Europe’s Crumbling Myths – Avi Beker – Restitution Issues Destroy National Myths

For decades it was inconceivable that the issue of financial restitution for Jewish properties looted and stolen during the Second World War would be reopened, other than by historians. A few years ago, however, this subject rather suddenly received major international media attention. Gradually, European governments became preoccupied with published data incriminating their predecessors on many accounts. This led to more than 50 inquiries, instigated mainly by governments, followed by much-publicized negotiations and a number of financial settlements with Jewish bodies.

Avi Beker has been a key player in this renewed interest in financial restitution in many countries. Elected Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in 2001, Beker discusses why, after so many years, Europeans suddenly wanted to confront their countries’  pasts more honestly.

The Coming Together of Several Elements

“A number of elements came together, which unlocked a window of opportunity for the Jews in a world which had changed. One was the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. The West had been united by  this threatening enemy and had remained heavily armed against it. This prevented their occupying themselves with a fairly recent past. Now people wondered how they would function in a world without a major adversary. This vacuum enabled a new discourse to emerge.

“At the same time, Holocaust survivors began speaking more openly about their suffering. Further, the generation of those guilty or responsible for what happened during the war left the stage  to  younger  representatives  who  were more willing to break longstanding national myths  about  the  Second  World War. Their common denominator was that Nazi Germany had been responsible for all the evil. It alone had planned and implemented the destruction of  the Jews.”

Entering into the Post-Communist Seam

Organized Jewry penetrated the post-communist seam, putting  the  restitution issue forward. Some observers considered the WJC’s  approach  too  aggressive, but Beker asserts that challenging longstanding national legends can only be done emphatically.

“The Jews were able to prove to the world that many European authorities had been active partners in expropriating Jewish properties; and their nationals had provided lists for the theft. They also stole Jewish-owned art which, after the war, was concealed in the cellars of their museums while their banks hid Jewish deposits. The media made it clear that these authorities had long tried to suppress what they had done and shared the guilt.

“Austria created one of the strongest national myths, presenting itself as one of the Nazi’s first victims, rather than as their partner and fellow perpetrator. Another major legend was that Vichy France was not the ‘real’ France. The Swiss national myth centered on its fake neutrality. Once organized Jewry presented claims based on documented figures, everyone realized that many countries still possessed major amounts of stolen Jewish property. These financial demands simultaneously led to a discussion  of national myths.”

Restitution Process Breaks National Myths

“The connection between confronting national myths and the progress of the restitution process can easily be proven. Dealing with the concrete financial claims’ issues illustrated that throughout the entire expropriation process thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of local nationals were profoundly involved in the prelude to the destruction of the Jews. The same can be demonstrated with respect to governments and financial institutions.

“The restitution process benefited from major publicity and media attention. Many facts were published which undermined national myths. Not only did new archival material become accessible, it was also discovered that much documenta­tion available after the war had been forgotten or not even studied.

“Another factor influencing perceptions was the ‘personalization’ of the Holo­caust. Austria provides the most obvious examples. Many Austrians were active Nazis, holding very senior positions in the German system. Hitler was the most prominent Austrian national, while others included extermination camp commanders.”

The Fake Neutrality of Switzerland

“The Swiss case is more intricate and therefore more revealing. The Swiss government hid behind the quite common legend of its neutrality in international relations. Even today, international law allows a neutral  country to  remain  aloof from all hostilities, while maintaining economic relations with the belligerents. The Swiss benefited intensely from this, claiming that they traded with both the Allies and the Nazis. With this, Switzerland constructed the myth that its neutral behavior had protected it from being drawn  into the war. The national legend presented neutrality as a heroic attitude, enabling the country to live through the Second World War unharmed.”

Since it is so difficult to deconstruct the neutrality concept, the Swiss case is particularly important for a moral discussion on war attitudes toward the Jews. Beker clarifies: “The problems of this notion were raised in a report coordinated by U.S. Under-Secretary of Commerce Stuart E. Eizenstat. In his first report of May 1997, he explicitly accused the Swiss of systematically helping to prolong the war. Under Swiss pressure, he had to soften his conclusions in his second report. As a U.S. government official he could not speak freely. The WJC, however, could.”

An Intimate Swiss-German Partnership

“To present its own version of events, the Swiss government instituted the Bergier Commission (1996), named after its chairman Jean Francois Bergier, whose scholars investigated the country’s war-time past. It was particularly gratifying that the commission reached the same conclusions as the WJC, comprehensively proving that the Swiss-German partnership was most intimate, reflecting a low level of morality. Many Swiss knew what was happening in Germany, including facts about the extermination  of the Jews.

“One example concerns the laundering of gold and other Jewish valuables from the extermination camps. Swiss involvement in this was not restricted to a few individuals; and those involved handled it methodically. Banking then was quite different from today. The bankers who dealt with the Germans could not execute international financial transactions by simply pushing a few computer buttons. Almost daily, convoys of trucks loaded with valuables crossed the German-Swiss border. Thousands of Swiss were occupied with this. Some trans­ ported the goods, while others registered them. Yet others determined their destination  or transmitted  necessary  information.”

Beker clarifies: “I am not claiming that they knew the origin of every single truck; but they were well aware that, throughout the extermination, considerable Jewish gold and valuables were being stolen. Any intelligent person involved on an ongoing basis in such a process would have made the connection. This became very clear in the advanced stages of the war, as testimonies attest.

“The Swiss supplied not only food to the Germans, but also weapons. Wit­nesses claim that they knew that Germany was going to be defeated anyway, and that the weapons transferred to it in the money-laundering process would only help prolong the war. Toward the end of the war, Switzerland was already preparing the ground for commercial relations with post-war  Germany.”

The Cold War’s Influence

“The Swiss were under heavy pressure from the United States, between the end of the Second World War and the outbreak of the Cold War, due to their attitude.

At the same time, the Swiss preemptively levied accusations of anti-Semitism against some Americans.

“It is amazing to see how, despite fresh memories of the Holocaust, Swiss negotiators in Washington made anti-Semitic remarks when describing American political pressure. The Swiss resentment against the large Jewish presence – in their eyes – in the American delegation was reflected in their reports. The Swiss chief negotiator, Walter Stuckey, referring to Seymour Rubin, exclaimed: ‘Why do I have to negotiate with a Jewboy?’ Others referred to a Jewish conspiracy against Switzerland.

“William Rappard, chairman of the Swiss delegation in the 1946 negotiations in Washington, wrote to his superiors: ‘since Morgenthau left the Treasury, all my friends here believe we are now experiencing a gradual demobilization of the Jewish lobby, which has had the upper hand for some  time under President Roosevelt’s influence.’ Fifty years later a report prepared for the Swiss Foreign Ministry by two  Swiss historians, Peter Hug and Marek Perrenoud, confirmed the existence of anti-Semitic attitudes in the Foreign Ministry after the war.

“Swiss post-war policy on this issue was one of procrastination to gain time. The Swiss government understood that it risked  severe economic punishment. The Cold War changed the situation radically, dividing the world again into two camps. The United States’ prime interest was diverted in another direction: build­ing NATO to contain the Soviet Union.

“The change in U.S. policy allowed the Swiss and others – including the Austrians and the French – to avoid confronting their wartime behavior in any major way. The Swiss, now undisturbed, embellished their history, creating their neutrality myth. Yet it is too simple to identify the Cold War as the sole reason for enabling them to avoid confronting their past. Time also had to pass before a new and non-involved generation could ask profound questions.”

The Psychology of Nations

In Beker’s view, besides a collective memory, each nation has a common psychology. “They suppress truth at the national collective level like individuals do on theirs.” In a book he edited entitled “The Plunder of Jewish Property during the Holocaust” Beker wrote: “As in the case of a patient suffering from a mental disorder, the suppressed  traumas tend to resurface and topple the psychological balance of the collective national memory.”

He now adds: “When at present some European leaders viciously attack Israel, this must be seen in the context of their country’s Shoah past, which also explains why some politicians use anti-Semitic motifs. Nations try to console themselves about their own misbehavior and guilt by claiming that among Jews there is also moral degradation. This may stimulate their leaders to overstate what the Israelis are ‘doing to the Palestinians’ in an attempt to balance that  with  the horrible acts their countries committed against the Jews during the Shoah. To salve their consciences requires them to become hypocritical and apply more severe standards to Israel and the Jewish people than they ever did to themselves.”

The Globalization of Holocaust Memory

“In most European countries, the financial restitution process led to a debate far beyond the figures. Movies on this issue and related subjects were screened on television. Investigations on stolen art were undertaken in many museums. The financial issues also raised many moral questions.

“Together, these events contributed to the globalization of Holocaust memory. Earlier public screenings such as the NBC series The Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List made significant contri­butions to this, inter alia influencing two individuals who would play a significant role in the restitution process. Bjarte Bruland, a student at Norway’s Bergen University researched the confiscating of Jewish property in Norway after seeing Lanzmann’s Shoah. In 1997 Christopher Meili, a security guard at  the  Union Bank of Switzerland, exposed the destruction of war-time documents by his employers, after having been affected by Schindler’s List.

“The recent establishment of so many Holocaust museums is both a further indication  of, and a contributor  to, this globalization.  These museums  facilitate a moral  confrontation with Holocaust issues. Without such stimuli, it remains difficult to even imagine that the Shoah happened, and thus to analyze it.

“The French now regularly write that they did not face the bitter truth about Vichy. Many accuse former President Francois Mitterrand of being a falsifier of history. Sometimes individuals embody or symbolize collective national memories. Mitterrand is a typical example of France’s  longstanding  inability  to  confront this indelible stain on its history. In 1994 Pierre Pean published a study which proved that, in his youth, Mitterrand had been an extreme  rightist, employed within Vichy structures. Later he changed sides and joined the Resistance. For years Mitterrand refused to bring Nazi  criminals  to justice,  publicly  admitting he had intervened to delay the investigations against Maurice Papon, thereafter condemned  to ten years in prison.

“Mitterrand even voiced his opinion that reopening unhealed wounds was wrong. He claimed it was bad for France’s memory and sense of cohesiveness. The press and public intellectuals collaborated with this attitude, both out of respect for Mitterrand and an inability to confront their country’s complicity  in what  had  happened.”

Waldheim Symbolizes Austria

“Kurt Waldheim similarly symbolized Austria. He obscured a few years of his biography. Many details about Waldheim’s past were only revealed when he became the presidential candidate of the Austrian Popular Party running against a socialist opponent. During the campaign it became  clear  that  he  had  lied about his wartime past. He recorded in his biography that he had been wounded on the Eastern Front in 1941 and hospitalized in Vienna. Then, in 1944, he reappeared in the Austrian Foreign Office, after he had studied law. Waldheim omitted the time he had spent as an intelligence  officer  of  the  Wehrmacht in war zones and areas where the extermination of the Jews was being prepared, such as Salonika, or where partisans were liquidated, as in Yugoslavia.  He worked very closely with several people who were active in exterminating the Jews. In short, it was documented that  he had been a consistent liar for many decades.

“The Austrians did the same on a national level, trying to eliminate these years from their collective memory. They also made believe that they were victims rather than perpetrators. Only thereafter, so they claimed, did they return to their normal ways. This fake history enabled them to avoid facing their own crimes and guilt. The attacks Waldheim suffered during the years 1986 to 1991, when he was President of Austria, forced the country to confront its national myth many years earlier than other European countries.”

Anti-Semitic Reactions and Guilt

“Waldheim’s past became a major  issue in the international media, because  he had been the Secretary General of the United Nations for ten years and, as such, was nominally the world’s prime defender of human rights. When his past was comprehensively publicized, the  Austrians could no longer avoid the difficult confrontation with their bloodstained wartime past. In response, Austrian latent anti-Semitism became overt. It took several years before the voices of truth got stronger and guilt feelings emerged.

“Toward the end of the 1980’s, senior Austrian politicians finally started saying the right things. In 1991 Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky admitted that the Austrians had been willing Nazi collaborators. He apologized on behalf of his government and took responsibility for what had happened during the war. The issue of financial restitution was only discussed years later; and it was always the Jewish side which had to start moving issues. Elsewhere in Europe one had to wait for the restitution  debate to initiate a major demystification  process.

“The triggers for national reevaluation have greatly differed.  Sometimes it was a moral issue, such as the Waldheim case. On other occasions it concerned financial restitution,  with its many moral dimensions.”

Bitburg: A Landmark

“Another important landmark in the demystification process was President Ron­ald Reagan’s visit to lay flowers on the German war cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen SS are also buried, at the beginning of May 1985. It was to say that, as a compensatory act, both countries have supplied important parts of Israel’s nuclear reactor?

“Norway never had a significant Jewish community, but repressed guilt feelings definitely existed. In the country’s internal discussions on restitution, moral con­siderations played a major role. It was the first country to establish a commission of enquiry with wide support; and the Norwegian parliament wholeheartedly supported  restitution  payments.”

Fifty Years Earlier

Beker concludes that many things which have become almost self-understood in recent years already existed in an embryonic form after the war: “Even in the run-up to the vote of the United Nations on November 27, 1947, one already sees the representatives of the Jewish Agency mentioning the Holocaust in their pleas to recognize Israel. They also pointed out the great debt which Europe owed the Jews.”

Dr. Avi Beker is the Secretary General of the  World Jewish Congress. He received his Ph.D. in international relations at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and served on the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. He has published extensively on Jewish affairs and international security. He is the editor of The Plunder of Jewish Property during the Holocaust ( Houndmills: Pa/grave, 2001).

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