After Die göttliche Ordnung, Petra Volpe made a big-budget TV series set in the aftermath of the Second World War. Her screenplay contrasts two strands of postwar Helvetic history: the charitable action for Jewish refugees from the concentration camps, and the deals made by certain Swiss businessmen to exploit the Nazi defeat.
Like Volpe’s earlier work, the emotions of family drama lead the audience gently into complex politics. The main narrative sees a pair of brothers thrust up close and personal to the powerful Frei family. The entrepreneurial Johann Leutenegger (Max Hubacher, AKA Der Verdingbub) avoided army service and finished his studies before bagging himself a bride – the very young Frei daughter. He soon takes over his father-in-law’s textile business.
Johann’s new wife Klara (Annina Walt) volunteers at a refugee project to house and educate busloads of young Jewish boys at an empty school in the country. The boys are fresh from the concentration camps, and probably in transit to Israel, although noone really knows what will happen to them, least of the boys themselves.
The extent of their trauma shocks Klara – and leads her closer to Hershel, the handsome de facto leader of her charges. What can Klara do to shield Hershel and his friends from geopolitical chess games? Or should she be taking more care of herself?
Meanwhile, her brother-in-law Egon Leutenegger (Dimitri Stapfer) has had a much harder war than his brother Johann. He returns from dark duties on the Swiss border with a vengeful streak spurred by guilt and alcohol. Egon is a polive investigator, and his hunt for Nazi refugees takes him to dark underbelly of the Frei business – and on a collision course with his own brother.
Petra Volpe once again distils macro-level power shifts into an elegant, simple plot for the broadest possible audience. The three leading players overlap not only in their involvement in two historical controversies, but also two plot standards – sibling rivalry on the one hand, a love triangle on the other. Key themes of silence, secrecy and financial pragmatism to justify dodgy business are hammered home.
Worth a watch?
A comparatively huge budget (eight million Francs) went towards this visually immersive world with a large, decent cast. Stapfer in particular as traumatized Nazi hunter Egon puts in some great work. Volpe’s storytelling is unrepentantly moralistic, and Egon’s journey from attempting to make positive change out of guilt to doing so out of conviction is a moving and convincing one I happen to support wholeheartedly.
Unfortunately, the two other main characters give us less to root for. In short, they’re unlikeable. Apparently Volpe based Klara’s part of the story on a genuine Swiss heroine called Elizabeth Weber, who championed the Jewish cause successfully long before the war was over; but her fictional equivalent’s “valiant” actions are impulsive and ill thought out, often bringing danger or misplaced hope to the vulnerable. It doesn’t help she’s a humourless wet blanket.
Die göttliche Ordnung portrayed and celebrated the powerless, but Frieden‘s tales belong to the Swiss bourgeoisie. This is not a bad thing per se – I like posh Victorian novels as much as the next English Lit graduate. But here, like the worst parts of Dickens, the misery of the vulnerable seems to exist purely so Klara can experience a deep sensitivity to their plight. I sympathized with the boys abstractly, but they were too one-dimensional to form an emotional bond with. Meanwhile, the concentration camp portraits drawn by these kids made it hard to then sympathize with Klara and Johann when their relationship hit the rocks – in the confines of their opulent boudoir.
Finally, and most fatally – Frieden is predictable. I don’t mean the history of it – details are genuinely interesting, especially anything to do with the politics of early Israel, and the intricacies of Nazi finance in Switzerland (see below). But Volpe’s talent for elegant simplification can’t make up for the fact that when Beat A happens, you can usually guess Beat B.
Two scenes in the whole six-episode run had me properly excited: the first when an Jewish refugee child arrives at a posh party with known Nazi sympathizers in attendance; the second when a main character breaks down in front of an unexpected visitor. Exceptionally, neither scene was telegraphed in advance.
I hope very much that Volpe’s future projects do more of that and a lot less spoon-feeding. There is, at least, enough here to wonder what she’ll do next. And plenty of Swiss history to mull on!
Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners).
Language: Swiss German, High German. D, I and F subs as for all recent SRF productions online.
Swissness Lab Report: Nazi Gold
The real-life outcome of that postwar insecurity, of course, was the Hochkonjunktur, an economic boom period during which the Swiss population got richer and richer and the image of the immensely wealthy Swiss was formed. Stolen Nazi wealth contributed to that.
Without going into spoiler details, Frieden depicts a pair of Nazi soldiers who made their fortune plundering their wealthy victims. Jewellery, paintings and silverware could be saved and sold, and the money funnelled out of Germany; powerful Swiss could profit from this if they were well-connected and sympathetic to the Nazi cause, or willing to turn a blind eye for profit in a time of instability. Allied powers, especially the Americans crawling over West Germany, and principled Swiss tried to stop this from happening. All of this is depicted in the series.
More chilling was the destiny of the large amounts of looted gold. Its dark dalliance with “Nazi gold” has become a cliché of Switzerland, sometimes mentioned in the same breath as its chocolate and cheese. But it wasn’t always so. For various reasons, including the final war trials of concentration camp guards and the sudden availability of WW2 archives in former communist states post-1989, interest in Swiss actions during the war was renewed in the 1990s. One of the results of this was the Bergier report, a thorough deconstruction of Swiss “neutrality” which we’ve already seen in Das Boot ist voll (stopping Jewish refugees enter the country) and Grüningers Fall (applying the “J” stamp to Jewish passports). But the main impulse to write the report to investigate the money taken by Swiss banks during the war – most of which the Nazi depositors had stolen from their victims.
To be honest, the “Gold Transactions” section in the Bergier report is complicated. For one thing, the gold economy changed constantly throughout the war as Allied pressure on the Swiss mounted and loopholes were found or created. And we can never know how much gold came from plundered Belgian and Dutch banks, and how much came from the concentration camps, since it was all melted together. One report concludes that a sample of five tonnes of Reichsbank gold contained at least 29% “from concentration camps: teeth, eye glasses, fountain pens, jewellery and the like” (Steinberg).
Why was Nazi Germany so desperate to sell gold to Switzerland? Historian Thomas Maisson summarizes it as follows:
The convertible currency [gold] made it possible for the Third Reich to acquire strategically important raw materials (wolfram, manganese, crude oil) from neutral countries such as Portugal, Spain and Turkey as well its ally Romania.Geschichte der Schweiz, my translation
A triangular trade was in place. First, the Germans sold their looted gold to get Swiss Francs. They used this money to buy essential war materials from the countries named above. Then, those countries would give the Francs back to Switzerland – by buying gold from them. Everyone goes home with something, and the plundered gold was thus entered into the global market.
However, a great deal of Nazi gold remained locked in the Swiss vaults in the decades after the war. This was extremely lucrative for the Swiss because of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. For those like me who didn’t study economics, Bretton Woods was the deal drawn up to stabilize global economic relations. It created the IMF – and it pegged all currency to the super-strong US dollar, and therefore, implicitly, to the value of gold. Steinberg concludes:
The new gold standard suited suited the Swiss perfectly. They had accumulated a huge gold reserve from trading with Nazi Germany and in the postwar period suddenly found themselves in a time of rapid economic growth [Hochkonjunktur]. Between 1950 and 1973, Swiss Gross Domestic Product per head in US dollars went up from $8,939 to $17,953, which put Switzerland at the top of the table of Western countries by a margin of more than $4,000 over Sweden and Denmark.Why Switzerland, “History”
The Swiss did pay some reparations after the war, but also stayed strategically passive and struck several dodgy international deals. Suffice to say, it took till the 1990s for methodical research to take place; and until 2020 for mainstream popular culture to really address these issues, in the form of Frieden.
J. Steinberg, Why Switzerland? (Third Edition), “History”
E. Conway, 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know, “Currencies and exchange rates”
T. Maissen, Geschichte der Schweiz
The Bergier report, Part 4.5 (available in English here).