Swiss Charity Fund Tests Unity of Disunited People

Proposed sale of gold reserves raises public ire

How much Swiss "solidarity" is there?

That is the question many are asking since the government proposed creating Foundation for Solidarity, a 7 billion Swiss franc ($4.7 billion) endeavor to help victims of poverty, catastrophes, genocide, and human rights violations here and abroad. This would be in addition to a special 265 million Sfr. fund for Holocaust survivors.

But in a country where everything can be put to a national vote - from whether water-planes can take off from the lakes to whether to join the United Nations - it appears the Federal Council faces a fight.

"It's going to be difficult to get the people together on this," says Peter von Deschwanden, mayor of Adelboden, a village 70 miles northeast of Geneva, commenting on the lack of unity in a nation with four official languages. "People here are so divided. Switzerland as a nation doesn't exist. You're either from one town or another."

Under fire from the US

The government proposed the foundation as a way to get the country back on track after more than a year of intense criticism by the United States and the World Jewish Congress regarding its financial dealings with Nazi Germany. In addition, the country's banks have been under pressure to clarify what happened to accounts opened by Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

The government also views the fund as a symbolic way to usher in next year's 150th anniversary of Switzerland's modern Constitution.

"If we want to do some good to those who endured unspeakable sufferings 50 years ago then we must effect, with inner conviction ... something capable of hindering today's and tomorrow's sufferings," said Swiss President Arnold Koller in a speech before a joint session of parliament last month.

The money for the foundation would come from the sale of gold reserves in the Swiss National Bank. But in order to sell the gold, the Constitution must be changed for the reevaluation of the gold stocks. The foundation would be funded by the estimated 300 million Sfr. to 350 million Sfr. of yearly interest from the sale of the gold.

Many citizens question whether the government is justified in spending this money while the country faces more than 5 percent unemployment and a continuing economic slump.

"With the amount of unemployment here and the economy the way it is, to touch the reserves for this foundation is a crime," says Denise Vez, a teacher in Lausanne. "They should put [the money] into the economy. And creating the foundation makes everyone responsible for World War II, and that isn't right."

These arguments have become fuel to feed the fire of political parties opposing the idea.

Christoph Blocher, leader of the extreme-right Swiss People's Party, says to touch the gold reserves, the people's money, is a crime.

The conservative Freedom Party argues that since Switzerland has never before used its gold reserves to help the needy - not even during the great depression in the 1930s - it has no business doing so now.

Even among those who support the idea of the foundation, some are wary it would duplicate the efforts of existing humanitarian organizations. "The idea is 100 percent in line with the Red Cross line of thinking, but it shouldn't take over what we do," says Hubert Bucher, general secretary of the Swiss Society of the Red Cross. "As it is already the Red Cross policy to assist the most vulnerable, we are of the opinion the Red Cross movement be one of the favored beneficiaries."

Controversial questions

Coinciding with the foundation's proposal, new questions have surfaced regarding whether Switzerland also extended strategic aid to Nazi Germany and whether the troops amassed on the Swiss-German border were really necessary to thwart a German invasion.

These questions, which frustrate those of the World War II generation, also explain the opposition to the foundation, says Hans Ulrich Jost, a history professor at the University of Lausanne.

"Countries like France, the United Kingdom, the US - they all have national identities. But Switzerland doesn't," says Mr. Jost. "Historical criticism therefore is seen as against the national identity. If you begin to deconstruct the myth [of what people consider to be their past], there is nothing left."

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