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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
History book stirs up Swiss anger
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Bern

Swiss children study a new history book
Teachers say the book forces children to ask questions
A new school history book is causing controversy in Switzerland, because of its treatment of the country's role during World War II.

The book, called Hinschauen und Nachfragen or Look Back and Ask Questions, is the first school book to take a more critical look at how neutral Switzerland managed to get through the war without being invaded or attacked, despite being surrounded by countries occupied by the Nazis.

The traditional view, which has appeared in every history book up to now, is of the plucky little country which mined its tunnels and alpine passes, sent every able-bodied man to guard the borders, and stared down Hitler.

"There was a myth that Switzerland wasn't attacked because of the well-armed army, because of the soldiers at the border," said history teacher Paul Bitschnau.

This book is telling our children that Switzerland somehow had part of the responsibility for the Holocaust
Luzius Stamm
Swiss MP

"But in the 1990s that changed.

"Questions were asked about our financial relations with Germany, about what happened to the Jewish bank accounts, and about how Switzerland treated refugees."

The debate of the 1990s, which attracted enormous international attention, forced Switzerland to re-examine its history.

A government-appointed commission produced an exhaustive report revealing that Switzerland had maintained financial ties with Germany throughout the war, and that several thousand Jewish refugees had been turned away from the borders, in effect condemning them to die in concentration camps.

Veterans' anger

Ten years on from that debate, the inclusion of this information in a school history book has still caused anger. Members of the right-wing Swiss People's Party have even called for the book to be banned.

Joseph Spring, left, and friends in wartime France
Refugee Joseph Spring, left, was turned away at the Swiss border

"This book is telling our children that Switzerland somehow had part of the responsibility for the Holocaust," said member of parliament Luzius Stamm.

"The whole book suggests that Switzerland survived because of the co-operation with Germany, and it's written in a way that the children will think 'oops, my grandfather collaborated with Germany'. That is totally unacceptable."

Nowhere is the anger greater than among Switzerland's war veterans. At the start of the war the Swiss government mobilised more than half a million men - in effect every able-bodied man in the country.

In 1940, after the fall of France, an attack by Germany was thought to be imminent.

Some Swiss joined the SS, others tried to kill Hitler
Peter Gautschi

"We were given orders that, if Germany attacked, we were to blow up everything important," said former soldier Werner Grenacher.

"Our roads, our bridges, even the factories and schools, and we were ready to do it."

"The worst thing about this book," added Ernst Rebsamen, "is that it doesn't show what we felt in our hearts. We hated the Germans, and they knew we wouldn't let them in."

"It was our army that protected us," he insisted, "not the business deals with Germany."

Hard choices

But the book's authors insist there is no intention somehow to diminish the efforts made by ordinary soldiers at the time.

Gold held in Switzerland taken by the Nazis from Holocaust victims
Switzerland's role in storing Nazi gold has come under scrutiny

"We make it clear that Switzerland was ready to defend itself," said Peter Gautschi. "But we show the other things too."

"The point about this book is that it approaches history in a new way. It's not about lists of dates and facts, it's about showing the choices people were faced with at the time."

"Some Swiss for example let in refugees and sheltered them, others turned them away. Some Swiss joined the SS, others tried to kill Hitler."

And Mr Bitschnau agrees. "There is never only one interpretation of history," he said. "There are several."

"That's why this book is so good for the pupils. It presents them with different versions and forces them to ask questions, find answers, and finally to make up their own minds."

Why the book is causing controversy

Country profile: Switzerland
18 Jun 06 |  Country profiles
Swiss to pardon refugee helpers
01 Jan 04 |  Europe
Swiss confront unsavoury past
22 Mar 02 |  Europe

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