"Bystanders, Rescuers or Perpetrators? The Neutral Countries and the Shoah"

Dr. Corry Guttstadt
Presentation by Dr. Corry Guttstadt



IHRA series, vol. 2

Bystanders, Rescuers or Perpetrators?

The Neutral Countries and the Shoah



Corry Guttstadt (Project Coordinator)

Thomas Lutz (Topography of Terror Foundation, Berlin)

Bernd Rother (Willy Brandt Foundation, Berlin)

Yessica San Roman (Centro Sefarad-Israel, Madrid)


Presentation by Dr. Corry Guttstadt


It is a great honour for me to be here and have the opportunity to present the volume.

Before starting I would like to express our thanks to the IHRA for financing the conference as well as the publication,

and also a very warm thanks to all my colleagues who were involved in producing this book.

I think having the publication ready 15 months after the conference is quite a record.


Here is the book : Bystanders, Rescuers or Perpetrators?
The Neutral Countries and the Shoah

Never fear: I won’t summarise the whole 300 pages in 12 minutes
but instead try to highlight some of the main questions or topics dealt with in the book.


What do Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Turkey have in common??

One correct answer would be that until 1986 none of these countries was a member of the European Union (but that’s not our topic today).

The second commonality is that all these countries stayed neutral during World War II – at least they were non belligerent and were not occupied by Nazi-Germany.


But this is almost the only commonality:

The countries were completely different

- regarding their social or economic situation

- regarding the religion of the majority of the population (Sweden, protestant. Spain and Portugal, catholic. Turkey, Muslim) and regarding the role of religion (Turkey, secular. Spain and Portugal with a catholic state religion.

these countries fundamentally differed regarding their political system:

Sweden and Switzerland were democratic (while Sweden was a kingdom), Spain and Portugal were ruled by fascist dictatorships and Turkey was governed by a single party-state with strong dictatorial traits.

In the same way, their geographical position was different:

While most of the countries were located on the periphery of Europe (but in almost opposite corners) Switzerland was situated as an island in the middle of the Nazis’ area of power.

The geographical position naturally affected the level of real and of perceived threat from Germany:


[Still, as far as I know, the concrete fear of a possible German occupation was especially predominant in Turkey in the spring of 1941, after the German occupation of Greece: Turkey blew up the bridges at the boarders to Bulgaria and Greece and evacuated parts of the population in the European part into Anatolia.]


The geographical position of course affected the policy of these countries towards Jewish refugees: while most of the countries considered themselves transit places for onwards passage to the Americas (in the case of Portugal) or Palestine (in the case of Turkey)

for the enclosed Switzerland it was clear that once Jewish refugees reached Swiss soil, they would stay.


And finally the degree of neutrality of these countries was also quite different:

While Spain sent the so called “blue division” - war volunteers to fight on the German side on the Soviet front, hence directly participated in the German war efforts,

Portugal permitted the Allies to use a base on the Azores (but this was in 1943, when everybody changed sides),

and Turkey held treaties with all sides of the war; and in practice worked with all sides: Turkey permitted the British to maintain an – unofficial -base at the Aegean see and at the same time provided the Germans with important Turkish intelligence information from inside the soviet Union.

Especially for Turkey, Spain, and Portugal it is fair to say that their policy strongly depended on the course of the war – and the desire to be on the winner’s side at the right time … in other words a quite pragmatic or even opportunistic kind of neutrality… But this orientation towards the winning side also affected the attitude of these countries towards Jewish refugees or the readiness to support Jews in Hungary after the German occupation of the country (as is meticulously explored in the article by Rebecca Erbelding in the volume)


In my opinion –and this was one motivation for organizing the conference - the ambivalent policy of these countries makes them so interesting and important for research and also for teaching – it is not black or white. Their policies were marked by all thinkable shades of grey.


In contrast to the occupied or Nazi-allied countries, the neutrals had far more potential or more leeway to independently define and adjust their politics.

It is the ambivalence of their stance, the inconsequence and the opportunistic policy that marks the “common point” among the neutrals.

The politics of all the neutrals were mainly a mixture of pragmatism, considerations of internal and external factors and manoeuvring vis-à-vis German pressure. This is important to underline. It shows how misleading it is to judge the politics of that time with our moral criteria of today.


Vivid examples of this ambivalent stance are the politics towards Jewish refugees (which build the first part of the book).


Already in 1938, – as a result of anti-Semitic measures and violence in several countries the number of Jewish refugees increased dramatically – one country after the other closed its border to Jewish refugees.


It should be underlined here that it was first and foremost Nazi-Germany’s policy that caused the Jewish refugees to become “unwanted”: 

Before they could leave Germany the Nazi government plundered the Jews of almost all their wealth, so that most of them were impoverished when they left the country (as Susanne Heim describes in her article).


1938 was prior to the war, meaning that at this time the countries we were looking at were not yet “neutral countries” – but almost all of the later “neutral” countries issued laws or regulations preventing Jews from entering their respective countries,

 although interestingly: they all had different arguments for doing so:  .

In Switzerland the prevailing public debate was „Überfremdung“ – a xenophobic discourse arguing that too many aliens would harm Swiss culture.

At the same period, Turkey - as a newly founded nation state – pursued a politic of “Turkification” that aimed at the homogenisation of the population as a Turkish Sunni body.

And in Sweden the government argued that too many Jews would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, after the November pogrom public pressure by democratic organisations and by Jewish bodies in Sweden and in Switzerland could achieve that a limited number of Jewish children from Germany were admitted to both these countries (Still a very limited number).

In Turkey under the pressure of the single party dictatorship there was no “democratic public” and the Jewish community in Turkey was intimated and not in a situation to make any demands.


During the war years and after the beginning of the so-called final solution, the question of refuge took on a whole new dimension and importance. Millions of Jews in the grip of the Germans were now threatened by detention, deportation and murder, but in addition to the restrictive policies mentioned above, now due to the war most of the borders were closed, a more or less organized emigration (as in 1930 from Germany) was impossible. 

Now, flight was only possible organized by Jewish aid organizations or as illegal escape via networks of local resistance groups.

The example of Switzerland shows how ambivalent the Swiss policy was in practice: especially after the occupation of the Western European countries in 1940, Switzerland had become a very important destination country for Jews from Belgium and France.

In August of 1942, exactly at the peak of frequent roundups against Jews in France, at a time when every week thousands of Jews were shipped to the extermination camps, Switzerland reinforced its repressive laws against Jewish refugees and ordered illegal refugees to be turned away.

On the other hand, the Swiss authorities allowed those Jews that managed to reach the country to stay, so that about 28,000 Jewish refugees found shelter in Switzerland. One reason for the mitigation of the restrictive politics was again public pressure, especially from Christian circles.


In contrast, in the case of Spain or Portugal it was the course of the war –the German defeat becoming more and more foreseeable – that caused a mitigation towards Jewish refugees in 1943 and in Turkey it was the declaration of Roosevelt from 30th March 1944 –after the occupation of Hungary – that led to a change in Turkey’s policy: 4 days after this declaration Jewish refugees on the small vessel “Milka” – arriving from Romania were allowed to disembark in Istanbul (and transit the country to Palestine)


As my final point, I would like to mention the significant difference in the state of Holocaust research regarding the different neutral countries but also the huge gap regarding the state of Holocaust research done in the different countries, as well as regarding the level of information and awareness about the Holocaust in the societies and how the topic is dealt with in public education. 

Both these topics form the last two chapters of the book.

In Switzerland, as well as in Sweden, since some time we have a considerable body of research and public awareness regarding the Holocaust, and it is fair to say that the main motivation and one of the main focuses is the critical assessment of the countries own politics during this period.

On the contrary, in Portugal and Spain this process started many years later and in Turkey it is just the beginning. 


One factor that triggered the reassessment and critical reappraisal was the debate on the restitution of Jewish property that the Germans had stolen from the Jews and transferred to bank accounts in the neutral countries
[the investigation triggered by the so called Eizenstatkommission, during the 1990s.

In the course / or as a result of this debate several of the countries in question formed their own investigative commissions. The best known is the Bergier commission in Switzerland, whose final report consisted of 25 single volumes and was finished in 2002 (François Wisard presents this process in his article).


In this context we can see a remarkable difference between the neutral countries: while the debate on the “Nazi-Gold” and on other Jewish property stolen by the Nazis (along with other factors: as in the book by Paul Levine in Sweden)

in Switzerland and Sweden triggered not only the creation  of investigative committees but also initiated critical research regarding the policy of the respective country during the Holocaust, so we have in the last 10-15 years a whole body of new research regarding different aspects of the politics towards Jews.


On the contrary, Turkey which was also named among the countries involved in the trade with Nazi-gold (and in laundering stolen Jewish property) assigned one of the biggest public relation companies in the US and a historian by the name of Stanford Shaw in order to launch and spread the myth of Turkey having done its utmost to save the Jews…

(which is a violation of historical facts).


However Turkey was not at all the only country that produced such kind of rescue myths to be used for political purposes:

Spain spread a similar legend already some years after the war: aiming at breaking the international isolation of the country caused by the crimes of the Franco-dictatorship (As discussed in the article by Alejandro Baer and Pedro Correa-Martin-Arroyo).

And in Argentina it was the investigation of the journalist Uki Goni, that proved a similar “rescue myth” to be nonsense so that then president Nestor Kirchner in 2005 apologized and removed a plaque falsely honouring the Argentine diplomats for saving Jews.


I hope, or actually I am confident, that this book facilitates a critical reassessment in the concerned countries, for researchers as well as for the public in general, since the similarities in their politics as well as in the produced myths might make this easier


To sum up

I would like to express my hope, that this volume fills a gap and will be used in practice:

all the articles are quite short and to the point and

the structure of the book makes it easy to use as an introduction to the topic or as a textbook.


Thank you!

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