History offers moral lessons
March 28, 2000
By BRUCE EDWARDS Rutland Herald
For several decades following World War II, the questionable business ties countries had with Nazi Germany have remained hidden or forgotten, only to resurface of late as governments began to declassify documents.
That issue has become an especially sensitive one for Switzerland, as that nation, long proud of its "neutrality" during the war, confronts accusations that its banks helped bankroll the Nazi war effort. Most controversial has been the role of Swiss banks in connection with looted Nazi gold and dormant bank accounts of Holocaust victims.
To deal with the scandal, Switzerland established the Bergier Commission, which is looking into various issues relating to the country's role during the war, including its economic ties to Germany. During an interview in December 1998 at the Holocaust Symposium in Washington, commission Chairman Jean-Francois Bergier said this examination was important for historical reasons.
"History has no end. I'm a specialist in Medieval history and I'm very interested in commercial trade, financial transactions in the 14th and 15th century. Why not in the 20th century?" Bergier asked.
In addition, Bergier said World War II was such a horrific period in history that it needed to be documented.
Bergier said his commission was not only examining direct trade between Swiss firms and Germany, but also the business connections of Swiss subsidiary firms in Germany and the occupied countries. Former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Madeleine M. Kunin said there is a need to revisit the past because there remain questions that need to be answered.
"I think we still don't have all the answers to why the Holocaust and World War II happened and who played a part either directly or indirectly," said Kunin, who served as ambassador to Switzerland during the recent controversy over Holocaust assets and dormant bank accounts.
Kunin also said there are moral lessons to be learned.
"We can try to learn that we have to ask these moral questions at the time, instead of 55 years later," said Kunin, who now teaches at Middlebury College.
During the war, Switzerland - which politically was vehemently opposed to Hitler and fascism - was surrounded by Germany and German-occupied countries. Although critics charge that Swiss trade with Germany during the war was excessive and helped prolong the war, the Swiss argue they had little choice but to trade with their belligerent neighbor.
Bergier pointed out that long before the war Switzerland and Germany had long-standing economic ties. And he noted his country also traded with the Allies during the war. The Bergier Commission is expected to complete its work in 2001.
Pluess-Staufer, the parent company of Vermont's Pluess-Staufer Industries and OMYA Inc., certainly was not alone in conducting business with Germany during the war. Many companies in both neutral and German-occupied countries had no choice but to trade with Germany in order to survive. In Pluess-Staufer's case, company officials say the Swiss parent company conducted no direct trade with Germany during the war. At the same time, while its subsidiary companies in France and Germany had long-standing ties with Germany that predated the war, relatively few firms, like Pluess-Staufer's French subsidiary, were ever formally accused of collaboration.
Economic collaboration during the war wasn't limited to the Swiss, of course. A number of companies in other neutral countries - Sweden, Spain and Portugal - were also involved. Even some U.S. companies continued their lucrative business ties with German firms.
Charles Higham, author of the 1983 book, "Trading With the Enemy," said there is more than just a historical lesson to be learned from how companies conducted themselves during the war.
"Well, first of all to ignore the moral issue here is nonsensical. If we ignore the moral issues of history we might as well give up completely our whole civilization because if we can't think historically then we have no past. And by definition our present is hopelessly corrupted," Higham said during a telephone interview last year from his Los Angeles home.
Higham also argued that there are those who would like to forget the past because they "find the past inconvenient."