by Alan Cowell, The New York Times, Sunday, July 6, 1997

History has become news as a younger generation casts aside its parents' comforting national myths.


For most the post-World War II era, ordinary Europeans looked back on the Holocaust as a symbolic stereotype, an awful composite of gas chambers and closed railroad cars that dwelt in the domain of German guilt.

But since Switzerland's wartime dealings with the Third Reich began hitting the headlines last year, something fundamental has shifted: the Holocaust has been reborn as Europe's business, not just Germany's, forcing countries into a painful reshaping of the narratives by which they define their individual pasts, just as they quest for a new, collective identity for the future.

Switzerland is the most glaring example of history revised, for Switzerland had excelled in promoting integrity and probity as not just the stock-in-trade of its bankers but as national virtues. "If the question is, why is Switzerland singled out, the answer is that Switzerland singles itself out," said Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress.

Stolen Art, Deported Jews

But as Switzerland insists, and as has become clear in the past few months in nations that were either occupied or neutral, Switzerland wasn't alone in cooperating with the Nazis. So - divisively in Norway, submissively in Sweden, reluctantly in France - history has become news in the broadening of an old question: not just what did you do in the war, but what did you really do?

In France authorities have acknowledged that buildings now owned by the city of Paris and 1,955 art works in French museums were stolen from Jewish families by the pro-Nazi Vichy government, which also deported 75,000 Jews to concentration camps.

In Portugal, which was like Switzerland a wartime neutral, trade with Nazi Germany netted up to 100 tons of gold - much of it looted, all of it routed through Switzerland - in return for Portuguese textiles, food and, most important, tungsten, used in the manufacture of steel for the implements of war.

In Sweden, as in Switzerland, authorities have established a commission to answer the question of why neutral Sweden traded iron ore for Nazi gold, directly fueling the German war machine. In Norway, a bitter dispute has erupted over how the country should atone for the fact that Norwegian authorities - not Nazi occupiers - arranged for the deportation to Auschwitz of 790 Jews.

The perception of the Holocaust is being refashioned into finer shadings at the insistence of a new generation young enough to be free of its forebear's denial but not so young as to have no memory at all (a third of 8,000 Swedish schoolchildren in a recent survey said they doubted that the Holocaust occurred.)

The core of evil lay in Auschwitz or Treblinka, but its echoes resonated in distant financial transactions in Stockholm, Lisbon and Zurich that bolstered Hitler's armies; in the readiness of Allied intelligence to suppress news of the beginnings of genocide in 1941, in the souls of collaborators in the Netherlands and France who helped willingly in the deportation of Jews.

"That is the crux of the matter," said Arne Ruth, a prominent Swedish newspaper editor and historian of the Third Reich. "The nations of Europe were not forced to confront the fact that the Holocaust was much, much wider than just some lunatics in Germany."

But why are nations confronted now?

"Number one, the cold war," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former United States Ambassador in Bonn and chief negotiator on Bosnia. "In the cold war the rule was that you didn't rattle the cage."

Going Easy on Allies

Thus there is documented evidence that in the immediate postwar era the United States and its allies eased their pressure on Switzerland to release German assets held by its banks, including Nazi loot. Meanwhile, Austria, which provided soldiers for the Third Reich, was paid back some of the gold taken to Berlin from its central bank in 1938, the year Hitler's troops were generally welcomed by an Austrian citizenry that is still far from any public soul-searching.

Once such global constraints as cold-war politics were removed, this argument goes, the myriad sores that had festered untended for decades re-emerged.

But there was another process at work. Secret archives were opened. Generations shifted. Even in Switzerland, from the mid-80's on, a school of younger historians and writers challenged the postwar myths of valiant resistance by which Switzerland had explained its wartime survival.

In Germany in 1995, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others of his generation sought to redefine Nazism as a period when their land and people had been occupied and oppressed by evil forces. But a year later, the debate was reopened by "Hitler's Willing Executioners," a study by a historian at Harvard, Daniel J. Goldhagen, ascribing the Holocaust to a visceral anti-Semitism among those same ordinary Germans Mr. Kohl had described as oppressed.

For a younger generation, taboos had been broken. And that generational readiness to confront the past is visible even in those European nations like Portugal whose authorities still seem as resistant as Switzerland once was to prying open the Pandora's box of the past.

Yet Europe's self-examination was neither conclusive nor universally self-starting. The traumatic catalyst in Switzerland came from the United States. In moral outrage stoked primarily by the efforts of the World Jewish Congress as well as by Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato and the Clinton Administration.

The Peril of Forgetting

The controversy fed on the anger of those who suspected their forebears' stolen assets still lay in Swiss banks, who believed Switzerland owed a moral and financial debt and who insisted that injustice should not go unchallenged and that the Holocaust should not be forgotten with the aging of the postwar generation.

The result is a heady, ambiguous and perilous mixture. Arguably, it is in Europe's interest to confront its specters as it strives for a unification in the 21st century that will determine, Chancellor Kohl insists, whether the fault lines that brought two world wars and the Holocaust to the continent's bloodiest century are finally sealed.

But as a Swiss diplomat in Europe remarked privately last week, "Too much outside pressure just makes us want to say: Enough, we'll go our own way."

In Switzerland, such sentiments, reinforced by the Clinton Administration's own critical report on the Nazi gold affair this year, have raised the same ghosts that were supposed to be laid to rest, coaxing forth a latent anti-Semitism that many Swiss would prefer to disavow.

History, thus, made news twice over in Switzerland: first by its revision, then by colliding head on with those who did not want the myths and narratives to be rewritten, certainly not by outsiders.

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