Friday, April 8, 2011

Review of The Swiss, The Gold and The Dead by Jean Ziegler (Penguin, 1997)

Switzerland, despite being neutral, played an important role in the Second World War. A very profitable role. Through both its national and private banks it helped finance the Nazi war machine by laundering German and looted gold and allowing them to purchase much needed raw materials from other countries. Manganese, tungsten, chromium, iron ore and diamonds, all essential for armament manufacture, and oil vital for logistics, all had to be bought on the world market and imported, in a market that shunned the Reichsmark but welcomed the Swiss Franc. The Swiss also allowed the Germans to re-arm and transfer troops in Italy using the Swiss rail network, and they actively refused entry to refugees fleeing from all over Europe for sanctuary, handing them back into the hands of the Gestapo. After the war, Swiss banks made it all but impossible for the relatives of those whose assets were stolen and lodged in the country to be retrieved, holding onto them for their own gain.

Ziegler’s book documents these issues and sets them in the context of Swiss history more broadly and the period of the war. It is somewhat odd book in terms of its structuring and tone. The book seems to jump around an awful lot and it could have done with some restructuring and consolidation. The first chapter labours the point about the Swiss facing up to the decisions and actions of the previous generation, forwarding a moral line. This is revisited throughout the text and really seems to be overdone. And yet, the reason for such caution and explanation is revealed in the afterword. On September 20th 1998, Ziegler – a Professor of Sociology and five time elected official of the National Council of the Swiss Confederation (and subsequently appointed to the UN Human Rights Council) - received a communication from the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office informing him that he was being charged with ‘treason’ infringing the ‘independence of Switzerland, and promoting foreign undertakings directed against the security of Switzerland’. Writing and talking about the history of Switzerland can clearly be a fraught undertaking, especially when many – including very large and powerful banks who fear having to return gold reserves – want that history suppressed and forgotten. In that sense, Ziegler’s book is an important one. Given the relatively limited sources he had access to, and the moral and ethical landscape he was trying to operate in, it would be good to read another, more up to date account. This is an interesting starting point, though not always for the right reasons.

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