I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Rumours and legends surround billions of dollars worth of gold that was stolen by Nazi conquerors of European countries. Many of the purloined valuables have been accounted for but there's still a substantial amount of gold and other treasure that is said to be missing. People are looking for it.
The Scale of Nazi Theft
Gold bars and coins were lifted from the national holdings of countries conquered by the Nazis. Gold owned by private individuals was also looted.
Gold rings and teeth were taken from Holocaust victims.
According to BBC History, “The total value of Germany's wartime gold holdings is unknown, but has been estimated at more than $900 billion.” Then, there is a vast but unknown quantity that was privately held and therefore “off the books.”
During the war, much of this gold was deposited in banks around the world, particularly Switzerland, and converted into currency that could be used to pay for much needed war materiel.
In essence, banks converting Nazi gold to currency were helping to finance Germany's war. These financial houses are noticeably reluctant to reveal the provenance of their gold holdings.
As the war was grinding towards its end, a good part of the Nazi gold hoard was discovered.
Elements of Lt. Gen. George Patton's Third Army headed north from Frankfurt into central Germany. In early April 1945, U.S. soldiers entered and took the village of Merkers. As intelligence personnel questioned people in the village they started to hear rumours about gold being stashed away in a nearby salt mine. But, these were rumours so nobody took them seriously.
Eventually, Lt. Col. William A. Russell thought the stories might be worth a closer investigation. In talking to people at the mine site, he learned that, in addition to the rumoured gold, there might also be a store of valuable paintings.
On the morning of April 7, 1945, Russell and others descended 2,100 feet in the mine's elevator and immediately found 550 bags stuffed with German currency. Farther along a tunnel there was a massive brick wall with a bank vault door set into it. The following day, army engineers blasted a hole in the wall. Russell and his crew entered a huge chamber and found the rumours were true.
The cavern contained:
- 7,000 bags of gold coins and bars;
- 55 boxes of crated gold bullion;
- More than a thousand bags filled British gold pounds, French gold francs, and German gold Reichsmarks;
- More than 700 bags of American $20 gold coins;
- 400 tons of stolen artworks; and,
- Thousands of boxes platinum bars and silver plate.
When the army accountants had finished their calculations they put the value of the treasure trove at about $520 million (more than $8 billion in today's money). Vast though that sum appears, it was obvious a lot of bullion was missing from the amount the Nazis stole. The hunt started to find the lost gold.
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The Owl Mountain Train
By 1943, Hitler sensed his plan to conquer the world was running into trouble. To provide refuges he ordered Allied prisoners of war and forced labourers to dig tunnels in Poland's Owl Mountains.
Under the code name Project Riese, hundreds of miles of tunnel were excavated. History 101 tells us that while some tunnels are still accessible today “many of the sections of the catacombs are completely barricaded or flooded, with several hundred thousand feet of the original project going unaccounted for.”
There is some debate as to the purpose of the tunnels, but legend has it that a train loaded with Nazi plunder was driven into one of the tunnels and buried. The story has spurred many an adventurer to go looking for the ghost train.
In 2015, ground-penetrating radar was brought in to apply science to the search. Piotr Koper and Andreas Richte announced they had located the train and offered to dig it up for 10 percent of its contents.
They hired a team of workers and began digging. The excavations were live streamed on television. But, it turned out to be as big a flop as Geraldo Rivera's 1986 opening of a vault reputed to hold the wealth of crime boss Al Capone.
Like Rivera, they found nothing. A more careful look at the radar images revealed that what the explorers thought was the Nazi Gold Train, was actually a rock formation.
If the Nazi gold isn't under a mountain (although there are people who still believe it is) maybe it's in a lake. That takes us to Lake Toplitz in Austria, and it seems to be a good candidate.
It is known that Nazi officers retreated to a redoubt in the Austrian Alps as Allied forces were closing in on them. It is also known that the heroes of the Third Reich dumped a lot of metal boxes in Lake Toplitz, which is 350 feet deep in places.
The Guardian reports that “Nobody knows exactly what was inside. Some believe they contained gold looted by German troops throughout Europe and carried back to Germany. Others that they contain documents showing where assets confiscated from Jewish victims were hidden in Swiss bank accounts.”
Some finds have already been made. The German magazine Stern financed a search of the lake in 1959. Divers fished out forged British currency with a theoretical value of £72 million. They also retrieved a printing press and plates used to make counterfeit banknotes.
Other searchers have drowned in their attempts to find the gold prompting the Austrian government to shut down further explorations in 1963. The ban was lifted but the plunder has remained elusive.
In 2000 and 2001, a team funded by the Columbia Broadcasting System used a mini-submarine to probe the depths of the lake. All that was found was some more forged banknotes and a box filled with beer bottle caps that was planted by a prankster.
Where Is the Gold?
It's agreed that there is plenty of Nazi treasure yet to be found, and there's no shortage of theories as to its whereabouts.
Mary Fulbrook, is a professor of Germany History at University College London. She told CNN that when it came to war criminals “The vast majority of perpetrators got away with it.”
While they were escaping justice were they financially supported by the missing loot? Was the cache of gold used to help create new identities and living arrangements for the mass murderers?
As the end was near, was the bullion taken from its hiding place and deposited in foreign banks, in neighbouring Switzerland for example? Perhaps, the diehard members of the SS hid it with the hope of financing a resurgence of their demented philosophy at some future date.
If that's the explanation, why didn't they empty the Merkers Mine? Perhaps, because the speed of the Allied advance caught them off guard and they didn't have time to move it?
Isn't it possible that the villainous crud that were smart enough to escape punishment for the crimes they committed were also smart enough to whisk their ill-gotten loot out of sight of their adversaries?
- Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was complicit in the Nazi atrocities committed against Jews in North Africa including the theft of their gold and anything else of value. The treasure was supposedly loaded aboard a ship to be sent to Germany but the vessel sank near the coast of Corsica. Treasure hunters are still looking for what is called Rommel's Gold.
- General Tomoyuki Yamashita led the Japanese Army's conquest of Malaya in February 1942 and oversaw the brutal occupation that followed. He then commanded forces in defence of the Philippines where it's said he hid a vast treasure in the Sierra Madre mountains. Yamashita was hanged as a war criminal in February 1946. Treasure hunters continue to look for the rumoured stash of gold.
- The Renaissance artist Raphael painted Portrait of a Young Man in about 1513. During the Nazi occupation of Poland it was stolen and given to Hans Frank, a particularly loathsome character who was Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories. The painting moved around with Frank but when he was finally arrested by American troops in May 1945, the Portrait of a Young Man was not among his possessions; it has not been seen since.
- “Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure.” Greg Bradsher, National Archives, September 1999.
- “The Hunt for the Nazi Gold Train: What Exactly Was Found?” history101.com, undated.
- “Last Dive for Lake Toplitz's Nazi Gold.” Luke Harding, The Guardian, April 6. 2005.
- “The Mystery of Lake Toplitz: Reputed to Be The Dump For Nazi Gold, Platinum Bullion & Jewelry.” Steve MacGregor, warhistoryonline.com, January 13, 2019.
- “Most Nazis Escaped Justice. Now Germany Is Racing to Convict those Who Got away.” Atika Shubert and Nadine Schmidt, CNN, December 15, 2018.
- “Is there Really any Lost Nazi Gold?” Roger Moorhouse, BBC History Magazine, October 2020.
- “6 Legendary Lost Treasures of World War II.” Becky Little, history.com, April 17, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor