Remembering Jean-François Bergier: Swiss historian





“You have to be responsible for your past,” the Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier once said. And he knew exactly how challenging that could be for his country.

For Bergier, a distinguished academic historian but not a particularly well-known public figure, was pitched into the centre of Switzerland’s fraught debate about its wartime past in 1996 when he accepted an invitation to head an international commission of historians investigating aspects of the country’s relationship with Nazi Germany. The commission was set up after an earlier scandal over the revelation of dormant accounts in Swiss banks belonging to victims of the Holocaust.

In the end its work covered not only questions of assets and economic relationships with Germany but also the especially sensitive question of the thousands of Jewish refugees who were refused entry to Switzerland. The commission concluded that the Swiss authorities had knowingly sent thousands back to face death at the hands of the Nazis. “Large numbers of persons whose lives were in danger were turned away — needlessly,” Bergier stated.

As individual as well as historian Bergier felt caught between what he knew was a deceptive, rose-tinted view of Swiss history and neutrality on the one hand, and what he saw as unduly ferocious attacks on his country’s overall reputation on the other. Setting out more of the facts, in a spirit of academic inquiry rather than emotional political debate, was, he believed, what he could best offer.

His love of history developed as a child, after being born in 1931 into what he proudly described as one of the oldest families of Lausanne. His father was a pastor who had ministered to a French-speaking congregation in Italy but had moved back to Switzerland shortly before their son’s birth, uneasy at the way in which Italian Fascist society was developing.

Bergier recalled how in the summer of 1940 he sensed the tension between his idyllic Alpine holiday and news of the fall of France while British bombers flew overhead en route to Italy. Such experiences, he believed, fed his historical imagination, together with a fascination for the person of Napoleon.

A sense of the broader European world surrounding the Swiss redoubt was fed by studies in Munich, Paris and Oxford. He was much inspired by contact with the great French historian Fernand Braudel, though disappointed at Braudel’s lack of enthusiasm for Alpine history, seen as peripheral to the main European story...

... Jean-François Bergier, Swiss historian, was born on December 5, 1931. He died on October 29, 2009, aged 77



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