Thomas Maissen

2.49 Thomas Maissen, V Worum ging es?, excerpt from Verweigerte Erinnerung, Nachrichtenlose Vermögen und die Schweizer Weltkriegsdebatte 1989-2004, p. 645 – 662

[the crux of the debates on dormant accounts in Switzerland ]

a) Background

The sudden upsurge of the Holocaust issue strongly promoted by the United States and spearheaded by Stuart Eizenstat, then Under-Secretary of Commerce and Special Envoy of the Department of State, brought Switzerland to the world’s attention and led to a highly contested debate in the international public arena. The issue of the Holocaust sailed under the heading of redressing the remaining unresolved injustices of World War II. Controlling was an enlarged concept of morality reaching beyond the traditional concept of law. The conflict was driven by an American concept of law and particularly legal culture. These controversies amounted to the most contested impact on Swiss identity by the United States after World War II. Switzerland was a major target and perceived itself – caught off guard – as a victim by at times destructive accusations that went far beyond issues under the laws of neutrality. After the resolution of the issue of gold transactions in the Washington Accord a sudden upsurge brought to the fore issues such as dormant accounts, insurance policies, slave labourers and looted assets: This led to a long and arduous learning process. The contested international conflict led to the direct involvement of Swiss enterprises such as banks and insurance companies. Switzerland and those actors were squarely faced with the constraints of traditional notions of historians’ views on the issue and with traditional mostly legalistic views of the major legal actors in the handling of the issues of law and legal culture. In that context, history and historians played a major role in bringing about a historic change of mind set and an internationally acceptable posture dealing with the issues. Switzerland’s policy in World War II came though under thorough examination by two commissions that consisted of both Swiss and foreign members. They were the Volcker Commission, which examined assets in dormant bank accounts and the Bergier Commission, which examined the entire historical relationship of Switzerland to Nazi Germany. These commissions acted with a high degree of transparency and the results of their findings were widely published.

The “case” study at hand focuses in this part of the anthology on the issue of dormant bank accounts in the major Swiss banks, which is only one of the issues of the Holocaust debate. The refusal of the Swiss government to accept responsibility with regards the issue of the Holocaust, which was internationally acceptable, led to a problematic deferral of the responsibilities to the private enterprises themselves.

The breaking out of the issue of dormant accounts had its roots in behaviours of those banks during World War II, in the aftermath of the Washington Accord and in the sixties in domestic affairs. The conflict at hand lead to a “global solution”, which retrospectively has been described in an authoritative book by the historian Thomas Maissen in 2004 with the title “memory refused”(Verweigerte Erinnerung).

Maissen was originally a journalist, working for eight years as editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung where he was responsible for the “Historical Analysis”. Since 2004, Maissen has been a full Professor of early modern history at Heidelberg University. In 2006, Maissen became a prominent member of national and international historic Commissions. Maissen was one of the key-persons to bring about a changed and more modern view and mind-set to the discipline of history relating to the behaviour of Switzerland and Swiss enterprises during and after World War II. Maissen among others is the author of a widely read history view of Switzerland.

The text is the concluding summary, under the subtitle Worum ging es? (de quoi- s’agissait il?), of the book Memory Refused: Dormant Accounts and the Debate on World War II 1989 to 2004. The list of the major chapters of the book should enlighten the user and help to better situate the final text on the crux of the issue of dormant accounts solved by a global settlement: The introduction I, leading up to the debate II, parameters and frame work of the World War II debate (III), and the chronological description of the negotiations and of the conflict (IV). The book is written for a larger public, it is largely interview-based and profits from the journalistic skills of Maissen. The book and especially the text at hand, breathes an air of restrained shock and indignation. While a strategist usually raises the key question de quoi s’agit-il? before creating a strategy, the historian Thomas Maissen asks the question after the fact: de quoi s-agissait-il?

b) Summary

At the end “the Settlement of the issue of dormant accounts was a global solution” when it should have been the goal of the Swiss government and the Swiss banks at the outset. The Swiss strived to find the “truth” which the course of events showed, cannot objectively be established. This search for “truth” brought Switzerland into a mediatised world tribunal of public opinion, in which it was inferior to its antagonists. According to Maissen, the Holocaust issue was “not only about money” and the amount of money, 1.25 billion dollars, was to a certain extent immaterial as the Swiss perception was that it had surrendered to adversaries, which only were after money, using unjust and offending arguments which led to the high surmounting to an extortion.

The text sheds light on the “historic guilt” of the Swiss financial sector during and after World War II in handling among others the issues of dormant accounts. The real problem according to Maissen was that the Swiss government deferred the issue of handling the conflict to the Swiss banks and refused to act as a responsible actor in the issue of the Holocaust. While the United States gave to Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat a special mandate to deal and negotiate, the Swiss government refused to empower the head of task-force Ambassador Thomas Borer with adequate powers. As a matter of fact, despite the transparent results of the Bergier Commission of historians the Swiss government refused to face the issue by a refusal of memory. Instead the defence of a backward looking concept of “honour” prevented an actual and forward looking posture to come to terms with the necessity of a post-modern search in the replacement of the Westfalian system of states. This self-denial resulted in a series of timid and inadequate actions, which basically were a series of reactions and lead to an international learning process of coming to terms with the Holocaust issue. The text describes the policies of a legalistic approach of the lawyers involved which, were unable and unfit to handle the American concept of law and legal culture, which had gradually established a global reach and become a dynamic and accepted element of societal expectation to changes.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.49_MAISSEN_Worum ging es


© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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