The Swiss People’s Party made important gains in local, cantonal and national elections in 1999. Two major developments related to Switzerland’s role during World War II, the publication of the Volcker report identifying dormant accounts and the release of the Bergier report about Switzerland’s wartime immigration policy, revived the public debate on these issues. As in previous years, nationalist and right-wing circles exploited them and continued to express anti-Semitic sentiments.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Some 18,000 Jews live in Switzerland out of a total population of 7.13 million. More than half live in the German-speaking part of the country. Some small communities, such as those in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Biel, are declining since younger people are moving to larger cities. The umbrella organization of Swiss Jews is the Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund/Fédération Suisse des Communautés Israélites (SIG/FSCI).
POLITICAL PARTIES AND EXTRA-PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS
The year 1999 saw repeated successes for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) in local, cantonal and national elections (see also General Analysis, “The 1999 Electoral Success of Nationalist Populist Parties in Europe”). This nationalist and populist party, chaired by Ueli Maurer, manipulates sensitive issues, such as immigration, Swiss neutrality and welfare
At least five SVP/UDC candidates in the October 1999 national elections were far right activists. Pascal Junod, from Geneva, has close ties with Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Pierre Schifferli and Henri Rappaz, on the same list, were formerly activists in a now defunct extreme right party; Roger Etter, from Ticino, expressed his sympathy for the Waffen-SS; Michael Mathys, from Argau, wrote racist comments on an Internet forum; and Jean-Jacques Kottelat, from Jura, is a convicted racist. None of these candidates was elected. The party’s refusal to dissociate itself from them served to legitimize the presence of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and racists in Swiss political life.
Two weeks before the elections, a Zurich court convicted Christoph Blocher, head of SVP’s Zurich chapter, of using anti-Semitic stereotypes in a 1997 speech. He was fined Sf10,000 but has appealed. A week later, the media disclosed a 1997 letter by Blocher lauding a Holocaust-denying pamphlet written by the notorious anti-Semite Jürgen Graf. Pressed to explain his support, he answered that he did not read the 18-page pamphlet but liked the title, “The Downfall of Swiss Freedom.”
In spite of these events, the SVP won 22.5 percent, the largest share of the vote. Most of the new seats were won at the expense of small far right parties: the Freedom Party (Freiheitspartei der Schweiz) lost all its seats and the Swiss Democrats (SD/DS) were left with only one representative. The president of the Swiss Democrats, Rudolf Keller, who stirred up controversy in 1998 by calling for a boycott of “all American and Jewish stores, restaurants and travel offers,” was not re-elected. The Swiss National Council (the lower house of parliament)
Although membership of far right groups does not seem to be increasing, they claim to have reinforced their ideology with notions of a Jewish plot to bankrupt Swiss banks, of Jewish greed, of the Holocaust as a lie to get compensation and of immigration as a threat to the Aryan race. The Swiss far right maintains close ties with similar groups in Europe, America and elsewhere, and exchanges publications and information with them.
The New Right intellectual movement, led in Switzerland by Geneva lawyer Pascal Junod, held numerous private lectures, some given by French far right activists, under the auspices of the Proudhon, Thulé, Synergies Européennes and Friends of Robert Brasillach groups. Extremist propaganda was sold at these meetings, which attracted old fascists, skinheads, Holocaust deniers and a Muslim fundamentalist. Labeling the meetings “private” enables them to avoid prosecution under the anti-racist law, which applies only to public events.
Skinheads in Switzerland number about 700, including 500 hardcore activists. Although they maintained a lower profile than in previous years, they continued to participate in neo-Nazi and Holocaust denial meetings, such as those organized by the New Right, and to lead assaults on asylum seekers, left-wing activists and foreigners. According to the federal police, the number of minors in skinhead ranks is increasing and the network is becoming more international and more radical.
Until his trial on charges of selling anti-Semitic and racist literature, <79-year-old Le Courrier du Continent, a 12-page pamphlet which appeared ten times a year and contained anti-Semitic, racist and Holocaust-denial articles, mostly under his name. Although he himself stopped selling books, he provided addresses of publishers and advertised far right groups abroad. In April 2000 he was sentenced to one year imprisonment and has appealed.
A new organization, Truth and Justice (Vérité & Justice), was founded in 1999 by three Holocaust deniers, Jürgen Graf, Philippe Brennenstuhl and René-Louis Berclaz. Their goals are to abolish the anti-racist law and to propagate “revisionist” ideas through pamphlets, lectures and a website. They are trying to expand their audience by exploiting anti-Semitic sentiments expressed during the national debate about Switzerland’s role in World War II.
Only one violent anti-Semitic act was recorded, in which an Israeli tourist in Zurich was stabbed, his skullcap identifying him as a Jew. The assailant turned himself in to the police and is to be tried. Jewish figures continued to receive hate mail in 1999, most of it anonymous, whenever they gained media prominence. Racist and xenophobic statements also appeared in graffiti, flyers and letters and at public meetings.
ATTITUDES TOWARD THE HOLOCAUST AND THE NAZI ERA
Two major reports related to Switzerland’s attitude during World War II were released in early 2000, reviving the debate on the issue after it had been dormant for several months. The Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, chaired by former head of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, was charged with auditing Swiss banks that operated between 1933 and 1945. They investigated 4.1 million accounts and assessed that 54,000 dormant accounts were “probably or possibly related to victims.” This represents $20 million (wartime value), which, with interest, would amount to $150- 270 million today.
The report received little attention from the Swiss media, possibly because both Swiss banks and Jewish organizations were satisfied with it. It was criticized only by those few banks which had denied access to their archives, despite the fact that the banking secrecy laws had been lifted by the government for this specific task. The findings will help Judge Edward Korman of the Brooklyn Federal Court, who is examining thousands of claims of Holocaust survivors or their heirs, and who is expected to release a list of beneficiaries for the $1.2 billion global settlement reached in August 1998.
In the same week, the Independent Experts’ Commission, headed by Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier, released its second report on Switzerland’s attitude during World War II, this time focusing on its immigration policy. While most of the findings were familiar to scholars, this was the first time that criticism of the Swiss authorities had received widespread press coverage. The study showed that anti-Semitism had motivated many political decisions, even before the war. In 1938, for example, Swiss lpressed Nazi Germany to develop a method of identifying Jewish refugees arriving at the Swiss borders. The Nazis agreed to stamp a “J” in the passports of German and Austrian Jews, so that the Swiss could deny them access at the border.
The report also revealed that by 1942, the Swiss authorities knew that the Nazis had plans to exterminate European Jewry. This knowledge did not prevent them from closing the borders to Jewish refugees in August 1942. The report concludes that Switzerland could have admitted more Jewish refugees: it permitted entry to 51,000 people, including 22,000 Jews, and turned away at least 25,000, many of them Jews. The report accuses the government and other related institutions of the time of taking anti-Semitic decisions; however, it does not accuse the Swiss population of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments. It stresses that many individuals made great efforts to save Jews or to help them. About 35 Swiss have been recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Israel’s Yad Vashem Institute.
This revealing study was well received by the media and the general population, less so by the government, which issued a lukewarm statement, and not at all well by nationalists and wartime veterans, who constitute a small but vociferous minority. The final report of the commission is due in 2001.
The committee handling the special fund for Holocaust victims, created in 1997 by major Swiss banks, the Swiss National Bank and industry, has almost completed the distribution of $180 million among needy Holocaust survivors around the world.
In March 2000 Switzerland’s Roman Catholic bishops asked forgiveness on behalf of the church for having “failed in its obligations toward the Jewish people” during the Nazi era.
Despite explicit reports repudiating the myths about Switzerland’s role during World War II, no official decision has been taken in the field of education, culture, religion or public information. Since each canton (or state) is responsible for its own school system, there are no national textbooks or guidelines. The choice of topics, books and approach is made by each school, and often by each teacher. Some include recent findings about Switzerland’s past, others do not.
The task force appointed in 1996 by the government to defend its interests in the debate on World War II has been dissolved, reflecting the will of the current authorities to bury it.
RESPONSES TO RACISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM
Similarly, there have been few official initiatives aimed at sensitizing the public to issues of racism, anti-Semitism, tolerance and remembrance. So far, most projects have been private ones, funded by NGOs, religious communities, teachers or intellectuals.
The Swiss Commission Against Racism, appointed in 1995 by the Federal Council, issued an important report on anti-Semitism in late 1998, which included various recommendations. A year has passed, but almost none have been implemented. Further, the idea of a museum for tolerance has not progressed.
A new Jewish organization, DAVID (Center Against Anti-Semitism and Defamation), was founded in 1999 in Zurich, on the model of the already existing CICAD in the French-speaking part of the country. Its goals are to respond systematically to all forms of anti-Semitism and to make Jewish culture better known to the general public.
Since the enactment of the anti-racism law in 1994, several hundred cases have been tried and many have led to convictions. Far right groups have made three abortive attempts to annul the law.
The Federal (Supreme) Court issued an important decision in 1999 according to which a distributor of racist books can be prosecuted as well as the author or the publisher. This decision will help resolve several cases of booksellers who were sued for selling Roger Garaudy’s Holocaust denying book The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics and which are still pending. In February 2000, the sentence of right-wing extremist bookseller Aldo Ferraglia was reduced from four months to 20 days imprisonment for distributing Garaudy’s books. While awaiting his appeal, he has continued selling other Holocaust-denying and anti-Semitic books, such as the anonymous French version of Jan van Helsing’s Secret Societies, called Livre jaune no. 5 (Yellow Book, No. 5). Other Holocaust deniers such as Jürgen Graf and René-Louis Berclaz lost their appeals. The former will begin a 15-month jail sentence in 2000.
In March 1999, Andres Studer was given a four-month prison sentence, in absentia, for Holocaust denial. He has reportedly fled either to Spain or Portugal to escape trial.
Another Holocaust denier, Arthur Vogt, 81, was fined Sf18,000 by the Zurich Cantonal Court. Vogt is the editor of Aurora and author of Holocaust denial articles. He also published excerpts from Jürgen Graf’s works.
The 45-day prison sentence imposed on Max Wahl, 76, publisher of Der Eidgenoss, for Holocaust denial, was endorsed by the Zurich Cantonal Court.
In November 1999 a Zurich district court confirmed the acquittal of Dieter Mittler, former editor-in-chief of the weekly Sonntagsblick, on the charge of libeling Christoph Blocher. Blocher had sued the publication in May 1997 after it had summarized one of his political speeches in which he maintained that Jewish interests were motivated solely by financial considerations. Blocher was fined Sf7,000 and has appealed.