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Neutral countries walked tightrope with Germany during WWII

May 8, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For countries like Switzerland and Sweden that were within easy striking distance of Nazi Germany, neutrality during World War II was a political high wire act without a net.

Both countries came under criticism Wednesday in a U.S. government report on the efforts to recover gold the Nazis looted from occupied countries and from Jews and other Holocaust victims.

The report was particularly critical of Switzerland, where it said ``neutrality collided with morality.″ It noted that the Germans sent $400 million in looted gold through secretive Swiss banks in transactions that ``had the clear effect of supporting and prolonging Nazi Germany’s capacity to wage war.″

Singling out Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Argentina, the report said the ``neutral countries were slow to recognize and acknowledge that it was not just another war.″

What are the rules for a neutral country? Are there things it can and cannot do?

``I suppose that will always be a matter of great debate,″ said Monroe Leigh, who during a long career in international law has served as legal adviser to the State and Defense departments.

The United States stretched common practice early in 1941 when as a neutral it permitted volunteer pilots to go to China and fight against the Japanese, a unit that became famous as the Flying Tigers.

``A good many members of the Air Force resigned their commissions and volunteered,″ Leigh said. After the war, he said, Congress passed legislation restoring those volunteers to the same place on the pension rolls they would have had if they had remained in the U.S. military.

How ostensibly neutral countries react toward belligerent nations depends on where their true sympathies lie. The U.S. government wanted to help China in its fight against Japan, just as it favored England over Germany.

``I suppose the Japanese could have complained about that as unneutral behavior,″ said Leigh. ``But I think it’s very hard to be absolute about that.″

Many of the countries cited for dealing with Nazi Germany tried to balance that relationship by also assisting the United States and its allies.

``In those dramatic days this neutrality policy meant for Switzerland a tightrope walk between adaptation and resistance,″ said Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti.

Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, coordinator of the study of efforts to recover Nazi gold, said that at the height of Nazi power, the neutral countries were understandably fearful that standing up to demands from the Germans could lead to disaster. He found less justification for their continued cooperation with Germany after it was apparent that the allies were winning the war.

Gerhard Weinberg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina and author of ``A World At Arms,″ a history of World War II, said many European countries flirted with neutrality only to be later overrun by the Germans.

``Most of the European neutrals were too stupid to see that, just as the Belgians, the Dutch, and the Luxembourgers, and the Danes and Norwegians had been too stupid to see it in 1939,″ he said.

Weinberg said there was no doubt that Hitler planned eventually to occupy Switzerland.

Sweden supplied iron ore and ball bearings to Germany throughout the war and allowed German troops to cross its territory at one point. More than a century earlier, neutral Switzerland allowed Napoleon’s army transit rights.

According to Weinberg, when the Swedes gave the Germans permission to cross their territory, they also gave the allies intelligence information about the troop movements.

Portugal sold tungsten to both the Germans and the allies and eventually allowed the United States and England to use the Azores as bases for their battle against German submarines.

Spain, on the other hand, was clearly sympathetic to Germany and supported German espionage efforts, Weinberg said.

``It is more and more a matter of a political decision than an international law decision,″ Leigh said.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Donald M. Rothberg covers national security affairs for The Associated Press.

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