A five-year study has made clear that Swiss authorities in World War II knew the fate awaiting Jewish refugees turned back at the border and thus contributed to "the most atrocious of Nazi objectives — the Holocaust," a leading historian said Friday.
"Large numbers of persons whose lives were in danger were turned away — needlessly," said Jean-Francois Bergier, who led an international panel of historians given unprecedented access to government and company archives. "Others were welcomed in, yet their human dignity was not always respected."
Bergier spoke to reporters as he released the final installments of the 26-volume study. Many of the hardest-hitting findings had already been disclosed as the study progressed, but Bergier's overview singled out the most "egregious failures" in the small neutral Alpine country's tightrope walk on the edge of Nazism.
Courageous Swiss individuals and "large segments of the population" were able to tone down government policy toward the refugees "but they were unable to bend it," Bergier said, summing up the 11,494-page report.
"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," he said.
The historians were unable to pin down the exact number of refugees who were rejected, said Bergier. Previously historians have estimated that about 30,000 Jews were turned back to be captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps, where most died. About the same number were allowed into Switzerland, the estimates have said.
The research discredited the "boat is full" policy of some wartime Swiss officials, who claimed the small country was unable to take in and feed more refugees without being swamped.
Swiss authorities "knew that a more flexible and magnanimous attitude" would have been bearable for citizens' living standards, "however precarious it might have been at the time."
Switzerland, surrounded by the Nazis and their allies, had to make some concessions to the Germans in order to survive the war, and it was difficult at the time to tell how far they had to go, the historians concluded.
"Still we established that we often did go too far, both in (the capital) Bern and at the head offices of certain companies," said Bergier.
No evidence emerged, however, that either Swiss companies or government officials acted out of pro-Nazi leanings, he said. Rather, "businesses saw the chance to make a profit. Others, like the federal state itself, viewed their actions as a condition for survival."
Switzerland's governing cabinet, the Federal Council, issued a statement Friday acknowledging that the wartime leaders had sometimes failed to meet their humanitarian responsibilities and saying the government had already apologized.
"These failures were already known to the Federal Council, and it sought forgiveness for them in 1995," the statement said, referring to an apology to Jews read by the Swiss president on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The third main conclusion of the study was that Swiss government, banks, companies and art museums failed to respond "in a timely manner" to Nazi victims' claims for restitution after the war.
"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," Bergier said.
It was mainly because the Swiss perceived the problem as only marginal and because some wanted to preserve banking secrecy, he said.
The study, which involved historians from Switzerland, the United States, Israel, Britain and Poland, was commissioned by the Swiss government following criticism from Jewish groups in the mid-1990s that Swiss banks had withheld from heirs the assets of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
As a result of separate legal action in the United States, the major Swiss banks have reached a $1.25 billion settlement with Jewish claimants.
Three of the four parties in the ruling coalition welcomed the report, but as a thorough examination of the past that gives lessons for the future. But the nationalist Swiss People's Party said it was disappointed in the report, which it said paid too little attention to Switzerland's situation during the war.
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