How Hitler Pulled Off the Largest Bank Robbery in History
The end of World War Two is fast approaching. Going out of his mind with stress, Adolf Hitler marches up and down his bunker underneath Berlin. He’s acutely aware that he’s not getting out of this alive. Above ground, Russian bombs blast Berlin as Nazi child soldiers throw down their arms and cry for their mothers.
Women scream as merciless Red Army soldiers pull them out of their houses. Hitler won’t let himself be paraded through the streets; to be beaten and spat at, and hanged from a rope. He has a plan that will ensure this doesn’t happen.
And as he contemplates this grim end to his life, the definitive failure of his wretched ambitions, he has one more thing on his mind: the loot. Insane amounts of money, gold, art, jewels, and furniture. It all has to be hidden. The Nazis have a fortune of unimaginable proportions.
They don’t want to give that up, so they will hide it where no one will ever find it. This boundless treasure taken in such endlessly harrowing circumstances will be hunted for a long time to come. Today we’ll touch on this Nazi fortune and the many treasure hunters who have spent years trying to find it, but first I want to tell you about the sponsor of today’s video - Morning Brew! Nothing is worse than starting your day by endlessly scrolling through news and social media apps hoping to find something relevant to you. And when you do find something that sounds interesting, the actual story is often dry, dense, and boring. Believe me, I had the same problem, and it was starting each and every day off on the wrong foot.
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They wanted everything of value. The invaded country knew this was going to happen, of course, so they’d usually try and get as much gold as was possible out of the country. Sometimes it went to the New York Federal Reserve in Manhattan before it ended up in Fort Knox. But that didn’t always happen. On March 12, 1938, the German Wehrmacht marched into Vienna, Austria. Soon a businessman and friend of Hitler, Wilhelm Keppler, arrived at the Austrian Central Bank.
At his side were armed men. They ordered the bank to hand over about 100 tons of gold. They knew that Austria had already sent 5.7 tons of gold to England, where they thought it would be safe. Keppler told them to bring it back.
He said it’s now the property of the Nazi Party. This was just one case. One country.
Wherever the Nazis landed, they looted with abandon. We can’t say for sure how much gold Germany stole during the war, but some say it was at least $20 billion worth in today’s money. Some sources have it in the hundreds of billions. On top of what they took from banks was the gold, houses, and other belongings they stole from Jewish people during the Holocaust. There were also the artworks, lots and lots of very valuable artworks. Wherever the Nazis went, they stole art.
Hitler hated a lot of modern art. He called it degenerate. That might have had something to do with the fact that he was a failed artist himself. But for someone with such an unartistic outlook on life, he wasn’t actually that bad, at least in terms of the basics.
You can see what was going on in his mind when you look at his painting of Jesus and the virgin Mary. His blonde-haired and blue-eyed Jesus doesn’t look like someone from the Middle East who’s spent a long time under a hot sun. He looks more like the baby version of one of the Hanson brothers. Hitler wasn’t someone who could appreciate an art form such as cubism or expressionism, but the Nazis, and especially Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, stole a lot of valuable modern art despite what Hitler thought about it. The Nazis also took ritual silver pieces from all the synagogues they plundered.
This amounted to a lot of silver. Many of these items were eventually recovered by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, aka, The Monuments Men, but a hell of a lot of the Nazi plunder was not so easy to find. This included a lot, and we mean a lot, of hard cash, on top of all the gold and silver and hundreds of thousands of valuable cultural items. If we take into account everything the Nazis looted over western Europe, parts of the Soviet Union, and as far away as Africa, you could say the years-long robbery was the biggest robbery ever.
Just take into consideration something like this: In 1943, when the Nazis were in Tunisia, North Africa, they took a load of gold from Jewish folks on the island of Djerba. As usual, the Nazis intended to send the gold back to Germany, but it may have gone down with a ship on the way. We say ‘may’ because it’s not certain what happened to that gold.
As you’ll soon see, separating the myth of Nazi gold with the reality of Nazi gold isn’t always easy. How much treasure is still out there is hotly debated even today. But we think by now you have a good idea about how much wealth the Nazis had.
This is why when the Russians entered Germany at the war's end and the UK, the US, and France were soon to be there, one of Adolf Hitler’s chief concerns was all that Nazi loot. During the war, much of it was kept in the Reichsbank, the central bank of the German Reich in Berlin. Hitler knew that once the enemy got to Berlin one of the first things they would do is head to the bank. It was a chief concern of his that he’d lose this gold. In February 1945, the bank was almost destroyed when close to 1,000 B-17 Flying Fortresses started dropping bombs on Berlin. With these planes, the US dropped around 1.5 million tons of explosives.
The Soviet’s Red Air Force as well as the British RAF Bomber Command and the French Air Force also did their fair share of dropping bombs on Berlin. Berlin had taken a beating for years, but that February attack by the Americans destroyed many major buildings and left many people homeless, or worse, dead. There were hundreds of people working in the bank when it was hit. There may not have been any deaths only because the employees were already hiding in underground bunkers, and the blasts only destroyed the upper levels of the building.
Still, Hitler now knew that it was time to move much of what was in the bank’s vaults out of there. For years those vaults had been getting fat with gold bullion, not to mention thousands and thousands of gold teeth and pieces of gold jewelry that had been taken from Jewish prisoners after they’d been killed in the gas chambers. Many of these pieces were deposited in the bank under a fake name; that of Max Heiliger. Under his name, the Nazis stored not just gold items, but also bank notes, art, and valuable furniture. The gold would later be melted, and the other things eventually fenced to dealers.
We should also note that the Nazis stole from thousands of Poles, Russians, other Europeans, Romani, and Sinti, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals. The Nazis thought this little scheme would make them rich and leave no obvious tracks. But after the bombing of the bank, it was looking like Hitler and the Nazis might lose it all. This is why Hitler ordered some of his commanders to start emptying the vaults. Part of the removal consisted of about 100 tons of gold bullion, worth millions back then so a fortune in today’s money.
The removal also included 3,682 bags of German Marks, 80 bags of foreign money, 63 bags of silver, some platinum bars, lots of jewelry, artwork, and hundreds of bags of valuables that had been stolen by the Nazi elites. All this was sent to a salt mine in the village of Merkers about 200 miles from Berlin. This was only part of the Nazi stash, but it was enough to help Hitler breathe a sigh of relief.
Not long after Hitler started thinking the loot was safe, Lt. Gen. George Patton's Third Army was crossing the Rhine. On April 4, the Third Battalion of the 358th Infantry Regiment walked into Merkers, unaware of what was stored down in the mine there. Two days later, Lt. Col. William A. Russell of the Ninetieth Infantry Division's G-5 was outside the mine asking questions.
He’d become suspicious after talking to a few people, so he told the German mine bosses he wanted to have a look down the shafts. When he a few of his men went down there they couldn’t believe their eyes. It felt like a dream. In front of them was a good chunk of Germany’s gold reserves, millions in paper money of various currencies, as well as art and other valuables kept in trunks and piled up on crates. Many of the obscenely valuable treasure chests were packed into a space of twenty-three meters (seventy-five feet) wide and forty-six meters (151 feet) down in the ground.
Dwight D. Eisenhower inspected the loot for himself and later wrote, “Crammed into suitcases and trunks and other containers was a great amount of gold and silver plate and ornament obviously looted from private dwellings throughout Europe.” It’s a rough estimate, but the value of everything they found would be about eight billion dollars today.
But there was more, lots more. On April 20, 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday, he was breathing a little heavier again. He was now in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
He could hear artillery shells in the distance. He was having nightmares about being strung up and humiliated by mobs of Soviet soldiers. He’d also heard that the damn Americans had found his gold! Outside in the streets, German families feared what their fates would be. Children stood on street corners with guns in their hands, their helmets too big for their heads. Elsewhere, certain Nazi leaders were trying to get out of Germany and take their loot with them.
Hitler knew he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d die in the bunker and make sure that all the documents down there no longer existed when the bunker was found. On April 28, Hitler and his secretary Eva Braun got married. It wasn’t a very jolly affair, to say the least. Hitler didn’t look well at all. His skin was ashen white.
His fingers constantly trembled. Every time he heard a bomb explode in the distance a look of anguish crossed his face. When he was informed about how the dead Benito Mussolini had been strung up on meat hooks in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, he looked as though he was going to throw up. He wasn’t so bereft that he couldn’t have someone take down his final will and testament. In it, he said, “The responsibility of the outbreak of this war cannot rest on me.” The blame, he said, rested on “international Jewry and its assistants.”
He also bequeathed his art collection to the town of Linz, and anything else of value he said should go to the Nazi Party. Surely, at this point, he must have been thinking about all that loot. One thing for sure is the Red Army was thinking about it. They pretty much had a field day when they entered Berlin. They committed obscene atrocities against the people, especially the women. They walked into the finest houses, shot anyone who stood in their way, and relieved the families of all their valuables.
It would be a massive understatement to say the Soviet Union and its people suffered during the war. So, it’s not too surprising that an unofficial order was given to soldiers which said to take what they wanted, but things of high value should be taken back to the Soviet Union under what they called a “Trophy Commission.” They cleared out museums, libraries, people’s private collections, and things they found in the national archives. It was a free-for-all. Individual soldiers looted houses when they had done what they felt they had to do with the occupants, but the big stuff was supposed to go back to the Communist Party.
They took artwork that had been created by some of the greats. These included works by Monet, Cezanne, El Greco, Goya, Brueghel, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Leonardo. They found incredibly valuable religious artifacts, as well as important medieval manuscripts and even some gold treasures of Troy.
They only admitted to taking the latter in 1994. As you’ll see, just how much the Soviets sequestered is up for debate. It’s hard to say what it was all worth, but reports state that there were millions of objects that would be worth many billions in today’s money. In the minds of the Soviets, they deserved everything they’d taken in light of their suffering during the war. Nonetheless, they were aware that there should have been much more.
Where was the rest of the gold? The Nazis, they said, had more gold than you’d find in the legendary El Dorado. The Soviets only recovered about $3 million in gold from the Reichsbank, but subsequent interrogations revealed that there had been more like $17 million of gold in the bank. It was only then that it was discovered that a heist had taken place at the bank in April. This was the work of the future war criminal, SS Colonel Josef Spacil, under orders of his seniors in the SS.
Spacil would later testify against some of his commanders during the Nuremberg Trials. That’s why he went on to live a normal life after the war. He might have even opened a chain of supermarkets, but that’s not certain. Still, it seems he did ok after the war. That could partly be because he was put in charge of taking care of a lot of the Nazi gold as well as the various stolen currencies.
One thing we should make clear here is that all that gold and cash in the vaults of the Reichsbank was the bank’s money, the public’s money. No Nazi had the right to waltz in there and empty the vaults. So, when Spacil and his men turned up at the bank on April 22, they were armed with machine guns. They ordered the staff to load gold, jewelry, and cash, into trucks waiting outside. There was about $146 million in foreign currency alone, although not much gold was taken as it was so heavy.
They drove the trucks out of Berlin and later flew to Austria, but what they did with all that money is still a bit of mystery. This is why some people have said for a long time that the vast majority of Nazi cash and gold has never been accounted for. In the book, “The Reichsbank Robbery”, the author claims that some SS officers made deals with officers in the US military, and together, they funneled a lot of money out of Germany. We can’t say if this is true, but it makes more sense when you know that many Nazi war criminals were sneaked out of Germany in so-called ratlines, paid for and managed by US Intelligence Services.
After all, the Soviet Union was now the enemy. The US required Nazi informants and expertise. For sure, a lot of Nazi money was laundered through Swiss banks, and there is no doubt some high-ranking Nazis kept a bit of it, but that doesn’t account for all of it. There have been plenty of rumors about the whereabouts of the gold and cash, such as some of it ending up on the Auckland Islands, but these sound more like tall stories than facts. Some stories, though, make you think there is a fortune buried somewhere on this Earth.
Let’s now begin part two of this story, an investigation into the missing gold and mountains of money. Let’s call this section, “The Hunt for the Nazi Gold.” A few years ago, a Polish treasure hunter named Tomasz Jurek told a US journalist, “There are so many tunnels, who knows what else is there. It’s the tip of an underground city.”
He was referring to a mountainous area of Lower Silesia in southwestern Poland. Before and during the war, this was part of Germany. As the war came to an end, many of the Germans living there got out as fast as their feet could carry them. Often that meant walking right into the Red Army’s guns. More often than not, they were shot down like vermin.
They had no time to think about packing up their valuables. But what’s interesting is that when the area was repopulated by Poles, many of them made some rather startling discoveries. The Germans had left surprises for them: treasure. Lots and lots of treasure.
As the war was coming to an end and the Russians were marching towards Berlin, many wealthy Germans thought Lower Silesia was a safe place to hide their valuables. High-ranking Nazis headed there to hide their loot. But as we said, regular people also just left all their riches behind, sometimes hidden in the ground. A man who was the chief of police during the war, a German military officer, named Herbert Klose, was later interrogated by the Poles. Under duress from his interrogators, he admitted that he’d been asked to store as much gold, silver, and other precious things as was possible. He hid the items inside chests, after which, the chests were sealed and buried.
He told the interrogators, “The gold was stored at the police headquarters. The chests were made of iron and hermetically closed with rubber seals. Also, the chests were unmarked so nobody would know what’s inside.” Only many of these chests were buried when he wasn’t there.
He’d apparently fallen off his horse and was hospitalized for a while. So, he didn’t know where the chests were. Some people did, and one day they expected to go back there and reclaim it. For decades people have been looking for this bounty of gold. Treasure hunters were and are well aware of that great big stash that the Americans had found down that mine.
They know what you have found out today, namely that somewhere there is a fortune to be found. These people have looked in earnest. They haven’t been compelled to dig for a lifetime by some ancient myth. There is missing money, missing gold, missing art. It’s just a matter of time before someone finds it.
How it was distributed between Nazi leaders at the end of the war remains a mystery. Many Nazi leaders died. Many were executed. Many more went on to live mysterious lives on the run. The Americans helped some while they lived under aliases in South America and other countries.
To this day, there are treasure hunters who believe that much of the gold is underground in a series of giant tunnels. They say some of it is stored on a train that has gotten the name the “Nazi Gold Train.” It all sounds like something out of the movie franchise ‘Indiana Jones”, but people take this seriously. Some people believe that on that buried train there are 300 tons of gold, a cornucopia of precious jewels, expensive weapons, and also quite a few priceless artistic masterpieces. Historians say the train might not even have existed, but by God have people looked for it over the years. As the New Yorker wrote in 2016, treasure hunters believe there is a “labyrinthine complex that may hold many Nazi treasures” that amounts to something like an “underground city.”
In that article, the journalist wrote that he was met by a Polish geophysicist from the Polish Academy of Sciences and was taken to a German-dug tunnel that was “sixteen feet high and eighteen feet wide” and “big enough for a Greyhound bus to drive down.” The journalist asked, “What exactly were the Nazis building here?” The scientist replied, “That is the mystery.” Were they building a subterranean city that would store all their valuables and money? Were they intending to build super weapons down there, or were the tunnels just a place to hide for Nazi leaders? At the end of the war, the Germans closed most of these giant tunnels off, although most of them were a work in progress. Some were almost done, 11% of them were reinforced with concrete, and others had just been started.
Millions of work hours had been put into building the tunnels. They were incredibly hard to engineer, and harder to excavate, but Hitler was adamant that they had to be done. Why? No one really knows.
It was only when the war ended that Poles would be walking around near the mountains and discover a railway track that seemed to end for no good reason. Sometimes they’d find a hole that led to a shaft. Sometimes they’d be strolling through the forest and discover they’d just walked over a ventilation shaft. The Nazis had been very busy bees indeed. We should point out that the labor involved in the underground city construction had been done by many thousands of enslaved people whose lives often ended with a shovel in their hand.
Some of them were worked to death, and others died from disease and malnutrition. It’s thought about 5,000 prisoners died working in the tunnels. Documents show that some were sent back to Auschwitz concentration camp. One document states that 14 tunnel workers were executed after trying to escape.
As much as treasure hunters have dug, and have spent their entire lives exploring such tunnels and looking for new ones, no one has yet come across a major stash of treasure. Some valuable items have been found, but not the billions they believe are missing. The story gets even more interesting when you hear what a treasure hunter named Krzysztof Szpakowski recently said.
He’s been looking for the hidden treasure since he was old enough to legally buy alcohol. He says years back when he first started looking, he interviewed some old German folks who’d lived in a small village not far from one of the tunnels. They all told him the same thing.
Over a couple of days in 1945, German soldiers marched into the village and told everyone to close their curtains and stay inside. They warned that anyone who looked out of the window would be shot on the spot. The next thing they knew, the sound of a truck convoy rattled through the village. Szpakowski says the trucks were heading for one complex of tunnels called the Włodarz Complex. He believes this had been built at first as a hiding place for only the highest-ranking Nazis, but they later decided that the complex would become a depository for precious goods, perhaps arms, but more likely loot.
What better place to hide it? Something similar is written in a book called “The Mysteries of the Walim Undergrounds.” The author writes that over a few days at the end of the war, long convoys of trucks drove through town, and not one of them came back. He says the trucks were hidden in a tunnel, after which the Germans blew up the entrance and planted vegetation around it. Even with modern technology, finding a hole in the ground that’s hidden somewhere over a large area is not easy at all.
Even when a new tunnel is found, the treasure hunters usually end up in a vast space full of endless opportunities to explore. One dead-end could just mean the start of another series of tunnels. As the journalist for the New Yorker said, “Like a lottery ticket, each tunnel sparks a new dream, and every treasure hunter seems to have his own wish list: gold, jewels, artworks, an underground train terminal, a supercomputer prototype.”
Then again, did the Red Army clean up after the war was over? Did the Soviets take a lot more trophies than the rest of the world knew about? Or, did US intelligence make some deals and run off with the swag? Was there any swag in the first place? Some people think not, or at least they say what loot there was has been greatly exaggerated. Still, in 2018, something happened that showed people anything could be down in those tunnels. That’s because while looking for the gold train in Lower Silesia Polish treasure hunters said they had found four tons of gold 10 feet below a disused 18th century palace – a place reportedly used by the Nazis as a brothel. This happened after decades of treasure hunters had been looking high and low for the train and treasure chests. The group that found it, the Silesian Bridge Foundation, said the gold was hidden inside a buried canister.
Still, when the reports surfaced, it seems the canister had yet to be checked as there was a concern it was boobytrapped. We’re still not sure what happened here as the media didn’t update the report. The hunters used an SS Diary they had been given to derive clues about the hidden treasure, and they later scanned the ground using radar technology. One of the lead hunters told the press: “Our information says that this particular deposit was hidden by an SS officer called Von Stein.
The SS planned to use it to re-establish agriculture in Ukraine to feed the new Reich.” He said the same diary points to a lot more hidden gold, as well as art, jewelry, and religious artifacts, all hidden at sites throughout Lower Silesia. Part of one of the diary entries reads, “The remaining 48 heavy Reichsbank's chests and all the family chests I hereby entrust to you. Only you know where they are located.
May God help you and help me fulfill my assignment.” It also mentions 47 works of art, with names such as Monet, Cezanne, and Rembrandt popping up on the pages. The Silesian Bridge Foundation says the diary was written by an SS officer who used the possibly fake name, Michaelis. He talks about 11 different sites where the treasure was buried, including the mega amount of gold bullion taken from the Reichsbank. The diary itself had for years been kept at a Masonic lodge, one that in the past was frequented by wealthy members of the Third Reich.
It seems the newer members of the lodge had wanted it off their hands and so recently handed it over to the foundation. Even if you don’t believe that tons of gold and cash are somewhere under the ground, many of the five million European artworks that the Nazis stole have not been recovered. It’s thought that 63,000 works of art and valuable cultural items stolen from Polish Jews alone are still either hidden or secretly owned by people who don’t want to return them. Still, again we have to say that people might be getting carried away with their hunt for Nazi gold. For example, it was believed for a long time that four tons of the stuff was aboard the SS Minden when it was sunk off the coast of Iceland in 1939. The story goes that the German captain sank the ship himself rather than let it fall into the hands of the approaching British.
A subsequent theory said that it contained all that gold, and perhaps more valuable items. But when the wreck was finally explored in 2018, no gold or other precious things could be found. So, is the gold still hidden? Or, like many of the valuable works of art, did some of it find its way into someone’s basement? Was the money spent years ago, or is there a train somewhere beneath Poland that carries a fortune, buried under many tons of soil and enslaved people’s blood? We don’t know, but if we lived in Lower Silesia, we’d be out exploring next weekend. Now you need to watch “How Rich Was Hitler (Where Did All His Money Come From).”
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