In a storage room in Buenos Aires, an Argentinian investigator made a discovery that would reverberate through a boardroom more than 7,000 miles away.
Pedro Filipuzzi unearthed what researchers claimed were files that revealed the names of 12,000 undercover Nazis who lived in the Latin American country during the 1940s and had bank accounts at a Swiss lender: Schweizerische Kreditanstalt, later to be renamed Credit Suisse.
Filipuzzi passed the documents, which ran to more than 500 pages, to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), a human rights organisation known for tracking down Nazis. The group went public with the material in early 2020.
The SWC’s accusation was explosive: that the Swiss bank was still harbouring previously undisclosed dormant accounts that held assets looted from victims of the Holocaust.
Credit Suisse launched an investigation in response and last month said it had found no evidence to support SWC’s allegations that many individuals on the list had accounts at Credit Suisse during Adolf Hitler’s reign.
However, a US senate committee rejected Credit Suisse’s position and instead accused the lender of stymying its own investigation. After using its powers of subpoena, the committee obtained a scathing internal bank report claiming Credit Suisse maintained more than 100 previously unknown Nazi accounts.
Credit Suisse has subsequently sought to discredit the report, claiming it has “numerous factual errors” and was based “on an incomplete understanding of the facts”.
The row begs the question: are Swiss banks still failing to come clean about their Nazi ties?
Switzerland’s banking system is well known for its high levels of discretion owing to its bank secrecy laws.
In 1934, the Swiss government passed a new Banking Act, making it illegal to disclose account information to third parties without a client’s consent and allowing for the creation of anonymous bank accounts.
This allowed persecuted Jews to open accounts in a bid to hide their assets, but also opened the door for Nazis to become customers thanks to the country’s neutral status in World War II.
Swiss lenders ended up playing a central role in bankrolling the Third Reich at a time when it faced heavy sanctions from Allied powers.
During the war, the Swiss were content to exchange gold plundered from Jews in exchange for Swiss francs, which, at the time, was the only transferable currency apart from the US greenback.
Mark Pieth, a professor of criminal law at the University of Basel, says around 80pc of gold held by the Nazis was transferred to Switzerland during the war years, while the rest went to Italy, Portugal and Turkey. He adds that about 90pc of the gold that was shipped to Switzerland was deposited in the Swiss National Bank.
After the war, the Allied powers pushed for an investigation into bank accounts held by German citizens in the Alpine nation. Ultimately, though, the Swiss failed to agree to liquidate all accounts and pay the assets as reparations.
It was only after international counterparts threatened sanctions in the 1990s that the country’s financial industry started properly reckoning with its Nazi past.
In 1998, two Swiss banks – Credit Suisse and UBS – pledged to settle lawsuits with Holocaust victims and their relatives for $1.25bn (£990m), seemingly drawing a line under the saga.
That was until the apparent discovery of the 12,000 new accounts belonging to Nazi émigrés. The contested files threaten to reopen a dark period in Switzerland’s banking history.
Credit Suisse brought in forensic research firm AlixPartners to lead the new investigation, while Neil Barofsky, a partner at law firm Jenner & Block, was hired as an independent ombudsman.
Last month, the Budget Committee of the US Senate accused Credit Suisse of hampering the investigation by “inexplicably” removing Barofsky in November.
However, the committee obtained Barofsky’s 205-page report, dated 15 February 2023, after issuing a subpoena.
The report is scathing and claims that Credit Suisse appears to have maintained accounts – the vast majority of which have not previously been disclosed – for nearly 100 people who were either senior Nazi officials in Germany or members of Nazi-affiliated groups in Argentina.
It alleges that 70 Argentine accounts with plausible links to Argentina-based Nazis were opened with the bank after 1945, and at least 14 of those accounts remained open into the 21st century – some even as recently as 2020.
Meanwhile, investigators identified 21 accounts from a list of notorious high-level Nazis provided by SWC, including one that belonged to a Nazi commander who was sentenced at Nuremberg and another belonging to an SS commander who was convicted.
The sentenced commander’s account remained open until 2002, but the bank has not yet provided asset information from this account or for 85 other identified accounts, the report claims. The report also claims that Credit Suisse’s willingness to cooperate with the investigation abruptly changed last summer amid a management overhaul.
Republican senator Chuck Grassley, who sits on the committee, said Credit Suisse – which was recently rescued by its biggest rival UBS in a humiliating state-engineered takeover – has left stones unturned in investigating its Nazi ties.
He said: “While Credit Suisse initially agreed to investigate evidence of previously unidentified Nazi-linked accounts as a result of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s relentless pursuit of justice, the information we’ve obtained shows the bank established an unnecessarily rigid and narrow scope, and refused to follow new leads uncovered during the course of the review.”
A historian brought in by Barofsky said SWC’s discoveries identified “new and important facts” that contribute to “the historical knowledge” of “the relations of the CS banks with the Nazi regime”.
However, Credit Suisse attempted to discredit the report, saying it contained “numerous factual errors, misleading and gratuitous statements and unsupported allegations that are based on an incomplete understanding of the facts”.
The bank said: “Investigators found no evidence to support SWC’s allegations that many individuals on an Argentine list of 12,000 names had accounts at Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (SKA), Credit Suisse’s predecessor bank, during the Nazi period.
“The investigation also found no evidence that eight long closed accounts identified in this period contained assets from any Holocaust victims.”
SWC has pledged to continue its investigation into whether Swiss banks have concealed information about their Nazi holdings. As Credit Suisse prepares to be integrated into its fiercest rival, Nazi gold will be one issue on a long list of problems that UBS will be forced to contend with.