Swiss committee opens door to fundFriday, August 29, 1997 | by
BERN—The Swiss Parliament's Legal Committee has determined that the Swiss National Bank does not need parliamentary approval to contribute $70 million to a fund for Holocaust survivors.
The 12-5 decision Monday countered the bank's long-standing position that such approval would be necessary.
The committee's vote "creates a new situation," said bank spokesman Gabriel Juri. "We will have to discuss this issue with the government."
According to sources involved in the approval process, the parliament will agree with the committee's decision when it convenes for its fall session.
At that point—the parliament is expected to take up the issue by the end of September or early October—the bank can immediately make the contribution to the Holocaust Memorial Fund, said Lili Nabholz, head of the Legal Committee.
"This is a good day for the Jewish people," said Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland. "We are optimistic that this money will be paid into the fund within the next few weeks."
The Holocaust Memorial Fund, valued at about $116 million, was created in February with contributions from Switzerland's largest private banks and industrial firms to help Holocaust survivors.
The long-awaited Swiss National Bank contribution would significantly augment the fund, which is expected to begin making payments to survivors soon.
The Legal Committee, in its ruling, said the central bank's contribution, far from being a humanitarian "gift," should be viewed as restitution for the guilt the bank brought upon itself when it purchased millions of dollars' worth of Nazi gold during World War II.
The central bank "did not ask for parliamentary approval when they did their questionable business with the Nazis," said Nabholz. "So why do they need our approval now?"
The committee reached its decision after holding a one-day hearing that involved legal experts, members of the central bank's board of directors and historian Jean-François Bergier.
Bergier is chairman of the Independent Commission of Experts, the international panel of historians created by Swiss officials last December to study the extent of the country's financial dealings with the Nazis.
According to sources within the Legal Committee, Bergier said the central bank's wartime dealings with the Nazis were indefensible from a moral point of view—particularly after 1943, when it was clear that the gold being purchased by the bank had been looted by the Nazis from the central banks of occupied countries.
Swiss National Bank officials have been loath to admit that their predecessors were guilty of financing the Nazi war effort via purchases of gold from the Reichsbank.
The central bank has a "rather imperfect knowledge of its own history," said Jean-Pierre Roth, vice chairman of the bank's governing board, in an interview earlier this year. "We are not in a position to answer" all the questions about the bank's wartime actions.
Indeed, Roth defended those acts, saying they were part of the "national defense effort" and that the bank's activities were "directed at maintaining public confidence in the country's currency."
He also explained that parliamentary approval for the bank's contribution to the Holocaust fund was necessary because the bank "has the authority to set monetary policy. It does not have the right to spend any of its reserves without governmental approval."
But in at least one instance this was not the case: Twenty years ago, the central bank purchased the five-star Hotel Bellevue in the capital, Bern, spending millions without parliamentary approval.
A parliamentary vote of approval, which now appears unnecessary, could have sparked calls for a national referendum on the issue.
Given the climate in Switzerland, which has been reeling from international criticism over the wartime actions of its government and banking officials, it is not at all clear that the central bank's contribution would have been approved in a referendum.