During WWII the Germans were in need of money to buy foreign materials to conduct the war. It is estimated they stole almost 500 metric tons (around 16 million troy oz equal to $23 billion USD @ $1,450 / oz) from various governments. Most was taken from Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The French gold (about 2,500 metric tons or 80 million troy oz) was saved from the Germans in a rather interesting story that I will save for later.
It is very roughly estimated that around 100 tons were passed through Switzerland and then sent to neutral countries to purchase goods. There are stories of the Vatican bank helping Germany to launder and store gold as well as the German gold train buried in a tunnel in Poland and secret gold transfers to Argentina. Those stories are undocumented and have been the subjects of speculation for decades.
During the bombing of Berlin the Reichbank in Berlin sent a good portion of its reserves out of Berlin to its branches throughout Germany. Later in the war as the allied armies advanced on Germany the reserves were recalled to the central bank in Berlin and then rushed to the town of Merkers in central Germany to be stored in the local salt mine along with various art treasures. Other German looted treasures were stored in the mine at Altaussee in Austria, Neuschwanstein Castle (the fairytale castle built by King Ludwig), Bernterode and a multitude of other places. Hamburg is said to have been the depository of 5,000 church bells stolen throughout Europe. When the Germans invaded a country they came with shopping lists looking for specific items of value. They sent over 300 streetcars from Amsterdam back to Germany as well as multiple trainloads of stolen furniture from Paris.
Hitler was obsessed with building the new German Fuhermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. He had his architect design everything and had a scaled model built. Hitler planned to make it the grandest museum in all of Europe and was looting artwork from everywhere to fill the new museum. Goring had teams shopping for his personal art in all occupied countries and filled his country home, Carinhall, just east of Berlin to the brim with priceless art.
Before the invasion of Europe General Eisenhower signed an order to preserve the art treasures of Western civilization. The MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) section of the military was formed to preserve Western culture whenever possible. The “Monuments Men” did heroic work and saved much of the artwork of Western civilization. Thousands of years of history and culture were built upon centuries of works of art in paintings, architecture, churches, tapestries and other priceless works. The history of Europe and the whole of Western civilization was at stake. The communist wanted to tear down the past and rebuild society. General Eisenhower wanted to preserve that history as it would be important after the fighting was over. One of my favorite quotes is by Sir Isaac Newton, master of the mint in England, president of the Royal Academy and all around brilliant thinker. He stated, “If I have seen futher than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” All advances in science and culture come from the seeds planted by previous generations. A shared history is our culture.
But back to the town of Merkers where the German treasure was stored in a salt and potassium mine that was 2,100 feet deep. In addition to the Reichbank’s reserves General Patton’s Third Army found looted SS gold and 400 tons of priceless artwork. Some was from German museums but most was looted from private collections throughout Europe.
The Reichbank’s reserves were located separate from the artwork down in the mine in room #8 behind a vault door. Room eight was 75’ x 150’. Patton ordered the vault door to be blasted open. Army engineers tried to open the vault door but found it easier to blast a hole in the three feet thick brick wall next to the door instead.
When the Merkers mine treasure was discovered someone realized that Merkers was going to be in the Russian zone as per the Yalta conference. It was decided to move everything as soon as possible to the Frankfurt branch of the Reichbank and other warehouses nearby before the Russian troops arrived. The Russians were expected in just a few days. The Russian army also had shopping lists they were trying to find. Some items on their list were stolen from Russia and others were not. In addition to the 400 tons of artwork the following monetary items were recovered by the US Army from the Merkers mine:
8,198 standard gold bars
55 boxes of crated gold bullion
3,326 bags of gold coins
(about 6-7 million troy oz of gold)
63 bags of silver
one ton of platinum
almost 3 billion paper reichmarks in bales
8 bags of gold rings
8 bags of rare coins
207 bags, crates, suitcases, etc of SS loot
plates for currency
The treasure needed to be moved fast and much of the artwork had to be crated. The army provided 32 ten ton trucks and over loaded them all by 10% and then transferred the treasure 85 miles down the road to Frankfurt in the US zone just out of the reach of the fast approaching Russian Army.
Years later in 1997 the remaining 5.5 metric tons (176,825 troy oz) of Nazi SS gold was donated by the TGC (Tripartite Gold Commission) to a Nazi persecution relief fund. Afterwards the TGC finally disbanded after the last of the gold was gone.
Stay tuned for the travelogue of the gold from the Banque De France during WW II as it was spirited away in front of the fast advancing German army.