The past as the memory of objects

The revelations that Swiss banks accepted Nazi gold show how history has become more a concatenation of symbols than a memory of experience, argues David Cesarani in London

One of the intriguing questions arising from the latest “revelations” about the conduct of Swiss banks during and after World War II is why it took so long for this particular chapter of history to hit the headlines. The fuss also says a great deal about our relationship to the past.

Like many of the recent stories from the Nazi era, it hinges on “secrets” and “new” documentation. It shares a common theme with other controversies that revolve around property and questions of restitution or compensation, such as the contested ownership of looted artworks held in Russia.

The magnetic power of these issues suggests that the generations for whom the war is distant history can most easily relate to it through sensationalism and by analogy with current preoccupations, such as fiscal probity.

Of course, there are many banal reasons why some episodes of history remain inaccessible for ages, particularly in Britain with its culture of official secrecy.

Comprehensive histories can only be written when researchers have access to all the source material including contemporary reports, memoirs, oral history and official documents generally released after a lapse of 30 years. Intelligence sources are the last to be disclosed, but they rarely add more than detail to the existing picture.

The story of Nazi gold is a case in point. The official documentation concerning the financial blockade of Nazi Germany and the hunt for looted gold was released into the public domain in Britain in the late 1970s and was soon used by economic historians working on the war years. In 1989 the American historian Arthur L Smith published an admirable account of how the Nazis plundered Europe’s central banks, and how the Allies tracked down the gold, recovered it and parcelled it out.

Despite the “new” documents and access to classified material, the recent British Foreign Office report adds only marginally to this study.

To most people, however, it is news, and the media have cultivated the spurious notion that no one knew these facts until they “revealed” them. They have fed the appetite of a public which can only connect with the past when it is something happening now.

Ours is an age of hyper-fashion and instant gratification in which anything “old” is staid and boring. The past can only be “brought to life” if it too is new. The only bits of the past that qualify for this treatment are “secrets”, events or their causes that were unknown when they happened and have since been “hidden”. When they are “unearthed” they are experienced in the present.

Anyone watching a documentary or reading an article in which “secret history” is revealed participates in its unfolding. We were not “there”, but “there” is now, here, in our newspaper or on our TV screen. History ceases to be the realm of the boring dead and becomes something in which we ourselves participate. “Told here for the first time”, it becomes virtual history in which we are actors.

Even solid historians find they must play this game, selling their projects to trade and academic publishers as “a major new revision” or work “based on previously unseen documents”, often from “newly opened former Soviet archives”. This results in an inflation of expectations amongst the public. It also fosters suspicion and paranoia. If it is “new” 50 years later, why was it concealed?

The sense of betrayal is especially acute amongst the losers in history. Yet the recent vociferousness of Jewish survivors of Nazi genocide has other sources than anger that their shabby treatment was covered up or ignored for so long.

We live in a culture of complaint and compensation. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of Holocaust survivors picked themselves up and started new lives. Some went home initially to see if they could recover their houses or property, but many wrote it off. They were glad just to be alive, and too trained in cynicism to expect fair treatment.

When Israel negotiated a reparations agreement with West Germany in the 1950s, thousands of survivors rioted outside the Knesset, condemning the deal as “blood money”. Nothing could give them back their former lives or compensate for lost loved ones.

Such a response is barely credible in today’s climate when we are all “survivors” and everyone is a potential litigant. Indeed, some elderly refugees and survivors, who did not take up the compensation schemes eventually agreed with the Germans, are being urged to seek compensation by children or grandchildren for whom such recourse is more natural and acceptable.

Jews are not alone in this quest for recompense. Germans expelled from the Sudetenland by the Czechoslovak government after the war are escalating their demands for the restoration of lost land and property. The victims of Communist expropriation throughout Central and Eastern Europe are clamouring for restitution. And let us not forget the British survivors of the Japanese labour camps.

In these, and similar cases, history has been reduced to litigation. The object of memory, the past, has become the memory of objects: land, property, cash. This makes the past instantly accessible to the amnesiac readers of the newspapers.

We all know about the courts and compensation. The Nazis become the bad employer of all time, the ultimate case of race discrimination, the defamation- mongers to beat them all.

It all makes sense: or does it?

Much of this history-as-news is driven by stereotypes. The story of Nazi gold appears logical due to the concatenation of symbols. The association of Jews with gold is a basic anti-Semitic stereotype. In fact, the vast mass of Jews murdered by the Nazis were poor people living in Poland, the Baltic states or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The wealth looted from them was insignificant compared to the tons of gold plundered by the Nazis from the banks of vanquished countries.

This is precisely why in 1945 and 1946 the Allies washed their hands of “non-monetary gold”: it was more trouble to recover than it was worth to them, although for the survivors it was all they might have had.

The image of the malevolent “gnomes of Zurich” serves automatically to explain Swiss conduct. But the Swiss faced real dilemmas of neutrality during the war, and the Allies, as well as the Nazis, used their services. In retrospect it was outrageous that the British colluded in the concealment of looted gold and made no effort to help survivors of Nazi persecution recover their assets.

Yet Britain felt a debt of gratitude to the Swiss for preserving an island of democracy in Nazi Europe and for services rendered, and had bigger things to worry about.

The use of stereotypes has short-circuited clear thinking. History has been turned into a free-fire zone for the most unlikely of moral avengers. In an editorial on the Swiss banks, the Financial Times of London declared that “it is not too late to recognise that looted gold is a moral question”. Indeed, but surely this is not a unique case and, well, isn’t that sort of thing still going on?

It is a depressing thought, but the popularity of many stories left over from the Nazi era may be explained finally because they allow us to express moral indignation about realpolitik and business practice without tackling the instances of treachery and exploitation occurring under our noses, today.

– David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University, England, and director of the Wiener Library, London –


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