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ICRC in WW II: allegations by the OSS


In 1996 serious allegations were made on the basis of hitherto secret US intelligence files, concerning some ICRC staff during World War II. The ICRC's response.

In the spring and summer of 1996, the international press reported allegations based on documents kept in the files of the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, concerning individuals who had worked as delegates for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during the Second World War.

Faced with the seriousness of those allegations, and aware of their moral implications, the ICRC decided to carry out a thorough historical investigation of the matter both in its own archives and in public records, so as to shed as much light as possible on the activities of its delegates. To that end, it set up a special working group on the Second World War.

In September 1996 the ICRC issued an initial response to these allegations, in which it set the record straight concerning a number of statements taken from the OSS documents by a team of researchers working for the World Jewish Congress and United States Senator Alfonse D'Amato. In this response (published in the International Review of the Red Cross , No. 314, September-October 1996, pp. 562-567), the ICRC undertook to complete its investigation of the information contained in the documents. (Read an updated version of the response , dated 28 February 1997.)

 Infiltration by Nazi agents?  

The allegations made against former ICRC delegates are of two kinds: firstly, protection of German assets and illicit dealings in funds or valuables stolen from victims of Nazi persecution; and secondly, espionage or even infiltration of the ICRC by agents working for Nazi Germany. The names of 49 people are mentioned in the OSS documents. Of those, 21 are identified as " representatives of the International Red Cross " .

An investigation of each case rapidly confirmed that only 18 of the people in question had worked for the ICRC during the war. Three of them appear to have committed reprehensible acts, but in the other 15 cases the investigation seems to indicate that the allegations basically stem from a deep-seated ignorance of the ICRC's role and activities. During a visit to the United States from 1 to 4 October 1996, ICRC representatives informed the World Jewish Congress and Senator D'Amato of these conclusions. On the basis of the initial results, the ICRC undertook to continue its historical investigation so as to elucidate the matter fully. For their part, its American contacts assured the ICRC that if any further discoveries were made in the files, they would inform it accordingly. To date no new documents have been brought to the ICRC's attention.

The research conducted by the ICRC over the past three months has therefore focused on the three cases of Giuseppe Beretta, Jean-Roger Pagan and Jean Sublet. The results provide certain useful additional information, without however significantly modifying the ICRC's initial response.

 Personal gain  

While the reasons which led Jean Sublet to pass on information to the Germans have not been established, we now know that the motivation underlying the fraudulent activities or illicit dealings undertaken by Giuseppe Beretta in Turkey and the espionage activities of Jean-Roger Pagan in North Africa, was that of personal gain.

Giuseppe Beretta was never convicted by a court of law. The only charge ever proven against him is that he violated the provisions of the law on the protection of Turkish currency, in short that he exchanged money on the black market. Notwithstanding, in the light of the evidence it had, the ICRC considered that it should dismiss Beretta. There is, however, no proof that Beretta made wrongful use of the ICRC mail service to transfer funds or valuables. Similarly, no document has confirmed that the 710 gold coins, seized by the Turkish police and entrusted to him by a German national, Willy Goetz-Wilmos, were of dubious origin.

This series of allegations, the fact that Goetz was accused of being a Gestapo agent and various unelucidated aspects of the case led the ICRC to dismiss Beretta and still give sufficient grounds for doubt.

 Sentenced to death  

Jean-Roger Pagan worked for the ICRC from March 1941 to March 1942, and left it to settle in French Africa. On 14 October 1943, he was arrested in Algiers, then tried and sentenced to death by a military court in Algiers for espionage on behalf of the German intelligence services. He was executed on 2 December 1944.

During the investigation, Pagan allegedly admitted that he had been recruited in Geneva by two members of German intelligence, Maximilian von Engelbrechten, in charge of Red Cross affairs at the German Consulate General in Geneva, and a certain von und zur Mühlen from the German Legation in Bern. His assignment, for which he apparently received between 10,000 and 20,000 Swiss francs, was to pass on information of an economic and military nature concerning the Allies in French North and West Africa.

At the time of his arrest, Pagan implicated an ICRC delegate on a temporary assignment in Algiers, Georges Graz, who was immediately arrested by the French authorities. In the weeks preceding the arrest, the two men, former primary-school classmates, had met in Algiers. Graz was released on 18 October 1943 and no charges were brought against him during Pagan's trial. The ICRC received confirmation of this from the archives of the French military legal authorities in Le Blanc on 7 November 1996.

 "Ill-considered" disclosure  

Finally, in November 1944, Jean Sublet, assigned by the ICRC delegation in Algiers on 1 October 1943 to work as a volunteer in Tangiers, was accused of having passed on information to the German Consulate in Tangiers and thus of having allowed a Frenchman working for Germany to evade the French legal authorities in Morocco.

The activities of which Sublet is accused date back to 1942. As soon as the ICRC became aware of them at the end of November 1944, it dismissed Sublet who, although acknowledging the facts, admitted to nothing more than having disclosed confidential information in an ill-considered manner.

The research conducted in connection with the other delegates whose activities were called into question in the OSS documents indicates, at the current stage, that the allegations are either unfounded or based on a lack of knowledge of the ICRC's work. The updated response entitled " The ICRC infiltrated by the Nazis? " thus does justice to those individuals, who, during the Second World War, decided to devote their lives to helping victims.

The research conducted so far in the Swiss Federal Archives, both in the files of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and in those of the Public Prosecutor's Office, have been carried out on the basis of documents taken from the OSS archives. They have revealed only three more or less serious cases of individual misconduct by employees or former em ployees of the ICRC. Moreover, these cases primarily cast doubt on the employees themselves.

 "Mission Impossible"  

In the period immediately after the war, the ICRC compiled a historical record of the successes and failures of its action to assist both prisoners of war and civilian victims, be they Jewish or otherwise, of Nazi persecution. In addition to its monumental Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World War (1 September 1939 - 30 June 1947) , it published a white paper in 1946 that contained a summary of its activities to assist civilian detainees and a collection of its reports on visits to concentration camps in the final weeks of the war.

As this was insufficient, the ICRC decided in 1981 to open up its archives to Professor Jean-Claude Favez, requesting him to conduct an independent study on its activities to assist Jews and other minorities persecuted by the Nazis. The study, entitled Mission impossible? The ICRC, deportations and the Nazi concentration camps published in French in 1988 and reissued in 1996, was an opportunity for the ICRC once again to examine a painful past and learn lessons for the present. In addition, it represented the first step towards opening up the ICRC archives to the public, which was decided on 17 January 1996 and has now made it possible for historians and the public to undertake research conducted in the past at the initiative of the ICRC itself.

(COM/PR-KGD Ref. LG 1997-025)