Stuart E. Eizenstat Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Politics, Law, and the
Search for 'Imperfect Justice': Conversation with Stuart E. Eizenstat, former
Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; April 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 5 of 6

Reparations and the Search for Imperfect Justice

While you were holding that post [as ambassador to the European Union], you were called by Assistant Secretary of State Dick Holbrooke and asked to take on a special mission, which then became a -- what shall we call it? -- a side job, as you held all these other roles. Let's talk a little about that. That assignment, which became a six-year-plus task, you describe in great detail in your new book, Imperfect Justice. What did he ask you to do when he made that call?

It was a call completely out of the blue on a typically wet, dreary, January day in 1995, in Brussels. Dick asked me to take a short-term assignment. "A few months," he said, not a few years as it took. He wanted me to try to encourage the new democracies in the old communist Eastern bloc, now that communism was over, to return the property that had been confiscated by the Germans and nationalized by the communists, to the emerging religious communities -- Jewish, Catholic, Protestant -- so that they could bring back their churches, synagogues, cemeteries, schools, community centers, so they could rebuild their shattered religious communities.

I have to say that I was advised by my staff in Brussels not to take it. It would be a diversion of my responsibilities as an ambassador to the European Union. My fellow ambassadors in Eastern Europe discouraged me. I, nevertheless, decided to take the assignment. I think when you're in public service, you do what you're asked; that's the whole essence of public service. But also because I remembered my confrontation with the Holocaust through the lessons of Arthur Morse, learning what had happened. As much as the United States had done to win the war, as much blood and resources as we shed, we had done so little during and after the war to help the refugees, that I thought that this would, in a way, help remove a moral cloud. It would be completing a circle for both the country, and certainly for me. So I decided to take that assignment, little realizing it would lead into so many different areas beyond communal property restitution of Eastern Europe.

In reading your book, I get the sense that you were responding to this problem through many dimensions in your being, so to speak. In part, you were responding as a Democrat because you wanted to correct the legacy, because you were not satisfied with the Roosevelt administration's refusal to take in Jews in during World War II. Is that fair?

It is fair. Yes, it is fair. I think that in many respects it was a culmination of a lot of the strands in my life that you've brought out -- the injustices I saw during the civil rights period growing up in the 1950s, my confrontation with the Holocaust through Arthur Morse's writing about the Roosevelt administration. I saw it as a way of trying to rectify a wrong. I was fortunate to have the full support of President Clinton, of two secretaries of state, Christopher and Albright, of Secretary of the Treasury Summers when I moved over to the treasury -- they all were willing to let me take on this additional responsibility when I was doing my regular responsibilities as well. It meant additional burden, oftentimes, for them. But in the end, we accomplished a great deal.

I called my book Imperfect Justice because the justice is imperfect. It obviously didn't help those who were killed during the war. It didn't help those who died between the end of the war and the time we began in the mid 1990s. And even for those we have helped -- and by the way, the majority of the money goes to non-Jews, not for Jews -- it's not possible to have a final accounting for the devastation to human life and property. But it was, nevertheless, justice at some level. And that, I think, is something that the country can be very pleased about, that the U.S. took a major role in rectifying this wrong, even though it took fifty years after the war to do so.

Interestingly enough, your background and where you were when this task was given to you made you sensitive to why you should take the assignment. But when you were given this assignment, even you didn't know all the facts. There's a learning process that you tell us about in this book in which one problem led to another. So it's as if to say you didn't know the problem set in all of its manifestations, although you were sensitive to the need to undertake this challenge.

Harry, you couldn't be more correct. The fact is, we got into it almost blind. We had no idea on earth of what we wanted. We had no idea that the Swiss National Bank had been the principal financier of the German war effort by taking what it knew to be looted Nazi gold stolen from the central banks of the countries that the Germans occupied, and converting that into the hard currency that the Germans needed to finance the war. We had no idea that we would confront private Swiss banks, who for fifty years had kept Holocaust survivors from reconnecting with the bank accounts their parents or grandparents had set up to keep their money out of Hitler's clutches, by asking for things like death certificates [from survivors seeking restitution] when Auschwitz didn't provide them. We had no idea we would learn the dimensions of the slave labor that was used by the Germans to man the war effort -- that they took 10 million people and forcibly moved them to the German farms and factories to free up Germans to fight on the war front. We had no idea that there would be 600,000 paintings that had been stolen by the Germans, of which 100,000 were never returned. We had no idea there were unpaid insurance policies for fifty years. So it was like peeling back the layers of an onion: one discovery led to another.

As somebody who comes to a role like this with a sense of, "Well, yes, I should do this," you're also bringing your background as a lawyer and somebody who's worked in politics. So was this primarily a legal problem, or was it primarily a political problem?

It was the fusion of the two. And that's why, for me, it was so meaningful and relevant, because it brought together the skills that I had. My mediation of these massive class action suits that were brought by class action lawyers against Swiss banks, German and Austrian slave labor companies, and French banks were coming in at a legal context. These were suits brought in a U.S. court against private companies by private victims. I was coming into this at the request of all sides as a U.S. government representative. So while the negotiations were occurring in the context of lawsuits, the negotiations, Harry, were not in any way a typical, legal negotiation. They were political negotiations. We had governments involved who were not parties to the lawsuits. We had nongovernmental organizations like the World Jewish Congress, representing survivors, who were involved in negotiations. We had a whole set of political actors who were not formally parties to the class action suits, but who were essential to their solution. So it was a fusion of legal and political, and policy and diplomatic actions. And it took the combination of those skills to reach the settlements that we did.

Had I not been a lawyer, I don't think I could have done it. Had I not been, on the other hand, someone who had had a long experience in public policy from the Carter years and even going back to the Johnson White House, I don't think that I could have done it as well. I needed to have, and my team needed to have, both of those skills. I had a wonderful team from the State Department, from Justice, and from Treasury -- scores of people working for me and helping me.

And on occasion you had to work with political allies in the United States, who you, as a liberal Democrat, wouldn't necessarily find as natural allies; for example, Senator D'Amato of New York. Tell us about that.

There's the old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. I grew to have an enormous affection for Al D'Amato, a conservative, populist Republican, who at the time I got involved in the Swiss bank affair was investigating (through his chairmanship with the Senate banking committee) Bill and Hillary Clinton for their alleged involvement in the Whitewater scandals. The fact is that D'Amato realized that those hearings were going nowhere. He was facing a tough reelection in 1990, and he realized that unless he turned this around very quickly, that he was going to lose that election. So in 1996 he got involved in this. His election was in 1998, and he pivoted 180 degrees. Out went his unpopular Whitewater hearings, which were mired in quicksand and getting nowhere, and making him unpopular, and in came the Swiss banks. [He was] hoping that this would be his avenue to reelection in 1998. It didn't happen that way, but he had the largest Holocaust population in the U.S.

Edgar Bronfman, the head of the World Jewish Congress, activated President Clinton, a close political supporter, and D'Amato, for whom he was a major constituent. So I worked hand and glove with Al D'Amato. There were many things and many excesses by D'Amato against the Swiss that I had to oppose, but had it not been for Al D'Amato's hearings, and for his determination in raising the Swiss bank issues, I'm not sure that I would have been successful in my negotiations. So he deserves a lot of credit.

In a way this whole process was a microcosm of the new emerging world, even though you were dealing with problems from history. This set of activities that you were engaged in to find justice for all these differently situated individuals and groups who had been aggrieved, the solution was not being sought in the UN. It was happening because of the leadership and the power and the choice of the United States to do something about the problem. Talk a little about that.

You said it very well. I think that my book is, in the broadest sense, a great tribute to the United States of America. We're the only country that would have had an interest in intervening and bringing justice to survivors. Had the United States and Bill Clinton, and the secretaries of state that I mentioned, and Larry Summers and the White House staff not been interested in doing justice from a moral standpoint (not just a legal standpoint, because the lawsuits, Harry, frankly, were on legal quicksand), I would not have succeeded. This was one in the court of public opinion, not in the court of law, and it spoke volumes about the fact that in the last part of the twentieth century that the United States was willing to try to rectify wrongs that had occurred over fifty years ago, and to remove a cloud from its own history of not having done enough to help victims during and after the war. I think that's a major part of the story, and something for which we can be very proud to be Americans.

The other thing that comes out in this book is that one of the key players here was NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). I found intriguing your capacity as historian, as opposed to actor, to lay out for us the conflicts, for example, within the Jewish community about the way to proceed on these issues. Tell us a little about that, because it helps us understand that even nongovernmental organizations have different interests, and they come to play, for example, in the settlements over Polish religious properties and who would get control of whatever reparations occurred.

Yes, I think that what we found here was what I call a new form of foreign policy for the twenty-first century. We're used to foreign policy being conducted very formally between governments. What we were engaged in was a negotiation where in the negotiating room were not just governments, but representatives of private corporations who for the first time in history, Harry, were being held civilly accountable for their participation in acts of genocide. We had nongovernmental organizations like the World Jewish Congress and others representing survivors, and reconciliation foundations set up by the Germans in Eastern Europe, who were all in the negotiating room. Sometimes it was like a mini-United Nations, we had eighty people, sometimes, or a hundred people altogether.

I think that this is the form which foreign policy is going to increasingly take -- nongovernmental organizations on environmental issues like global warming are insisting on having a seat at the table, and governments can't simply keep them on the sidelines anymore. I negotiated the Kyoto global warming accords as well for the U.S. government, and I found that one had to deal much more intimately with nongovernmental actors, who oftentimes knew the offer I was going to make before I made it. So this was the way foreign policy is going to be made. It is, if I may say so, a democratization of foreign policy. It will make foreign policy even more messy and more complicated, but it will open up foreign policy in ways that it hasn't been traditionally used in the old Metternich era of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The problems you confronted and the solutions you found fall under a category of seeking justice, finding justice between generations, looking back at the crimes that were committed in the past and saying, "What can we do right now, and what is fair, and what is politically possible?" Talk a little about the problems, and why this agenda is not just about one particular set of problems that needed to be solved, but that the solutions you were coming up with told us something about what we're going to have to do in the future.

Harry, you are very correct. Even though we were dealing with one specific set of issues -- the Holocaust -- what we did has great applicability to future conflict resolution. For example, one of the ways one deals in post-conflict situations is through restitution and reparations, helping those who are harmed. In Iraq today, perhaps there will be some fund created out of the oil [profits] for those who were victims of Saddam's brutality.

A second way is to create a truth and reconciliation commissions, something like the commissions that we encouraged twenty-one countries to do to look at their past during the World War II era, from Lithuania to Argentina. South Africa did it by allowing victims of apartheid to come and testify about their wrongs; not just to get restitution and reparations, but to get it off their chest and to create a historical record for future generations of what happened.

Third is the issue of apologies. Now, this may sound trite, but we got the presidents of Austria and Germany to apologize for their countries' violations of human rights through slave-enforced labor. Apologies can be very important. The U.S. Congress, in 1988, officially apologized to Japanese-Americans for their internment in California and elsewhere in the west. So apologies can also play a role in conflict resolution and healing the wounds of war. Of course, war crime tribunals go back to the aftermath of World War II. Nuremberg was a war crimes tribunal, defining something as a crime against humanity in the 1940s.

What I did here with my team and with the president's support was the civil side of Nuremberg. But we have war crime tribunals now trying Milosevic for his crimes in the Balkans. We have war crimes tribunals in the Hague, under the UN auspices, for Rwanda. We've created an International Criminal Court. Unfortunately, this administration hasn't participated in it, but it's available. Perhaps in Iraq there ought to be a war crimes tribunal to deal with the Ba'ath party leaders who committed such gross violations of human rights. I think all of the work that we did has created some precedents.

One last one, Harry, and that is that our class action cases in which I was the mediator have spawned a whole generation of new ones -- Korean "comfort women" suing for their forced prostitution, American POWs who were forced by the Japanese into slave labor, apartheid victims suing the U.S. companies for their alleged participation in apartheid, the Saudi royal family being sued for their alleged financing of terrorist activities. All of these, including the African-American reparations movement, are, in a sense, based on the work that we've done.

This problem of memory is very important. It's clearly something that was important to you in [creating] the Holocaust Museum. It clearly is important today, because memory is what has to be reconciled. It's a process. Restoring memory helps us to get to accountability. A subset of the innovative solutions that you came up with involved using some of the funds for future education, for recording this history and making it part of the curriculum so people in this country and internationally could say, "This actually happened. Let's learn from it, so it doesn't happen again." Talk about those solutions.

I wanted memory, not money, to be the final word on the Holocaust. As important as it is that they had gotten $8 billion in settlements, and art, insurance, and property and bank accounts returned, I wanted something more lasting than that. What we tried to do is to create commissions and task forces to deal with that. For example, there is a sixteen-country Holocaust education task force with Sweden, Poland, France, the U.S., Germany, and other countries to try to implement Holocaust education programs in school systems around the world -- not to simply look back at the gruesome details, but rather to teach young children what happens when intolerance goes unchecked, when good countries and good people stand on the sidelines in the face of gross violations of human rights.

That's the kind of mission that we were on. It was creating these twenty-one-country commissions to look at their role during World War II, because -- you said it very well -- a country can't be held accountable unless it understands its own history and its own flaws. That's why, by the way, for the slavery issues, I would like to see both a public apology for slavery and a presidential commission to look at slavery, because I think it's important that a country recognize its own faults so it can become stronger in the future.

I've often been asked, for example, with the Swiss, what's the most important thing they can do? I don't think it's paying more money, as much as it might have been desirable. No. It's reading their own excellent historical commission under Professor Bergier, which lays out the complicity of their government in the way in which the war was financed by Germany during the war. If the next generation of Swiss were to read that, it would be the single most important thing they could do to strengthen their country in the future.

Next page: Conclusions

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