The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

In the Name of the Holocaust

  • Between the Alps and a Hard Place: Switzerland in World War II and Moral Blackmail Today by Angelo Codevilla. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000. Hardcover. $27. 263pp. Index.

Daniel Michaels

In Between the Alps and a Hard Place, distinguished U.S. foreign policy adviser (and long-standing supporter of Israel) Angelo Codevilla takes the Clinton administration to task for collaborating with the World Jewish Congress to extract, by means of moral blackmail, billions of dollars from Swiss, Austrian, and German banks and businesses. Codevilla charges further that American politicians, mostly Democrats, received generous political contributions for their support of the WJC’s campaign.

Put bluntly, the WJC operation strongly resembled a shake-down, whereby the Swiss would stand accused of crimes against the Jewish people if they failed to fork over a sum finally set at over a billion dollars. The WJC had already secured, through lavish contributions, the practical, if not official, support of the Clinton administration. The “moral” support of U.S. establishment media was of course to be counted on, as in all such cases involving the “victims of Nazism.”

At the federal level, President Clinton offered the “good offices” at the State Department of his good friend, Stuart Eizenstat, who also acted as U.S. special envoy for property claims in Central and Eastern Europe. Thus Switzerland was lumped, for the first time, in the category of Nazi collaborator and recipient of assets stolen in the Second World War. Eizenstat promptly and dutifully presented a report on the Swiss matter that was pleasing to the WJC. His report stated that “our task is to complete the unfinished business of the twentieth century’s most traumatic and tragic events and of doing things now that couldn’t be done then.” In these words he dismissed decisions on lost assets made under the Truman administration, and provoked ill-feelings against a nation with which we have long had friendly relations. The final irony of the Eizenstat report, as Codevilla notes, is that it contains only sixteen pages on its ostensible main subject — heirless assets in Switzerland — and even those pages contain not a single finding on how many victims of Nazism put how much money where, or what happened to it (p. 168). “Stu” Eizenstat kept pushing the Swiss bank case for the best settlement possible, right up to President Clinton’s last day in office.

Edgar Bronfman, head of the WJC, was the prime mover and main plaintiff in the action against the Swiss banks for allegedly having collaborated with the Nazis and having failed to disclose and return heirless deposits made by Jewish victims before the war. Such deposits would have had to be made surreptitiously, since the National Socialist government had put limitations on the amounts of money that could be exported and had made currency speculation a crime.

At hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in April 1996, Bronfman assumed moral authority on behalf of Jews worldwide, living and dead, to reclaim this “patrimony” (p. 6): “I speak to you today on behalf of the Jewish people. With reverence, I also speak to you on behalf of the six million who cannot speak for themselves.”

To introduce the issue and himself before the Committee, Bronfman first employed the services of its chairman, Republican Senator from New York Alfonse D'Amato, who opened the hearings by proclaiming (p. 5): “We have in our possession recently declassified documents that shed new light on Switzerland’s role in World War II.”

It mattered not, Codevilla notes, that Senator D'Amato was unable to produce any credible new evidence, nor that President Harry Truman had settled the issue of “heirless assets” in 1949, when he signed Senate Bill 603, setting upper limits on such claims. It did not even matter that Mr. Bronfman in no way represented the Jewish people as a whole. When Codevilla queried his contacts in the Israeli Foreign Ministry to ascertain whether the Israeli government backed Bronfman’s action, the Israelis denied it, and told him that Switzerland was one of Israel’s best supporters (p. 165, 174).

As is standard in legal actions involving numerous plaintiffs, the WJC filed a class action suit against the Swiss. By doing so, they could rely on maximum favorable publicity, and hope for a settlement before going to trial to prove the truth of their accusations. It is well known that most of the proceeds won in such cases are swallowed up by lawyers and the organizations hiring them. The many individuals on whose behalf the suit is presumably filed normally receive very little compensation.

The most important concern in class-action suits, as Codevilla explains, is the need to select a sympathetic venue and an equally well-disposed judge. New York City, specifically the Borough of Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish population, was seen by the plaintiffs as the perfect venue. After some consideration Judge Edward Korman, a Democrat who had been appointed to the federal bench through the political patronage of Senator Patrick Moynihan, was selected to preside.

New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, chief financial official in America’s financial capital, was able to exert additional pressure on the Swiss. In his office as Comptroller, Hevesi and his committee had the authority to grant or reject licenses for major business transactions in New York. At the time of the suit, the Union Bank of Switzerland was requesting a license to merge with the Swiss Bank Corporation, which would create UBS, Europe’s largest bank. Since these banks do a business of about $4 billion per year in New York, the Swiss could ill afford to displease Hevesi.

After much haggling a settlement was reached in the case (the Swiss agreed to pay $1.25 billion), and a “special master,” Judah Gribetz, was appointed by Judge Korman to administer the distribution of the award to the plaintiffs and their attorneys. Gribetz had been a member of the Judicial Selection Committee that had advised Senator Moynihan on federal judicial appointments, including that of Judge Korman. Gribetz was also president of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a lifetime advocate of Jewish causes (p. 193).

As Codevilla describes it, an unseemly, even obscene, fight over the distribution of the monies to be awarded ensued almost immediately between lawyers representing individual victims, lawyers representing the various Jewish organizations, and still others representing themselves and fighting for their own fees. Aside from the legal suit filed by the WJC, whose main strategist was Rabbi Israel Singer, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles had its attorneys, Michael Hausfeld, Melvyn Weiss, and Martin Mendelsohn, open legal proceedings, as did still a third camp headed by Edward D. Fagan, another Holocaust activist. While the lawyers bickered and bad-mouthed each other, the WJC consolidated its central role in the claims.

The internecine squabbling led no less than Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League to comment: “I don’t want an industry to be made on the memory of the victims because there are so few survivors out there who will benefit from it.” The columnist Charles Krauthammer deplored the rancorous bickering of the contending parties. While agreeing that the suit was justified in order to reveal any wrongdoings on the part of the Swiss or others against Jews, Krauthammer thought that the emphasis on money cheapened the entire proceedings. Krauthammer: “But money? It should be beneath the dignity of the Jewish people to accept it, let alone seek it.”

In 1997, the Swiss government and industry established a $200 million fund for Holocaust victims and designated the WJC to disburse the monies. A year later, only 10 percent of this amount had actually been allotted. The effective beneficiaries, Codevilla states, turned out, as expected, to be the organizations themselves, especially the WJC.

Once the money had been turned over to the WJC for disbursal, the media’s vilification campaign against Swiss banks ceased to be news. Codevilla comments cynically that postwar financial settlements follow the principle that “the strong keep what they can while the weak give up what they must.” By the strong, Codevilla apparently means the United States, acting in concert with Jewish interests. Thus was a million dollar investment in the form of a political contribution parlayed into a billion dollar payoff — all in the name of the victims of the Holocaust.

Codevilla rightly points out the displeasure and even hostility toward the United States that this affair engendered abroad. When a private interest group such as the WJC is able to recruit and involve U.S. government officials in a grievance suit against a foreign country for injustices, real or alleged, that occurred more than half a century ago, it is manifestly unfair to the accused country, and may even violate U.S. law, for our government to lend its prestige and weight to the unproven claims of the plaintiffs. It then appears to all the world that the United States is ever ready to serve as Jewry’s “catspaw” in disputes (social, economic, financial, political) around the globe.

If any country should be the champion of Jewish concerns and grievances the world over, it should be the State of Israel, but of course Israel lacks the clout that the United States can bring to bear. The U.S. government is legally and rightfully the guarantor and protector of the rights of all U.S. citizens — Christians, Jews, or Muslims — here or abroad. What happened, or is alleged to have happened, to individuals abroad — before they emigrated to this country and acquired U.S. citizenship — is not rightly our business. Indeed, most citizens of the United States emigrated to this country precisely because of grievances, injustices, or hardships — real or perceived — suffered abroad.

Codevilla might be criticized for spending too much time in defending Switzerland’s difficult position in the Second World War. Switzerland really needs no defense or explanation for its wartime actions. The author also expends too many words to explain the gold trade during the war. Readers of this type of literature know full well that most countries and governments are Mammon’s children with regard to wartime loot and booty. And, finally, some readers might find this book too partisan, exaggerating the (grantedly predominant) role of Democrats in letting WJC contributions guide their actions.

As to granting Jewish refugees shelter and a haven in their time of need, Switzerland did more in proportion to its size and wealth than did the United States. At the Evian Conference in 1938, Switzerland even offered to be a staging area for an exodus of Jews from Germany, but no country, including the United States, would take significant numbers of refugees. Still later, at the Bermuda Conference of 1943, Codevilla reminds, the United States and Britain refused to take any practical steps to mitigate the plight of the Jews. Ironically, by far the greatest number of European Jews, about 350,000, found haven in Spain and Portugal, whose Catholic leaders, Franco and Salazar, have often received unfavorable press in this country (p. 104).

Notwithstanding these small faults, Codevilla, with the best interests of the American and Jewish people in mind, rightly condemns the Clinton administration for its officious and sanctimonious involvement in the Swiss bank affair, thereby subordinating U.S. foreign policy interests to those of a minority pressure group. By so doing, Clinton and his helpers distorted and abused the U.S. legal system, and created a foreign policy fiasco. Citizens would be justified in asking why and for how long and at what cost to America’s own international interests is the United States to be the exclusive champion of Jewish claims and accusations.

About the reviewer

Daniel W. Michaels is a Columbia University graduate (Phi Beta Kappa, 1954), and a former Fulbright exchange student to Germany (1957). He is retired from the US Department of Defense after 40 years of service.

Bibliographic information
Reviewer: Daniel W. Michaels
Title: In the name of the Holocaust
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: March/April 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 2
Location: page 43
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.