Antisemitism in the history of Raiffeisen?

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Parlor bank at the 1939 national exhibition (Source: Historisches Archiv Raiffei
Parlor bank at the 1939 national exhibition (Source: Historisches Archiv Raiffeisen Schweiz Genossenschaft, St. Gallen)
On behalf of Raiffeisen Switzerland Cooperative, researchers examined the beginnings of the Raiffeisen movement in Switzerland. Their focus was on antisemitism as well as Raiffeisen during National Socialism.

Raiffeisen Group in Switzerland today has 219 cooperative Raiffeisen banks. It is based on the cooperative movement started by F.W. Raiffeisen in Germany around 1860. His concept for cooperative credit institutes was designed to improve the economic situation for the rural population; it was soon adopted in other European countries as well. On the initiative of clergyman Johann Traber, Switzerland’s first Raiffeisen bank was established in Bichelsee in the canton of Thurgau in 1900. In 1902, ten institutes founded the Swiss Union of Raiffeisen Banks.

Indications that F.W. Raiffeisen held antisemitic positions had arisen in the past. To shed light on the role that antisemitism played in the Swiss Raiffeisen movement, Raiffeisen Switzerland commissioned the Archives of Contemporary History at ETH Zurich to compile a research report. Among the materials the researchers reviewed were unpublished historical documents from the archives of the Raiffeisen Switzerland Cooperative in St. Gallen, archive documents from nine regional Raiffeisen banks and the estates and publications of key players in the Raiffeisen movement. The researchers also combed through copies of contemporary periodicals issued by the Swiss Union of Raiffeisen Banks as well as numerous other archives in both Switzerland and Germany.

Positions held by founder F.W. Raiffeisen

Led by Gregor Spuhler, Head of the Archives of Contemporary History at ETH Zurich, the researchers began by investigating what statements Raiffeisen’s German founder F.W. Raiffeisen made about Jews. The little source material available overall provides a contradictory picture: F.W. Raiffeisen used antisemitic expressions and claimed that he had founded his loan associations to free poor farmers from "Jewish extortion". In one internal administrative report, F.W. Raiffeisen employed numerous antisemitic stereotypes using pathologising language - for instance, by labelling Jews as potential "cancerous ulcers". However, this is in stark contrast to F.W. Raiffeisen’s public statements. He publicly objected specifically to the "Judenhetze" ("Jew-baiting") and highlighted that there were also model Jews whose example Christians should follow. He was not active in the antisemitic movement and did not advocate curtailing the rights of Jews.

The researchers conclude that while F.W. Raiffeisen’s statements about Jews do contain plenty of instances of antisemitic prejudice, they do not reveal a consistent antisemitic ideology. Rather, they reflect the virulence and contradictory nature of discourse at the time.

Raiffeisen movement in Switzerland

From 1902 on, numerous Raiffeisen banks were established in Switzerland - predominantly in rural areas - and the key players were catholic men’s and workers’ associations. In this religious and sociopolitical setting, anti-Jewish sentiment was widespread. According to the research report, Raiffeisen representatives occasionally made antisemitic statements and continued the narrative that F. W. Raiffeisen had freed German farmers from being exploited by "the Jews".

Between the world wars, the Raiffeisen movement shifted its allegiance away from its catholic origins and more towards the Swiss Farmers’ Union. At first, exponents of the Raiffeisen movement took a cautiously favourable view of the authoritarian political takeovers in Italy and Germany in the early 1930s. However, they were then quick to distance themselves from the National Socialist regime, which was bent on bringing the German Raiffeisen movement "into line". The NS regime and its Jewish policy were explicitly condemned in the French-language Raiffeisen Union periodical as early as 1938, but the German-language version followed suit only after the Second World War. Due to the small number of political articles featured in either periodical, however, it isn’t possible to discern a coherent ideological profile or clear political agenda for the Swiss Union of Raiffeisen Banks.

The researchers found no evidence that antisemitism played a role in the business activities of the Swiss Union of Raiffeisen Banks or any of its branches. They also found no indication that the regional banks discriminated against Jewish livestock traders or moneylenders. The statutes of the loan associations did not prohibit Jews from joining the cooperatives. In contrast to many other Swiss banks, the Raiffeisen banks and the Raiffeisen Union limited themselves to domestic business activities and were therefore not involved in the National Socialist plunder economy.
Vanessa Bleich