Detlev VagtsPeering in – an outsider’s view: Switzerland, International Law and WWII

Detlev Vagts, ‘Editorial Comment: Switzerland, International Law and World War II’ (1997) American Society of International Law Vol. 91, No. 3,  pp. 466-475.


The text is an editorial comment which appeared in The American Journal of International Law in 1997 while Vagts was Co-Editor-in-Chief. The article was written at a time of, and makes reference to, renewed interest in Swiss actions during the Second World War owing to growing attention to unclaimed deposits of holocaust victims in Swiss banks. The culmination of these investigations was the ‘Swiss Banks’ Settlement Agreement whereby two Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse agreed to pay out $1.25 billion to victims of the holocaust and their descendants. The text provides an informative account of Switzerland’s actions during the Second World War from the perspective of international law. Covering the issues of Switzerland’s territorial integrity, their trade dealings with both sides, the role the Swiss played as intermediaries, their refugee policy and the contentious financial dealings this text provides an illuminating and readable account of one of the country’s most controversial periods.

Deltev Vagts has written widely on neutrality specifically in relation to the Second World War in his article Neutrality Law in World War II and more broadly in The Traditional Concept of Neutrality in a Changing Environment. More recently, amid a renewed interest in Switzerland’s role in WWII, he provided the foreword for Herbert R. Reginbogin, 2009 book The faces of neutrality: A comparative analysis of the neutrality of Switzerland and other neutral countries during World War II.


In his Editorial Comment Switzerland, International Law and World War II, Professor Vagts examines the extent to which Switzerland’s actions during World War II were compatible with International Law at the time. Particularly attention focuses on Switzerland’s neutral status established at the Congress of Vienna in November, 1815. Vagts covers the areas of territorial integrity, trade, intermediaries, Swiss refugee policy and financial matters in view of Swiss neutrality. Not simply concerning himself with the legal basis for the country’s actions Vagts also highlights the moral obligations that may have been expected of Switzerland and the immense difficulties the country faced in remaining neutral when surrounded on all sides by countries controlled by the Third Reich.


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