The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

  • By Paige Baschuk
  • 4 July 2022

When a mysterious shipment of $200 million in Russian gold showed up in Switzerland this spring – months after the country announced it would impose tough sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine – Swiss gold refineries were quick to play the “not it” game. The public has had a hard time believing their innocence, because something about it feels familiar.

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

There is a mystery surrounding three tons of gold which arrived from Russia in May.

More than seventy years after World War II, Switzerland is still known as the country that stored Nazi gold when almost no one else would touch it. Although Swiss officials at the time say everything was done in the name of neutrality, their actions have not aged well.

Which begs the question: how will Switzerland’s response to the Ukrainian war be written in future history books?

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

A German-Swiss border during World War II.

Neutrality at its worst: World War II

Often referred to as the “darkest time” in Switzerland by local historians, World War II tested Switzerland’s neutrality in ways that World War I did not. While Switzerland’s neutrality during WWI transformed the country into a haven for pacifist groups and artists, Switzerland’s neutrality during WWII was all about money, thanks to the changes in the Swiss banking industry during the interwar period.

In 1934, the Swiss Banking Act was passed which allowed for the creation of anonymous numbered bank accounts. While this allowed Jews to hide their assets from being seized under the newly established Third Reich in Germany, it also allowed Nazis to create bank accounts.

Amid Ukrainian war, Switzerland is pushed to define neutrality

Sanctions in the WWII era

When war finally did break out in 1939, the Allied Powers were quick to enact sanctions on Nazi Germany – much like how the western world has responded to Russia in 2022. Except, Switzerland did not participate then, claiming neutrality prevented them from doing so.

The tough Allied sanctions were effective. It blockaded Germany from importing supplies like food and rendered the German Reichsmark practically worthless. The chokehold on Adolf Hitler would have been effective if it had not been for Russia and Switzerland.

In February 1940, Russia agreed to supply Germany with wheat, oil, cotton, soy beans and other badly needed materials. In return, Germany supplied Russia with military tanks, aircraft, locomotives, generators and turbines. By the end of March, Germany was in such desperate need of the food order from Russia that Hitler paused his Blitzkrieg to prioritize Russian shipments of cereal.

Switzerland expands sanctions against Russia

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

Another strange item from Switzerland’s WW2 brand of neutrality — they took prisoners of war from both sides.

A Nazi treasure hunt

Meanwhile, Hitler signed into law the legal appropriation of all goods from Jewish people. While many atrocities from the Holocaust were unknown until after the war, this law made headlines around Europe and was known in Switzerland. The Nazis began plundering Jewish homes for art, jewelry and countless other valuables; but they still needed actual money to pay for raw materials and continue funding their war.

This is where the Swiss bankers came in.

Mark Pieth, historian and author of Gold Laundering: The dirty secrets of the gold trade, writes that the Swiss were happy to exchange the gold for Swiss francs, which was the only transferable currency outside of the American dollar during WWII.

About 80% of Nazi gold went to Switzerland, and the rest of it was funneled through Turkey, Italy, Portugal and a few other minor players. Roughly 90% of the gold that went to Switzerland was deposited in the Swiss National Bank and the remaining 10% went to smaller, commercial banks, according to Pieth. The gold came from Jews and also the reserves of banks in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The Swiss paid about CHF 1.7 billion, effectively laundering stolen gold to fund Hitler’s war.

The average Swiss citizen had no idea about how much Nazi money was being funneled through Switzerland, but the bankers, businessmen and politicians were aware. Many powerful Swiss business were openly in favor of the Nazi movement and a number of Swiss businesses removed Jews from their board of directors as early as the 1930s. In the mid-1930s it was proposed that Jewish people with Swiss passports should have a “J” printed on their documents to distinguish them, although that legislation never went through. Throughout the war Swiss Army rangers were tasked with patrolling the borders of Switzerland to turn away any Jewish people fleeing Nazi persecution from other parts of Europe.

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

A famous image of Swiss Army men guarding the Alps during World War II.

Funding a war

Without the continued help of Switzerland, the Nazis would have definitely run out of money, ammunition and food in 1944, according to German historian Willie Korte. But the Swiss banks continued to answer the demands of their Nazi customers by selling gold to other countries and handing over the profits to the Nazis in Swiss francs.

The tragic reality is that from mid-1944 to the end of the war in 1945, the Nazis made some of their most horrific moves. During this time period they sent more than 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz alone, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers who died fighting.

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

The Holocaust memorial in Berlin is meant to mirror the staggering number of people killed.

After the war

In 1945, the Allied Forces demanded Swiss banks hand over any remaining funds from the Nazis. The Swiss banks resisted, citing their protective banking laws, but the Washington Agreement of 1946 forced them to comply. That year they gave back more than $60 million to the victims and their families of the war.

Meanwhile, Credit Suisse was aiding fleeing Nazis who escaped to South America; and, they honored the bank accounts that they left behind, according to an investigation. An Argentinian report found that at least 12,000 Nazis in Argentina maintained accounts at Credit Suisse. The issue of how much money has been transferred from Swiss banks to escaped Nazis may never be known entirely, but a 1990s investigation found that it was ‘unprecedented.’

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

The iconic Zürich headquarters of the Swiss National Bank.

What is left behind

Some Jewish families who had deposited their own money into Swiss banks before the war say they were turned away when they tried to withdraw from their accounts after the war ended. One Holocaust survivor testified at a U.S. Senate hearing that a Swiss bank demanded a death certificate for a family member in order to make a withdrawal. She said the concentration camp where the family member died did not provide death certificates.

In 1962, a law went into effect forcing Swiss banks to identify dormant accounts that had been held by Jews before the war. Swiss banks paid another $15 million to Holocaust survivors.

In 1998, an investigation made by the World Jewish Council revealed that at least 100 tons of gold went into Swiss banks, but only 4 tons were ever recovered. The investigation focused on the prevalence of “Zahngold” or gold ingots made by the Nazis from gold dental fillings pulled from Jewish corpses.

Switzerland responded to the World Jewish Council’s report by settling $1.25 billion with more than 500,000 Holocaust victims – the money came from Credit Suisse, The Swiss National Bank, UBS, and Nestlé, among other Swiss companies who cooperated with Nazi Germany.

As recently as 2015, more stolen Nazi treasure was discovered when the son of Hitler’s art curator died in Munich. More than 1,200 works of art including those of Pablo Picasso and Pierre August Renoir were found in his apartment. He named the Bern Art Museum as his heir.

Tracing Nazi gold through Switzerland

A woman pauses at one of the unofficial memorials in Geneva to Holocaust survivors who made it to Switzerland. In 2021, discussions began to create an official Holocaust memorial in Switzerland. (Credit: Martial Trezzini)

“The Swiss were the principal bankers and financial brokers of the Nazis, handling vast sums of gold and hard currency,” said Stuart Eizenstat, former U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade. “Neutrality collided with morality; too often being neutral provided a pretext for avoiding moral considerations.”

Where does Switzerland stand today?

The question of what it means to be neutral today lingers as the war in Ukraine intensifies.

In February, Switzerland was quick to adopt the same sanctions that the EU imposed on Russia. But questions surrounding what neutrality means during this war keep surfacing — for example, how to interpret Switzerland’s War Materials Act which has thus far prevented them from sending Swiss-made tanks to Germany and Poland as those arms were intended for Ukraine. The War Materials Act states that exporting ammunition to even a middleman country and then onto “countries involved in intensive and long-lasting internal or international conflicts” is prohibited under Switzerland’s neutrality.

On the right, the Swiss People’s Party say they are committed to a more traditional definition of neutrality — meaning no interference outside of humanitarian aid. On the left, the Green party has proposed changing Switzerland’s War Materials Act to allow for Swiss-made arms to go to third party countries. Members of the Green Party have even gone so far as to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this spring to “discuss humanitarian aid.”

Ultimately, the people of Switzerland should decide how Swiss neutrality is defined during war and in the future, according to Free Democratic Party National Councilor Hans-Peter Portmann. As with almost every decision in Switzerland, it would be decided through a public vote by Swiss citizens, he says.

It would appear that Switzerland’s longstanding neutrality is not etched in stone and that this generation of Swiss voters may decide have to decide how they want to define it in years to come.

This article may be freely shared and re-printed, provided that it prominently links back to the original article.

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