This article has been adapted and extended from the original essay:
The Cuckoo that Laid the Golden Egg: The Legacy of Nazi Gold in Switzerland, by Una Suseli O’Connell from the book Whiteness is Not an Ancestor, Essays on Life and Lineage by White Women published in 2020 by Cab Publishing, USA
Cursed greed of gold, what crimes thy tyrant power has caused.
My Swiss uncle was a keen athlete and a man who, according to my cousin, was evicted from the stadium at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 for refusing to salute Hitler.
Uncle Bobi was also a numismatist. He stored his collection of gold coins in burgundy-coloured albums on top of his bedroom wardrobe. Every day after lunch, Bobi would sit on the edge of the bed and silently leaf through the plastic pages of his gold library. Sometimes I sat beside him and he would allow me to pick a coin, which he then laid, with great reverence and tenderness, in the palm of my hand.
As a small child I was convinced that there was chocolate beneath the gold and would pick impatiently at the edges of the coin with my fingernails. I loved the images of eagles, springboks and Indigenous Americans in full headdress.
I grew up with an appreciation of the beauty and the value of gold. If you invest in gold, my mother explained to me from a young age, you’ll always be able to eat because if there’s a world crisis and money loses its value, you won’t starve. As a little girl growing up in Switzerland during the 1920s, she recalled that across the border in Germany, people had gone to the shops pushing wheelbarrows full of paper money; a single loaf of bread, Mum told me, had cost two million marks.
I used to wonder how many loaves of bread I might have received for my one gold coin. Would the grocer have provided my change in a multitude of wheelbarrows, or would he have handed out smaller denomination gold coins from a stash he kept behind the counter?
I never thought to ask my mother these questions, and so it remained a mystery. Unconsciously, however, I recognized that the story was first and foremost a parable, an important lesson to learn early in life: Gold is good. Gold will save your life.
In the summer of 2008, shortly before the collapse of the worldwide financial markets, I asked my bank manager in Switzerland whether he would advise me to buy gold. He laughed, a little dismissively I thought, and said that this wasn’t the Weimar Republic, and no, buying gold was an old-fashioned idea, and he wouldn’t recommend it.
By September, people carrying empty rucksacks were queuing outside gold bullion dealers in London, anxious to invest their savings in sovereigns, crowns and bars. There were storage options available but many were of the opinion that “if you can’t hold it, you don’t own it.” They wished to take their gold home so they could remind themselves that they had options and would never need a wheelbarrow full of notes to buy a bottle of milk. Smart people, like my uncle and my mother, who remembered the past so were not condemned to repeat it, had a gold ace up their sleeves. They were untouchable, assured of a place in the Ark when the biblical flood hit.
My mother’s signature piece was a heavy-linked gold bracelet from which hung many coins. These included a Helvetia Head, which is still a popular Christening gift in Switzerland, an Indian Head, and an Austrian Ducat. She wore the bracelet day and night. Twenty-five years after her death, the sound of those jingling coins reminds me of my mother as powerfully as the lingering scent of Nina Ricci on her mink coat.
The value of my uncle’s coin collection ran into many thousands of Swiss francs, but, like the rucksack-men of 2008, he didn’t want his gold secreted away in a bank vault where he couldn’t see it. Bobi seemed entirely untroubled by the possibility that thieves might break into his home; his sole concern was ensuring that he had daily access to his pride and joy.
In 1978, my aunt told me that my grandfather, Ernst, a law enforcement officer, had so feared falling into poverty that he began stealing money from the Police Department coffers. When the scandal broke in 1943, Ernst took his own life, leaving his family without an income or a pension. In my imagination, therefore, money walks a fine line between life and death.
In 2004, a program titled What’s so Special about the Swiss? was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Every Swiss citizen the English journalist interviewed sounded incredibly upbeat: Switzerland is a paradise. I feel very happy and privileged to live here said one. I was born here. It’s just luck reflected another.
Adolf Ogi, former trainer of the national ski team, one-time President of Switzerland and a colleague of my late father-in-law, explained that his country is predominantly associated with cheese and chocolate, lakes and mountains. This is all fine and good. It brings money says Ogi to the interviewer, but we have more to offer.
Switzerland has few natural resources and is not a member of the European Union or NATO, yet its people enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.
Before WWII, however, Switzerland was a predominantly agrarian culture. People worked hard and much of the population lived in poverty. The Swiss folk hero, Wilhelm Tell, may or may not have been a real person, but in the hearts and minds of the Swiss he stood against tyranny when he refused to bow to Gessler, the Austrian bailiff. Even the sophisticated former President Ogi is proud of his mountain roots and the ancestral determination that has shaped the self-image of his fellow countrymen and women.
Switzerland however did not accumulate great wealth entirely on its own merit or through the clever savings strategies of its citizens.
In the 1930s the country’s leaders made a conscious and collective decision to shelter behind the Swiss flag of neutrality. In 1934 the government introduced its bank secrecy law, making it a criminal offense for bankers to disclose the identities of their clients.
This important piece of legislation marked the beginning of the Swiss numbered bank account. In the years leading to the outbreak of WWII, many Jewish families and firms, seeking to protect their assets from the Nazis, came across the border and hid their valuables in the safety of Swiss vaults and numbered accounts.
Between 1939 and 1944, it was the Nazis themselves who came to Switzerland, bearing gold plundered from the central banks of occupied territories and stolen from those murdered in the concentration camps. An estimated 1.7 billion Swiss francs worth of bars and coins was deposited in the vaults of the National Bank in Bern during WWII.
As the Swiss franc was the only currency accepted on worldwide markets, this valuable trade with the Swiss enabled the Germans to buy raw materials to sustain their war effort. Hitler himself held a personal account with the Union Bank of Switzerland in Bern, as did many senior members of the SS.
Undoubtedly one of the most chilling aspects of the Nazi Gold scandal was the discovery that dental gold, extracted from the teeth of concentration camp victims, had been melted down and combined with monetary gold. Every week eight to ten kilos of gold teeth and crowns were sent to Berlin from Treblinka alone. The Nazis employed ‘dentists’ who worked in the sheds alongside the gas chambers.
In 1942 Swiss involvement in the war grew even more tortuous. Following discussions between Bern and Berlin, it was agreed that Switzerland would no longer be required to take in Jewish refugees.
My grandfather was a policeman stationed at the Swiss border during these years, and in a confidential letter circulated to the Police Department, officers were informed that Jewish people were political refugees and therefore not at risk of persecution. They should be sent back from whence they had come. To facilitate the recognition of this excluded group, a red ‘J’ was stamped in Jewish passports.
In the decades following WWII, descendants of Jewish families killed in the concentration camps arrived in Switzerland to claim their inheritance. The Swiss bankers were not only unhelpful, but actively resistant. Due diligence, they claimed, did not allow them to release the assets of ‘orphaned’ accounts without documentary evidence. They needed death certificates.
It was explained to them that the concentration camps had not issued death certificates. The bankers remained firm. No allowances could be made. It would be a blatant violation of Swiss neutrality and bank confidentiality.
In 1996 President Clinton signed the War Crimes Disclosure Act which authorized the declassification of documents relating to the Nazi era. The Senate Banking Committee together with the World Jewish Congress subsequently launched an investigation into Switzerland’s gold-laundering and its financial support of Nazi Germany. This was to include the unresolved issue of dormant bank accounts belonging to victims of the Holocaust.
Regrettably, the response of some Swiss officials was hostile rather than cooperative. President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz even spoke of ‘extortion and blackmail’ by Jewish organizations vis a vis the Swiss banks. He later apologized for his remarks.
Switzerland wished to make clear that it had never allied itself with any one country or cause. It had no political affiliations and did not discriminate. It merely offered services and anyone and everyone was at liberty to take advantage of these.
I was living in Switzerland during the hearings, and I remember how shocked and upset my Swiss father-in-law was by the revelations. He had been a colonel in the Swiss Army and, like many men of his generation, had spent much of WWII on active service at the border.
It was a commonly held belief that Hitler had never invaded Switzerland because he feared the immovable determination and might of the Swiss Army. No one doubted the veracity of his assumption, including my father-in-law. He felt anger and a profound sense of betrayal. I spent many long years away from my wife and sons, but at least I was able to maintain the belief that I was protecting my family and keeping my country safe, he said.
Almost every Swiss town has a street or square named after the great Henri Guisan. General Guisan was a national hero and a symbol of Switzerland’s ability to fend off foreign invasion during WWII. Guisan, however, was also negotiating with the Nazis.
In 2004, the Swiss historian, Pierre Braunschweig, published his book Secret Channel to Berlin, which investigated intelligence activities in Switzerland during WWII. Braunschweig reports that in March 1943, Guisan secretly met with Walter Schellenberg, Head of SS Foreign Intelligence, at The Baeren Hotel in Biglen, a sleepy village in the heart of the Bernese countryside.
Before Guisan left, the manager invited him and his fellow diners to sign the visitors’ book. The last diner to enter his name was a Swiss criminologist who, recognizing that the document could compromise General Guisan, carefully removed the page and put it in his pocket.
Coincidentally, my parents hosted their wedding reception at this same venue in 1955.
As this example demonstrates, Switzerland is a close-knit society. It values unity and a strong allegiance to the Swiss flag. I’m not sure what my mother would have made of the banking scandal. She died the year the story broke. She loved her country. Everything in Switzerland was superior to anything we had in England – the Swiss health care service, the country’s transport system, and of course Swiss food was so much more delicious than its English equivalent. In the 1980s, when Switzerland’s crime rate began to rise, my mother insisted that it was foreigners who were responsible. Swiss people, she insisted, did not commit crimes.
In 1997, Christoph Meili, a night watchman at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich, discovered ledgers and statements from WWII in the shredder room. He decided to blow the whistle and offered the incriminating documents to a national newspaper. The Zuercher Tagesanzeiger refused to accept them. Meili subsequently brought the papers to the Israeli Cultural Association in Zurich.
Although many Swiss felt he had done the right thing, others believed that Meili had disgraced and betrayed his country. He was accused of being a Nestbeschmutzer – a fouler of his own nest. Following reports of death threats, Meili and his family fled to the United States where they were granted asylum via private bill.
It is said that the Meilis are the only Swiss nationals ever to have received political asylum in the United States.
Christoph Meili has since returned home, but the Swiss have long memories. The only employment the former security guard has been able to find is a Saturday job at a hardware store.
In August 1998, investigations into Switzerland’s role in the Second World War were concluded. After serious and ongoing disagreements between Swiss banks and The World Jewish Congress, a figure of 1.25 billion US dollars was agreed. The money was to be distributed to victims of the Holocaust or their heirs.
As part of the settlement, a lawsuit by the plaintiffs against the Swiss National Bank was dropped as were plans by several states and cities, including New York, to impose sanctions on the Swiss banks if they did not agree to a fair settlement. Stuart Eisenstat, who was the Clinton administration’s leader on Holocaust-related issues at the time, said in a 2003 interview:
The private Swiss banks were left with the full burden of paying the settlement of $1.25 billion. Frankly I think much of the criticism of Switzerland during the war can be directed not at the private banks, which were not permitted to take gold, but at the Swiss National Bank, which contributed nothing to the settlement and neither did the government.
In spite of the shocking disclosures that came to light in 1996, there is some recognition that Switzerland’s behaviour during WWII was motivated by the vulnerability of its position at the heart of occupied Europe. By choosing to keep its international trade routes open, it was able to continue importing raw materials and vital foodstuffs. Had its leaders not negotiated with the Third Reich, the Swiss population would undoubtedly have experienced widespread starvation.
General Guisan’s threat to inflict colossal damage to the internal transport system may not have been the reason Switzerland was spared invasion by Nazi Germany, although exploded bridges and tunnels would certainly have impacted on the free flow of Hitler’s trading routes.
It is twenty-seven years since the gold scandal. Swiss knuckles were rapped, purse strings were forced open and the country was shamed the world over, not only for its past behaviour but also for its perceived lack of humility and integrity during the two-year hearings in New York.
Switzerland is currently the largest gold and refining transit centre and bullion producer in the world. Swiss gold, with a purity value of 999.9, is particularly coveted.
Gold mining is very costly – to the environment and to the indigenous people in equatorial Africa and Latin America who work in life-threatening conditions for low pay. Raw gold is extracted by combining it with mercury, which is toxic to both the human beings who handle it and the livestock and wildlife who drink the polluted water.
This situation is compounded by the fact that ninety percent of the world’s gold carries no label of origin and is, therefore, untraceable. Gold is easy to move around and the refining process eliminates impurities – both in physical terms and in relation to provenance.
In some parts of Southeast Asia it is not uncommon for people to use gold for large purchases, such as real estate. A one kilo bar, currently valued at fifty-two thousand dollars, is the size and thickness of a cell phone.
All this combines to create a perfect storm and the market is flush with what is often referred to as ‘conflict’ or ‘blood’ gold.
Switzerland is home to four of the world’s largest gold refineries, including Argor Heraeus which, in an average year, produces 400 tonnes of refined gold worth twelve billion Euros. In November 2013, the Swiss NGO Track Impunity Always or TRIAL submitted a criminal complaint with the Federal Prosecutor’s office in Bern, requesting an investigation into its suspicions that Argor Heraeus had purchased unrefined gold, mined in the militia strongholds of Congo, during a civil war that killed almost six million people between 1998 and 2003.
Swiss Federal Police conducted a search of the company’s headquarters, seizing documents and computers. It was shown that three tons of gold ore had crossed the border into Uganda from where it was shipped to Switzerland. In March 2015 the prosecutor dismissed the case claiming insufficient proof that Argor knew the gold had been purchased in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hussar Ltd, a British organisation, based on the offshore island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, was also named in the investigation. Evidence suggests that the refined ingots, acquired by Hussar, were subsequently sold to banks, who, in turn, sold them to their customers.
In 2010, the Obama administration, in an attempt to target ‘conflict’ gold, passed the Dodd-Frank law. This required all US companies to audit their supply chains from artisanal mines controlled by the Congolese militia.
Applauded by activists and Republicans and Democrats alike, the bill had unfortunate repercussions. The Congolese government was forced to temporarily close the mining industry and, in a country where it is estimated that one sixth of the population depends on mining, workers were forced to find alternative forms of income. This included joining armed groups. Untagged or ‘dirty’ gold continued to be smuggled out of the country, financing the rebel cause and further contaminating the global gold supply.
In 2019 gold bars, fraudulently stamped with the logos of major refineries, were found in the vaults of JP Morgan Chase and Company in the United States, one of the major banks at the heart of the bullion market.
Pleading ignorance has become the default strategy for those who find themselves under scrutiny. Companies, such as Argor Heraeus and JP Morgan Chase successfully avoid prosecution because the gold trail, from mine to customer, is so impenetrable that blame can rarely be attributed beyond reasonable doubt.
As the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine continues, there is renewed concern that Switzerland is, once again, co-financing these hostilities. In July 2022 Switzerland purchased three tons of gold from Russia. Valcambi, one of the nation’s four major gold refineries, published the following statement on its website:
The import of three tons of gold from Russian refineries to Switzerland continues to cause heated discussions and numerous misunderstandings. The role of Swiss refineries – including Valcambi – was also critically questioned.
Here a few clarifying facts:
The assertion that the import of Russian gold is generally prohibited is false. According to the Federal Office for Customs and Border Security (FOCB), bars produced by Russian refineries after 7th of March 2022 may no longer be traded in Switzerland. However, this only applies to those persons in Switzerland who are not “trade assayers”. The so-called “trade assayers” who have a license from the Central Office according to Art. 41 PMCA are allowed to import and process any gold. This also applies to gold produced by Russian refineries after 7 March 2022. The Swiss refineries are also trade assayers. The trade assayers must comply with the due diligence obligations under the Precious Metals Control Act and the Money Laundering Act. Russian gold produced before 7 March can – for market-reasons – be found anywhere on the globe. Accordingly, it is subject to market-related and continuous movements.
Consequently, it cannot be ruled out that Switzerland will continue to import Russian gold and that there will be gold products that were produced before the measures came into force.
Valcambi SA has confirmed on several occasions that it has at no time taken delivery of gold produced in Russia after 6 March 2022.
Although Valcambi SA offers a legal explanation as to its stance re: Russian gold, it does not address the morality of its decision-making process, nor does it offer any assurances that it will not purchase Russian gold in the future. Its position is determined by Switzerland’s eighty-nine year commitment to client confidentiality, supported by the country’s long-standing neutrality.
On May 7th, 2023 The Daily Telegraph published an article that was eerily familiar. In a storage room in Buenos Aires, an Argentine investigator, Pedro Filipuzzi discovered files that revealed the names of Nazis who, during the 1940s, had lived undercover in Argentina. Senior German officials, including a commander, sentenced at Nuremberg, had held bank accounts at Schweizerischer Kreditanstalt, later bought by Credit Suisse, who, in March of this year, was itself rescued by the Union Bank of Switzerland.
Like Meili before him, Filipuzzi passed the documents to The Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC) who went public with the information in 2020. Credit Suisse launched its own investigation and in April 2023, declared that it had found no evidence to support SWC’s claim. A US Senate committee subpoenaed an internal bank report which Credit Suisse also discredited.
The bank, however, did agree to bring in an independent ombudsman, Neil Barofsky, a partner at New York law firm Jenner and Block. Barofsky was inexplicably removed by Credit Suisse in November 2022. The US Senate’s budget committee subsequently subpoenaed a copy of Barofsky’s two hundred and five page report.
The document is incriminating and suggests that accounts of convicted senior Nazi officials remained open until as recently as 2020. As UBS prepares the enormous task of integrating its troubled rival, the issue of Nazi gold looks set to return to public scrutiny.
It is hard to imagine how these complex and deeply-rooted issues can be resolved – systemically and with integrity. In 1998, Chopard, the Geneva-based luxury jeweller, was commissioned by the Cannes Film Festival to create a new Palme d’Or trophy. The nineteen palm leaves are made from 18K gold and in 2014 it was announced that the trophy would henceforth be created using Fairmined gold as part of Chopard’s Journey to Sustainable Luxury. Cartier, Tiffany and others have now pledged to protect the planet from future deforestation, pollution and human rights abuses by using Fairmined gold in their watch and jewellery collections.
This is necessarily a long-term undertaking: sourcing responsibly-extracted gold will require patience and close attention by all those involved in the mining, refining and purchasing process.
These commitments to greater transparency and vigilance are encouraging, if long over-due. It seems likely that the big jewellery houses have woken up to the fact that ‘conflict’ gold is bad for business and that some of their clients, possibly even a good many of them, will refuse to buy their precious products in the future if they are unable to offer clear provenance.
As is so often the case, profit, rather than social conscience, appears to be the motivator for corporate change.
Sources and References:
von Aarburg, Daniel, dir., Die Affaere Meili – Ein Whistleblower zwischen Moral und Milliarden, Zurich: DOCMINE Productions, 2018
Allen, Matthew, ‘Holocaust Bank Settlement ‘Cleansed’ Swiss’ SWI swissinfo.ch, August 11, 2008. https://www.swissinfo.ch
Braunschweig, Pierre Th., Secret Channel to Berlin: The Masson-Schellenberg Connection and Swiss Intelligence in World War II, Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2004
‘Eizenstat Stands by his Cover’, March 9th, 2003. https://www.swissinfo.ch
Fried, Joseph P. ‘Swiss Banks Reach Holocaust Accord’, The New York Times, August 13, 1998
Garside, Juliette, HSBC Files: ‘How a 1934 Swiss Law Enshrined Secrecy’, The Guardian, February 8, 2015
Lebor, Adam, Hitler’s Secret Bankers: How Switzerland Profited from Nazi Genocide, New York, Pocket Books, 1997
Wray, Richard, ‘Market Turmoil Sends Investors Scrambling for Gold’, The Guardian, October 1, 2008