LONDON -- Victorious Allied powers came up against a fierce foe at the end of World War II: Swiss bankers.
The British government said yesterday that Switzerland turned over only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in gold plunder the Nazis deposited in Swiss bank vaults during the war.
The British Foreign Office report said Switzerland paid about $60 million in 1946 to settle Allied claims on the Nazi gold, believed to have been taken from Jews and from overrun countries.
During often tense negotiations, a Swiss National Bank official "let slip" that Switzerland held more than $500 million of German gold in its vaults, a hoard valued at more than $6 billion at current prices.
Allied negotiators thought the deal was "the best they could get," according to the report, which was released by British Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind after lobbying from Greville Janner, a member of Parliament and leading member of the Jewish community.
"Rivers of gold flowed out of Nazi Germany. Its banks were in Switzerland," Janner declared at a news conference yesterday.
The report appears to increase pressure on the Swiss bank community, which is embroiled in controversy over its history of shielding the Nazi accounts.
"We're not sure where all these assets came from," said Elan Steinberg, of the New York-based World Jewish Congress. "We're sure of one thing: They don't belong to Swiss bankers."
Swiss officials have said the country is to investigate the role of Swiss banks and companies and the fate of the Nazi gold.
Steinberg said the WJC and Swiss Banking Association recently established a six-member joint commission to investigate Swiss banking records.
A Swiss banking official interviewed by Reuters indicated yesterday that Switzerland considers the matter of the Nazi gold closed.
"We don't know at this moment what amounts were involved, but the whole question was settled in the treaty between the Allies and Switzerland," said the official, insisting on anonymity.
" We cannot say now that [agreement] is invalid."
In the past week, the British media have been filled with historical nuggets uncovered by the World Jewish Congress from recently declassified U.S. government documents.
One document revealed Adolph Hitler held a Swiss bank account that contained book royalties from "Mein Kampf."
Another document showed that U.S. intelligence identified millions in secret Swiss accounts held by Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was hanged for war crimes.
And in what read like the plot to the Frederick Forsyth thriller "The Odessa File," a document detailed German industrialists meeting to resurrect the Third Reich after the war.
British World War II historian Donald Cameron Watt said the new documents add to the story of how the Germans robbed Europe.
"It has been fairly clear for a very long time, even allowing for exaggeration, there was an awful lot of gold looted from the Jewish community and from Europe," he said.
Cameron Watt said the release of the British government's "Nazi Gold" report "sets out clearly what happened and shows the problems that the governments [of Britain, France and the United States] faced negotiating during and after the war with the Swiss." The Allied governments could only estimate the scope of the Nazi plunder, valued from $545 million to $550 million in 1945 by the Bank of England. That would be more than $6 billion worth of gold today.
Much of the gold -- a mixture of gold bars, jewelry, even the gold tooth fillings from Holocaust victims -- was melted into bars as the Germans tried to finance their war machine. Gold was also diverted into overseas accounts or hoarded outside Germany.
When the war ended, the race was on to retrieve the gold.
The Americans were so intent on gaining the Nazi assets from "uncooperative" neutral countries, they "wished to employ the threat of sanctions," a move rejected by the British, according to the report.
The report said the Swiss and Allies disagreed on a number of economic issues but "gold was in fact the chief point of contention."
Confronted with documentary evidence of their gold dealings with the Germans, the Swiss finally acknowledged buying $415 million in German gold from 1939 to 1945, and another $88 million of gold that could originally be traced to Belgium.
Pub Date: 9/11/96