Jewish Refugees

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Holocaust: Jewish Refugees in Switzerland during World War II

Towards the end of the 20th century, Switzerland was the target of massive verbal and judicial attacks concerning its refugee politics during World War II. The background of these attacks is the Holocaust, the most barbaric genozide in history, committed by Adolf Hitler's Nazist Germany: Jews and other minorities (as Roma and Sinti) were systematically deported from any country occupied by the Nazis and about 6 million people were murdered.

Switzerland's Tradition with Refugees

Switzerland has a long tradition to accomodate refugees: Huguenots fled from France in the 16th and 17th centuries, and liberals, socialists and anarchists came from all over Europe in the 19th century. Up to then the refugees came either as individuals or in smaller groups. In the case of the biggest group, the Huguenots, they had already had close economic and religious relationships with the cities accomodating them. Jean Calvin, the reformator in French-speakiing western Switzerland, was in fact himself the first religious refugee from France of that period.

Jews, Roma, Sinti and Jenisch
Threatened by Nazi Germany

During the Second World War Switzerland was surrounded by Germany and its allies from June 1940 to August 1944. Though it did resist Adolf Hitler as much as it could, it simply had to choose between some compromises and complete surrender. Though it was the last free country in continental Europe, Switzerland was anything but a safe place for refugees, taking into account its own small size and weak position opposite to Germany!

  Map of Central Europe, post war borders

If one looks at the situation of refugees in pre-war Europe and during World War II, knowing everything we know today about the recklessness of the Nazis and their military power, (but people did not know then), there would have been only one real solution for the Jewish refugees: The U.S.A. and Southern American republics should have accommodated all jewish refugees in the early 1930's. America would have been able to shelter 6 milliion people relatively easily (compared to little Switzerland with some 4 million inhabitants at the time and already being extremely densely populated). Still more important, refugees would have been really safe there - while Switzerland was threatened and surrounded by Nazi troops itself.

Switzerland's Refugee Politics
Compared to the U.S.A.

After Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany in January 1933, some 2000 refugees (mostly Jews and intellectuals) fled from Germany into Switzerland, towards the end of 1938, after the annexation of Austria by Germany, there were already 10'000 refugees in Switzerland. At the end of the Second World War in 1945 the number of officially accomodated civilian refugees in Switzerland had reached 55'018. During the war a total of 103,689 soldiers were interned according to international rules of war (among these were French and Polish troops pushed aside towards the Swiss border in the battle on France in 1940, some Allied aircraft crews, some Italian and German deserters, some escaped prisoners of war and - towards the end of the war - some German and Austrian troops. Because French troops could return to southern France after the seize fire in 1941, only some 60,000 foreign soldiers were still in Switzerland in 1945). 59,785 children from several european countries were offered a few weeks or months of convalescence. Another 66,549 refugees spent only a short time in Switzerland and then travelled on. (numbers according to Chronik, p. 544), the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, counted a total of some 60,000 civilian refugees including those not counted in federal statistics for various reasons: final report, p. 117)

At an international conference on refugees in Evian (on the French side of the Lake Geneva) held in 1938, none of the nations present was willing to accomodate large numbers of refugees and the conference ended without substantial results: "it was not the fate of the persecuted individuals but the threat posed to potential receiving countries by the mass expulsions ... which was the main focus of the agenda." (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 53) "Numerous countries imposed further restrictions on admission." (final report, p. 108) Switzerland was to be found - based on the number of accomodated refugees per inhabitant - in the top group, but this was not sufficient in view of the incredible atrocities committed by the Nazis.

The U.S.A repeatedly rejected Jewish refugees and accomodated only some 250,000 Jewish refugees from 1939 to 1945 (0.1 % of the 1990 population), while Switzerland permanently sheltered 60,000 civilian refugees (0.85 % of the 1990 population) and 60,000 soldiers, most of them allied troops (amounting to a total of 1.7 % of the 1990 population). (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 167) Even Stuart Eizenstat had to admit, that the U.S.A. has accomodated fewer refugees than tiny Switzerland. (Book review on Stuart Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice, 2002, in: Neue Luzerner Zeitung (newspaper in central Switzerland), Dec. 20th, 2002, p. 5)

Shortcomings in Switzerland's Refugee Politics

Having stated these circumstances and the even more doubtful role of other nations, some aspects of Switzerland's refugee politics have to be outlined critically here:

  • Swiss officials were involved, when Germany introduced a new stamp (a red J) to mark passports of Jews.
  • Switzerland did reject between 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees at the border, even after the government (not necessarily the population) was informed, that the Nazis would not only send them to labour camps but rather murder them systematically.
  • Swiss diplomats in Germany and occupied territories did not enough to defend the rights of Swiss citizens living there, especially if these Swiss citizens were Jews.
  • The main responsibility for the shortcomings lies with the government, the administration and to a lesser extent with the right wing majority of the parliament, supporting the hard line of the government.
  • There was also widespread fear among the population, that refugees would aggravate the shortage on food (see rationing and "cultivation battle"). These feelings were not based on sober statistics, however: the total of rejected refugees would have increased the total population by only 0.6 %!

On the other hand, there were many people in Switzerland supporting refugees on a personal level, giving money to non-government organizations like the "Christlicher Friedensdienst" [Christian Peace Service], and supporting petitions in favour of refugees. A few individuals even helped refugees to cross the border at times the administration had given orders to reject any new refugees. Some of these people were caught and sentenced to jail - only recently between 1990 and 2003 they were rehabilitated by the parliament and/or courts.

The Discriminating "Jew Stamp"

From 1933 to 1938 the German Nazi regime introduced several measures discriminating Jews. The restrictions taken in 1938 were especially severe, so that many Jews considered to leave Germany. The Swiss authorities wanted to restrict immigration and discussed ways to do so with the Germans. Finally Germany decided to mark passports of Jews with a stamp ("J") in October 1938. There is a broad controversy (also on internet) about who is responsible for this discriminating idea. These are the really important facts: The Swiss authorities wanted to know, whether a person trying to enter Switzerland was of Jewish origin or not, and they didn't want to find out themselves - much like the U.S. administration is nowadays interested, whether a person flying from Europe to the U.S.A. is of Arab origin or not, and forces carriers to deliver personal informations about passengers (see reports in the European press in March and again in December 2003). Today's Swiss government acknowledges that Switzerland had it's share in the affair with the J-stamp and publicly apologized on 8th March 1995 - knowing that there is no excuse for collaboration with regimes like the Nazis.(see answer of the Swiss government to a parliamentary interpellation: Antwort des Bundesrates auf die parlamentarische Anfrage 98.3447 von Ständerat Maximilian Reimann vom 7. 10. 1998). Nothing remains to be added to this official statement.

Duties of the Red Cross

The International Comittee of the Red Cross (ICRC) serves a function based on international law. although it does not have government status. The achievements of the ICRC during and after the war (assistance to prisoners of war, info-center for relatives) have been widely acknowledged. Concerning the prosecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazis, the ICRC remained in a very passive attitude, however. As late as 1989, ICRC officials admitted, that the ICRC would have been morally obliged to take care of the Jews in in all areas under German influence. It pointed out at the same time, however, that the protection of the civilian population had only been agreed upon with the IV. Geneva Convention of 1949. Obviously international law concerning civilians was only fixed after events had shown, that this was extremely important. The same goes for bombardments of cities - excessively applied by Germany as well as by Great Britain and the U.S.A. In several cases hundreds of thousands of civilian people were killed in a single air-raid. Likewise, the atom bomb droppings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be regarded from today's point of view as most illegitime means of the war.

But what about today? When the ICRC urges for the adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the Geneva Conventions, exactly those nations that critized the ICRC for its passivity in the Second World War are not eager to have themselves reminded of their humanitarian duties: The U.S.A. are keeping Afghan people detained on Guantanamo base for more than a year without formal accusation and a fair trial (mandatory according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and are even denying them the status of prisoners of war. Israel constantly violates its duties towards the civilian population in the occupied territories (according to the Geneva Conventions).

Literature and links on Jewish Refugees in Switzerland during World War II:

Sources, literature and links in German language:
  • Chronik der Schweiz, red. Christian Schütt / Bernhard Pollmann, Dortmund: Chronik-Verlag / Zürich: Ex Libris, 1987
  • Häsler Alfred A., Das Boot ist voll - die Schweizer und die Flüchtlinge 1933-45, Zürich 1967
  • Haas Gaston, «Wenn man gewusst hätte, was sich drüben im Reich abspielte ...» 1941-1943 Was man in der Schweiz von der Judenverfolgung wusste. Hrsg. Schweizerischer Israelitischer Gemeindebund, Basel und Frankfurt/M: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1997

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