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Switzerland And The Jews: A Realistic Assessment

My parents arrived as Austrian Jewish refugees in Switzerland almost exactly sixty years ago.

Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

She has been here with me several times already, over almost thirty years, on various vacations that we remember with considerable affection and pleasure.

But now we need to be entirely honest about Switzerland in World War II. Not all Jewish refugees had the good fortune to be rescued here. There were grave mistakes, very grave, and also examples of complete indifference.

Thousands of other Jews did not share my parents’ relative good luck. Many were not the beneficiaries of the same relatively benign work camp experience. And thousands of others did not experience the same comforting history of particular Swiss friendships and concerns.

We know also, of course, that Swiss banks and insurance companies often held on to money that was not properly theirs, and that they dealt commercially with Nazi Germany in ways that prolonged the war and the Holocaust. No one has any right to excuse these wrongs.

But this is not a perfect world, hindsight is always easy, and there is no real justice in identifying Switzerland as in some way uniquely delinquent.

If anything, at least in a substantial number of cases, Switzerland was altogether decent – mistakes and indifference notwithstanding – and, ironically, the far greater wrongdoings of other nations are today sometimes more eagerly overlooked. Recently, a Jewish neighbor of mine in Indiana commented: “The Swiss were even worse than the Germans.” This is an outrageous remark, not only for its inexcusable penchant for generalization, but also because of its total and obvious inaccuracy.

In the United States, a country that first prevented my parents’ entry back in 1938, effective neutrality did not end until December 7, 1941, and even fewer Jews were ultimately admitted than were allowed entry into Switzerland. After the war, the U.S. government encouraged entry of certain Nazi war criminals and Nazi scientists while consciously excluding Jewish concentration camp survivors. I say this now as a loyal and patriotic citizen of the United States, not with any malice or mean-spiritedness, but simply as an objective recitation of historical events.

America was not innocent.

Let me shift from the historical to the philosophical. In the final analysis, no nation is either good or bad. Nations are always comprised of individuals, and it is only those individuals who are either good or bad.

Always, nations are abstractions; it is an elementary error of logic to ascribe human qualities (goodness or badness) to an abstraction.

The strength of Switzerland as a state must always lie in the cumulative strength of its people as individuals. To the extent that Switzerland nurtures and sustains a sense of authentic individualism among its citizens, it can make the greatest overall contribution to a decent and just world order.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once remarked: “There is no longer a virtuous nation, and the best of us live by candle light.” But there has never really been a virtuous nation, only more or less virtuous individuals who comprise a nation. The ultimate responsibility, for Switzerland, and for every other country concerned with justice after World War II, is to encourage a national spirit that is patriotic but one that is also deeply human-centered.

Fulfilled worldwide, this responsibility would ultimately make unnecessary the sort of exile once endured by my parents, and also by literally countless others, who now sleep in the dust.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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