Napoleon looted the great art collections of Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Romans took their pick of Greek statues, and many a Spanish conquistador's ship sank on the return trip because of its own ill-gotten weight.
Helping oneself to other people's goods has gone on since humans had more than two sticks to rub together. To the victor goes the spoils of war--the credo of conquerors immemorial.
Against this long and dismal history of plunder, it may be sadly unremarkable that Switzerland's banks knowingly trafficked in gold, art and other assets stolen by Nazi Germany or that long after World War II they held on to funds deposited in the 1930s by Jews for safekeeping. The attempts of family members to get at that money were to no avail.
Now international pressure and the determined efforts of Jewish organizations and the U.S. government have forced the Swiss banks to begin to make amends. Earlier this year, the three largest banks agreed to establish a charitable fund to benefit Holocaust survivors and their heirs--Jews, Gypsies and other victims of the Nazis. It should never have taken this long.
Last week, the Swiss Bankers Assn. published a list of 2,000 dormant World War II-era accounts in newspapers around the world (including The Times) and on the Internet.
That the list held some surprises--including a few accounts that appear to have been held by Nazis or their relatives--should not detract from the moral accounting its publication represents, even if a half-century late. Long lives and long memories have undermined steadfast Swiss claims of political neutrality and broken the Swiss banks' hallowed confidentiality. Where moral responsibility is concerned, there should be no quiet corners, no discreet hiding places.