The hunt for the
Nazi invaders looted the central banks of ten occupied countries and seized hundreds of tonnes of gold to finance the German war machine. Nazis also stole gold from Jews and other victims of persecution, much of which was sent to the Reichsbank to be melted down. At the end of the war the Allies recovered huge quantities of bullion.
As the Allies closed in on Berlin in 1945, the Nazis raced against time to spirit away the spoils of war. Though a fortune in gold bullion, hidden deep in the Bavarian Alps, was recovered by the Americans in the immediate aftermath of the victory, what happened to the substantial hoard of stolen foreign currency?
On April 14, 1945, the chief cashier of the main branch of Berlin's Reichsbank, Georg Netzeband, was entrusted with 164 jute sacks containing 730 bars of gold. He was to take the treasure to an abandoned potash mine near the town of Merkers in Thuringia, central Germany, where the Nazis had hoarded much of their war booty. It was assumed that the treasures would be safer in Merkers than in Berlin, which was being subjected to heavy aerial bombardment. But this proved to be a serious miscalculation; six days earlier, the city, the potash mine and the treasure hidden there had fallen into the hands of advancing American forces.
A RACE AGAINST TIME
It was essential to the Nazi government that the Berlin hoard should not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Netzeband instead headed south towards the Alps with a lorry containing the gold. But as the German front collapsed, a safe hiding place became increasingly elusive. Then, suddenly, a man became involved who was to become the key figure in the whole affair.
Colonel Franz Pfeiffer, commander of the Alpine division, had been tipped off about the gold by friends in Berlin. When Netzeband arrived in the mountains, Pfeiffer seized the valuable cargo. Netzeband had no choice but to submit - and he was not even given a receipt. He later reported that it was not only the sacks of gold that had disappeared into the mountains. There were also great quantities of foreign currency, mainly US dollars and pounds sterling, which had been loaded up with the gold at Munich and other places where the lorry had stopped on its journey south.
Under cover of darkness Pfeiffer dispatched a mule train to an isolated forester's house at Einsiedl, high above Lake Walchen near the Austrian border, but it was not long before he realised that too many people knew about the hiding place. Villagers had seen the lorry and the mules. The gold ingots were too bulky and heavy to be carried further through the mountains so were left in place. Accompanied by a few handpicked troops Pfeiffer set off for the higher slopes with the paper money, which was divided among three groups of men. Each group headed into the darkness, unaware of the destination of their colleagues. Only Pfeiffer knew their ultimate goal.
THE AMERICAN 'GOLDRUSH TEAM'
The Americans learned that a substantial part of the Nazi gold hoard and other treasures were concealed in the Alps. A special unit, the 'Goldrush Team', was formed to track down the loot. German mountain troops, exhausted by the fighting, were defecting in droves. And they all told the same story: a SS unit had picked up the gold and taken it to an unknown location. This story, spread by Pfeiffer, was a smokescreen. Exhaustive inquiries finally led the Americans to the Berlin gold. A total of 728 ingots were dug up and taken to Frankfurt - the Germans had mislaid two ingots in the course of their frantic game of hide-and-seek. But where was the paper money?
(More than 500 top-ranking Nazis disappeared when Berlin fell. Wearing civilian clothes, they carried their passports to a new life - stolen money and treasure - some of it probably at first hidden in the mountain fastness of the Alps)
SEEKING THE LOST FORTUNE
Englishman Ian Sayer and German Rudolf Elender dreamed of finding the Nazi treasure. For years, they pursued their quest independently. It was the discovery of a handwritten record kept by Georg Netzeband that set them on the right track. Statements made by witnesses and old maps and documents helped flesh out the picture. The two treasure-hunters then began to compare notes: the trail clearly led to the Alps. They had been seeking the treasure for 26 years when, in the autumn of 2000, they travelled to a location 1600 metres above Lake Walchen in the Bavarian Alps. Determined to try and solve the mystery once and for all, they were equipped with a treasure chart recently recovered from the estate of a mountain infantryman and accompanied by geophysicists with equipment for pinpointing buried objects.
THE TREASURE PROVES ELUSIVE AGAIN
The two men had prepared meticulously. Sayer had even met Franz Pfeiffer, the key player in this game of hide-and-seek, shortly before his death. Pfeiffer's testimony had merely muddied the waters, but their investigations had uncovered a receipt signed by Pfeiffer, made out not to chief cashier Netzeband, but to the Americans. Dated August 24, 1945, it recorded the sum of $404,840 and £405, money that appeared nowhere in the Allied records. Was it possible that the currency had been misappropriated by the Americans?
'Our informer was a personal friend of the commander of the mountain troops.'
Shortly after the end of the war Pfeiffer emigrated to Argentina, where he evidently had ample funds at his disposal. A transaction that was profitable for both the escaped Nazi and the American liberators appears to have taken place.
In the end, Sayer and Elender came away from their mountain quest empty-handed. They had hoped that at least part of the money would still be buried at the site. Yet their painstaking search did provide professional historians with compelling evidence that the treasure had ultimately been spirited away overseas.
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