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Jewish World Review / June 3, 1998 /9 Sivan, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Judge the crimes of other eras? How can we, were we there?

PARIS -- A fundamental problem in international relations today, and a growing one, is the inability or unwillingness of people in public affairs to consider the events of another period in the context of the beliefs and prejudices of that time.

They judge people of another time according to the attitudes of today. There may be valid criticisms to be made of periods when values were less tolerant than ours, or rested on more prejudice or ignorance, but the actions of people at that time have to be judged in the context of that ignorance and prejudice, and not in terms of the more extensive or complex knowledge that exists today. Otherwise criticism simply feeds the self-righteousness of the people making the judgments. This is true of much "politically correct" discussion of history.

People of another time cannot justly be condemned for what they did not know, or because they acted under the conventional wisdom of that time, or under duress. In difficult times people look after their elementary self-interest. That may not be admirable, but it is all but universal.

The new U.S. report on what Nazi Germany did with the gold it seized from Jews says that much of the gold transited by Swiss banks to neutral countries, where it bought raw materials and other goods necessary to the German war effort. The neutrals in question were Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey.

A New York Times report on the document remarks that "the draft report stops short of suggesting that the help to the Germans by those neutral nations helped prolong the war in Europe." It surely is a reasonable assumption that it did prolong the war, but that does not make the governments of those countries accomplices of Nazism and genocide.

The United States at exactly the same time was allied with Stalin and supplied and financed the Soviet Union's war against Germany. Does that make it guilty-by-association for Stalin's monstrous crimes?

The United States wanted to defeat Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union did too; hence there was an expedient alliance, covered over by much mendacious and sentimental propaganda in the United States about the Soviet Union's actually being a democracy of a special kind, and describing Stalin as a genial father of his people. Read the mainstream American press of the period. You will find no condemnations of Stalin or Stalinism.

Spain and Portugal during the war had right-wing authoritarian governments, hostile to liberal democracy, which they associated with revolution, atheism, and decadence. The Franco regime in Spain had come to power with German and Italian military assistance.

The two governments' natural disposition from the 1930s forward was to sympathize with the claims of national renaissance made by Italy's Fascism and Nazism in Germany. In both cases this was combined with prudent unwillingness to get mixed up in Hitler's and Mussolini's war. Franco considered doing so if he would be rewarded with Gibraltar and French-ruled Morocco. Hitler was unwilling to pay the price. Spain sat out the war.

Sweden was caught geographically between German-held Norway and Denmark on one side, and Finland on the other, a wartime ally of Germany, attempting to recover lands seized from it by Stalin.

There were many in the conservative Swedish establishment who sympathized with what they considered an anti-Bolshevik German regime. However the Swedes sold minerals, steel, and precision goods to Germany because if they had not, Germany would have invaded Sweden and taken what it wanted.

Turkey had been Germany's ally in the first world war, and there was much German investment in the country. An early German war aim was to seize control of the Middle East by an offensive linking up its forces in the Balkans with the Afrika Korps. Turkey's neighbors, Syria and Lebanon, were controlled by Vichy France, Greece was occupied by Germans and Italians, and Bulgaria, another neighbor, was (until late 1944) an ally of Germany. Once again, what were the Turks supposed to do?

The Swiss were the unluckiest of all, at the very center of Western Europe, completely surrounded by Germany, German-controlled France, and Germany's ally, Italy. Some Swiss, and some Swiss banks and companies, behaved in edifying ways, and some in despicable ways. The Swiss government made what it considered prudent compromises with Germany. How can it have done otherwise?

There are legitimate claims to make against institutions and individuals in the neutral countries of the second world war, but vast generalizations about whether the neutral countries "tilted" toward Germany display ignorance of the realities of the past.

The past, of course, is never completely past, as this affair shows. But the attempt to hold the present everlastingly guilty for the past represents a distraction from the present, in which new crimes are being committed that could be prevented.

Does American policy today, or Israeli policy, display the lucidity and moral courage in the pursuit of Middle Eastern peace and justice that the United States demands of the wartime Swiss and Swedes? I think that is an appropriate question, and I think the answer is "no."


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.