Late Payment


The accord between two Swiss banks and the representatives of thousands of Holocaust survivors, who had lodged a $20 billion lawsuit seeking the return of Jewish assets seized during the second World War, is to be welcomed, but it is unlikely to bring the controversy to an end. The two banks, Credit Suisse and United Bank of Switzerland, have agreed to pay out $1.25 billion to survivors and their relatives over three years, but this is to settle all claims over disputed Nazi-era accounts against not just the two banks, but also the Swiss National Bank, other Swiss banks, the Swiss government and Swiss industry.

Swiss bankers say they had to reach a settlement to ensure their banks remain major players in the lucrative US market. They were faced with boycotts by US states and cities and by what promised to be drawn-out and damaging lawsuits by Holocaust victims. They insist the move was not an admission of guilt but a prudent business decision based on the possible costs of fighting the litigation. Already, New York and California have started to wind down their sanctions against Swiss banks. But for some of the plaintiffs and many Jewish leaders the settlement will be seen as a bitter victory for Holocaust survivors.

The accord comes as the result of three years of talks between Jewish organisations representing 30,000 survivors in the US and Credit Suisse, Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp. In June, the latter two banks merged. It is disappointing indeed that it took the threat of sanctions 53 years after the war to bring some justice to the survivors of the Holocaust.

Undoubtedly, the hero of the day is Mr Christoph Meili, a former night guard who was dismissed for saving Nazi-era papers from destruction: Union Bank of Switzerland was preparing to shred them, but he handed them over to local Jewish leaders. The Swiss government remained distant during the negotiations on the accord, a distance that reflects widespread divisions in Switzerland. Its line is that the accord is a private affair which concerns neither the public nor its representatives.

Berne's stance is due to its unwillingness to commit public money to a problem whose roots it feels lie squarely with private banks. The government has stressed that the Swiss confederation was not bound by the accord "in any way". Does the government think it can shelter behind the banks for its own failings during the war? The episode casts a shadow over neutral Switzerland's role during the war. A commission of independent historians is due to publish a report next year on how Jewish refugees were turned away from Switzerland. Switzerland needs to continue efforts to shed light on its past relations with the Nazi regime. The settlement does not close the file on the past.