Dormant Accounts and Banking Scandals
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Swiss banking is no small business, and bankers levy a considerable amount of power in Switzerland. This does not protect them from making very foolish errors. In the late 1930s, Swiss bankers pushed for a law to be passed forbidding any bank employee from disclosing information about a client. This was the formal birth of Swiss banking secrecy, a practice born in the late 18th century to protect the wealth of French aristocrats fleeing the Revolution. The laws were passed to give added protection to the people fleeing a government that increasingly looted individuals from their assets, Nazi Germany. Thousands of people deposited their savings, big and small, into Swiss banks, so that whatever happened to them, their money would be safe for their offspring. Many of those depositors were never seen again, and years afterwards people came calling on the banks to reclaim their parents’ assets. The bankers asked them to prove that original depositors were deceased and that they were the legitimate heirs, which was often impossible for people whose parents had died in concentration camps. Now begins the painful part. Instead of actively looking for the legitimate owners of the money, the banks just stood there, hiding behind banking secrecy to say that they could not publish a list of dormant account holder names. In the late 1990s, the scandal broke out, with several international Jewish organizations filing class-action lawsuits in the US against the Swiss banks. The Swiss banks reacted very poorly and in the end were forced to pay $1.25 billion on top of all the money found in dormant accounts. The Swiss people recognize that the banks behaved in an irresponsible and inept way in the handling of both the dormant accounts and the latter scandal. However, many Swiss also have the bitter impression that some Jewish organizations have used a good cause to get both money and publicity at the expense of the Swiss, taking advantage of the US litigation system. In additiona they also feel that most of the other countries that surround Switzerland have similar skeletons in the WWII closet, yet have never suffered the same humiliating media attacks worldwide. Some think that Switzerland has been used as an example for bigger countries (such as France) that could not be treated in such a fashion.

Whatever your knowledge of these topics, you are strongly advised against starting a discussion about them with your Swiss acquaintances.

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