 of these internees were illegally incarcerated in Swiss dungeons, punishment or concentration camps for trying to escape. These soldiers were held for months without trial, adequate food or sanitary conditions, medical care or contact with the ICRC. Some were beaten up, others were tortured, and several died. Consequently, this was classified for about the next 30 years in the U.S. When Swiss President Casper Villiger publicly apologized for this treatment in 1995, he explained that Switzerland committed these acts to doubly convince the Nazis that they were not giving out "preferential treatment."
When the French 45th Army Corps was encircled by General Guderian's armour in France in 1940, the Corps, consisting of 45,000 men was forced to seek refuge in neutral Switzerland. The 12,000 Poles who had enlisted in the Corps, remained interned until the end of the war. All the others, including 29,000 Frenchmen and Moroccans were repatriated in 1941 under an agreement between Germany and Vichy France.
Sweden, like Switzerland, was also deeply concerned about possible German aggression (especially after the occupation of Denmark and Norway, and Finland's entry into the war on the side of the Axis). Some of its policies toward the Reich are open to criticism, but the Swedes acted commendably by providing a safe haven for Danish Jews, and they gradually extricated themselves from Germany's political and economic network after 1943. Judging Sweden by the three categories used to judge Switzerland -- border policies, trade and finance -- we can assert the following. First, though the Swedes permitted the Germans to transport freight through northern Sweden, the nation's border policies were more humane than Switzerland's when it came to the question of refugees. Sweden's crowning achievement, as just noted, was to permit nearly 8,000 Jewish refugees to enter in 1943, and then to protect them. Additionally, approximately 44,000 Norwegians escaped the harsh Nazi occupation of their country by being smuggled into Sweden. 22 Raoul Wallenberg's efforts to rescue Jews in Hungary in 1944 -- he saved upwards of 20,000 Jews from deportation and death by providing them with Swedish passports -- also helped maintain his nation's honour. The Swiss counterpart of Wallenberg was Carl Lutz, who also worked as a diplomat in Budapest during the war and saved Jewish lives by providing protective passports; but Lutz was reprimanded by his government "for having overstepped his authority." 23
However, when it came to trade with the Nazi regime, the Swedes, for a period of time, accommodated themselves to the Reich to an even greater extent than the Swiss did. The Swedish economy was, for a number of years, almost fully integrated into the Nazis' New Order; the country supplied Germany with high-grade iron ore (30 percent of that used by the German armaments industry), as well as ball bearings, foodstuffs, wood, and many other raw materials. In matters of finance, the Swedes cooperated with Germany by providing credit, which allowed the delivery of vast quantities of military equipment to the Wehrmacht. Moreover, after the war, the Swedish central bank, the Riksbank, "examined gold it had received from the Nazis in payment for exports and returned about 13 tons that presumably had been stolen [from] Belgium and the Netherlands." 24
The Swedes believed, at least for the first years of the war, that cooperation with Germany was necessary to preserve a precarious neutrality. But after 1943 the Swedish government, heeding Allied warnings about neutrals doing business with Germany, detached the country from the German "political and commercial web," and gradually established closer ties with the Allies. 25 There is no doubt that for several years Sweden put its considerable economic resources at the disposal of the Reich; but its behaviour in the latter stages of the war removed much of the stigma of collaboration.
In recent years there has been considerable discussion in Sweden about the dimensions of the nation's "neutrality" during World War II the war.
And there was mixed response from Swedish authorities regarding the plight of European Jewry. Sweden accepted only 3,000 Jews during the years 1933 to 1939; another 1,000 were allowed to use Sweden as a transit stop.
Swedish hostility to refugees moderated by 1942, when the extent of Nazi barbarism was clear. First, Sweden allowed the immigration of 900 Norwegian Jews in 1942. Then some 8,000 Danish Jews, transported in a flotilla of small fishing boats, found refuge in Sweden in October of 1943.
In the post-war period, Jewish Holocaust survivors were brought to Sweden for rehabilitation. However, Swedish military authorities also arranged for some 1,200 refugees from the Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — to enter Sweden, and it has been revealed that many of those immigrants were Nazi collaborators.