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Europe

Switzerland Faced with Unsavoury Past

An independent commission has concluded that Switzerland shirked its moral responsibilities to victims of the Nazi Holocaust and cloaked itself in neutrality to justify business as usual with the Axis powers.

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Jean-Francois Bergier, President of the Independent Commission of Experts on Switzerland-Second World War (ICE)

Is Switzerland really as neutral a country as widely believed?

Not if a just published 600-page-long study commissioned by the Swiss government is to be trusted.

The independent investigation into Switzerland's wartime past has unearthed extensive Swiss co-operation with Nazi Germany, the failure of its wartime refugee policy to help thousands and a failure to return wealth to its rightful owners at the end of the war.

The controversial study is now at the centre of a heated national debate in Switzerland.

The Bergier commission, set up by the Swiss Parliament in 1996 to examine Swiss relations with the Axis powers, claims that Swiss authorities covertly co-operated with Nazi Germany which helped to prolong the Second World War.

The nine members of the commission who come from Switzerland, Britain, the United States and Israel have spent five years researching and digging up skeletons from Switzerland's murky wartime past.

"Hitler's Bankers" and Collaborators in Crime?

Among other allegations, they say that Swiss authorities contributed to the funding and expansion of the Nazi economy by striking trade and financial agreements with Germany.

Swiss banks, they say, provided interest-free credit to the Axis powers and willing allowed the Nazis to trade their gold for the valuable Swiss franc. This allowed the Nazis to buy machinery and even war material from Switzerland.

But one of the most unsettling discoveries according to the Bergier commission is Switzerland's "excessively restrictive" refugee policy.

Auschwitz Holocaust Gedenktag

Pasa Balter, fourth from left, stands among a group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing as they were liberated from the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, by Russian soldiers in 1945. Balter, who is now known as Paula Lebovics, is 61 and living in Encino, Calif., a survivor who bears the heartbreak of having lost most of her family. Germany on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002, observes the country's Holocaust memorial day in memory of victims of the Nazis, which was declared a special day of reflection by President Roman Herzog in 1996. (AP Photo/ho)

In April 1942, Switzerland sealed off its borders to Jews fleeing the Nazi regime despite being aware of the existence of concentration camps such as Auschwitz, the report states.

"We were forced to acknowledge that a large number of persons whose lives were in danger were turned away. Yet the authorities knew what was in store for the victims", the report reads.

"The refugee policy of our authorities contributed to the most atrocious of Nazi objectives - the Holocaust".

But not everyone is buying the damning report of the Bergier commission.

Several right-wing groups have lashed out at the report and criticise that the commission was not an impartial body as it had too many Jewish members and left-wing historians.

"We don't accept this report. We do not like to have a report of a state-sponsored commission which finally fixes history and decides this is the historical truth", Pierre Schifferli, the Vice President of the Geneva People's Party told the BBC.