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Robbins: Congress spotlights a bank’s attempt to obscure its Nazi links

By Jeff Robbins - | May 17, 2023

Until lately, America’s longstanding tradition of bipartisan congressional investigations had been robust, recognized even by partisans as an essential feature of Congress performing the job Americans need it to do. The tradition has taken hits recently, falling victim to extreme, vitriol-infused polarization and the erosion of what had been assumed to be sturdy civic norms.

But it got a boost last month, when a subpoena issued jointly by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, forced into daylight a transparent attempt by banking giant Credit Suisse to abruptly terminate an investigation that was in the process of reinforcing its reputation for scandal. The investigation had already uncovered new evidence that Credit Suisse had actively, ardently serviced high-ranking Nazi leaders while Hitler was in power, facilitated the Nazis’ retention of assets plundered from their victims and helped Nazis escape prosecution after the war.

Thanks to Whitehouse and Grassley, the Budget Committee issued its first subpoena since 1991, compelling the handover of a report prepared by two prominent investigators hired by Credit Suisse in 2021 in order to placate its critics. Those investigators were suddenly axed last year, when they unearthed additional evidence that the bank, long known to have been a FON (Friend of the Nazis), was even worse than previously understood. The bank not only sacked the two investigators, former federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky and former U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, but also blocked the report they had prepared before being fired from being published.

Because of the congressional subpoena, that document, entitled “Report of the Independent Ombudsman and Independent Advisor to Credit Suisse,” was turned over and has now been made public. It is yet another indictment of Credit Suisse, not just because of the new disclosures of its hand-in-glove relationship with Hitler’s murderers during the war and long afterward but for the patently obstructionist moves it made to prevent those disclosures from seeing daylight.

Credit Suisse had professed to come clean about its role facilitating Nazi war crimes after a number of investigations in the 1990s shined light on its historic guilt. As the report now made public despite the bank’s best efforts to suppress it states, those investigations, while limited, incomplete and impeded in various ways, “uncovered significant bodies of information about how some Swiss banks, especially that era’s large banks, including Credit Suisse, assisted in exploiting the victims of the Holocaust; retained assets belonging to Holocaust victims and their heirs, and supported the economic foundations of the Nazi regime.”

Several years ago, however, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization named after the famed Holocaust survivor who devoted decades to documenting the Holocaust’s atrocities and the actions of those who committed or enabled them, presented Credit Suisse with information that the bank had not in fact engaged in a complete reckoning — either to itself or to the world. The Center informed the bank that there was significant additional evidence that it had financially supported Nazis in their escape to Argentina after 1945, and safeguarded the funds of such individuals, and benefited from the accounts of other Nazis whose identities it had not previously disclosed. There was evidence of what the report’s authors euphemistically call “lack of candor” on the bank’s part.

This “lack of candor” paled next to the bank’s termination of the investigation it had agreed to undertake after the Wiesenthal Center produced its evidence. Its new management claimed that there was no need for the investigators to complete their work. There is a distinct, and distinctly unpleasant, odor to Credit Suisse’s reversal. To their credit, Senators Whitehouse and Grassley have not only forced the disclosure of the report the bank sought to hide but extracted promises to follow up on the investigators’ work.

It remains to be seen whether Credit Suisse will act honorably. If it does, it will be a refreshing departure from its historical record.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.


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