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Monday, December 1, 1997 Published at 17:50 GMT

World: Analysis

The greatest theft in history

It was one of the greatest thefts by a government in history; the confiscation by Nazi Germany of around $580million of central bank gold -- worth around $5.6 billion at today's prices. The gold came from governments and civilians, including Jews murdered in concentration camps, from whom everything was taken down to the gold fillings of their teeth. BBC diplomatic correspondent, Barnaby Mason, explains the issues at the core of this week's London conference, which aims to lay the issue finally to rest

What is Nazi gold?

When German troops invaded countries across Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they looted central banks and carried off hundreds of tons of gold to finance their war machine. The Nazis had exhausted their own gold reserves, and historians believe that any gold passing through Germany after 1939 was almost certainly looted.

The Nazis sold gold to Switzerland and other neutral countries such as Sweden and Portugal. It's hard for these countries to argue now that they didn't know the gold was looted, though the Reichsbank often melted it down and put its own stamp on the bars with a fake pre-war date.

The SS also collected gold stolen from Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, including jewellery and gold teeth from the extermination camps; some was sent to the Reichsbank and melted down.

It's impossible now to determine how much of the gold came from individual victims, even with sophisticated scientific tests. Some Jewish groups have suggested up to 10%; the British government talks of a minute proportion.

The Tripartite Gold Commission

At the end of the War the western allies recovered huge quantities of gold. The vast bulk of it had come from the central banks of ten occupied countries.

Gold which had unquestionably been taken from people in the death camps was kept separate and used to help survivors. But after some argument the United States, Britain and France decided that all gold in bar form should be treated as monetary gold -- that is, taken from central banks -- and distributed to the ten claimant governments in proportion to their losses.

They also decided that claims from individuals for this gold would not be considered, on the grounds that a huge number of small claims would be impossible to deal with, and that governments should have the job of compensating individuals.

[ image: After the war, 250m francs of looted gold was transferred to the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve.]
After the war, 250m francs of looted gold was transferred to the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve.
The three powers set up a Tripartite Gold Commission to examine and validate claims from the governments of Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia. (There are now fifteen claimants because Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have split.)

The total amount of gold in bars and coins eventually available to the Commission, and deposited in the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was about 337 tonnes.

This was only enough to meet 64% of the validated claims. The distribution went slowly, delayed partly by disputes between governments and counter-claims by the three big powers (the argument with Albania was settled only last year). But the Commission is now ready to make its final distribution of the remaining 2% of the original pool -- five-and-a-half tonnes of gold worth just under $70 million.

So why has all this re-surfaced now?

The London conference is the culmination of an unprecedented campaign of the past two years to force out the truth of dealings with the Nazi regime fifty years ago, especially on the part of the Swiss. The campaign was prompted by the availability of new evidence and the release of previously secret official documentation.
[ image: Some of the gold came from the melted down teeth fillings of concentration camp victims]
Some of the gold came from the melted down teeth fillings of concentration camp victims

Jewish groups have worked strenuously to highlight the issue, on behalf of the remaining survivors of the holocaust. The Chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Greville Janner (now Lord Janner) put the idea of a conference to the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook before Mr Cook became British Foreign Secretary last May.

The conference was announced within a week of the Labour government taking office. It fits in well with the government's commitment to openness and an ethical foreign policy. The conference also coincides with the end of the work of the Tripartite Gold Commission -- on which the Foreign Office has produced two volumes of "History Notes" over the past year.

So what's at stake?

Officials and academics from 41 countries are discussing of a proposal by the United States, Britain and France to use the remaining gold to set up a new fund to help needy victims of Nazi persecution and their families.

The proposal, which was put to the claimant governments last August, is to set up a fund which would be used in particular to help people in the former communist states of eastern Europe (so-called double victims), who didn't benefit from the compensation available to those in the west. Other countries will also be invited to contribute to the fund.

An informal count at the end of last week indicated three of the fifteen claimants were favourable to the plan, three others would probably support it, while the rest were still in the process of deciding. A few weeks ago, Poland's representative queried an initial list of organisations which would take part in distributing the money, suggesting that Jewish groups were too dominant.

Six NGOs have been invited to attend the conference, five of them Jewish, the other being the International Romany Union.

Do we know everything now?

The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, says he wants the conference to bring all the facts about Nazi gold into the open. A State Department official said the United States was pushing for the greatest openness and candour by all nations.

In advance of the conference, Britain asked all the participants to say in advance what relevant archives they held; some countries had not opened their archives, one official said, and Britain hoped they would. There's also the question of archives held by institutions, including Swiss banks.

A historian on the British delegation said he doubted if the banks would produce significant new material on this occasion; he expected at least ten years of international research work would be needed before the whole issue of Nazi gold could be resolved.

The Swiss on the Spot

Some countries, especially the wartime neutrals, were wary about the London conference at first, fearing that it would turn into a kangaroo court.

Switzerland is emphasising the range of inquiries it is now carrying out, including the opening-up of dormant accounts, and insists it is coming to terms with its past. All we ask is fair play, the Swiss say -- that the same standards should be applied to everybody else.

But the Swiss also say that all questions regarding their gold transactions with the Nazis were settled by the Washington agreement of 1946, by which Switzerland handed over gold worth (then) 250 million Swiss francs to the Tripartite Gold Commission.

Other countries may be put on the spot too. One of the official observers at the conference, the writer Ian Sayer, intends to present a paper on the alleged large-scale theft of gold by American officers in Germany as the Nazi regime collapsed. He says it's been covered up by the United States.

The British government has carried out an inquiry into assets confiscated during the war from Jews and others under enemy aliens legislation, but it says the report is not ready to be presented to the conference.

How will the conference work?

The organisers emphasise that it is not a decision-making conference, though they hope that an agreement on setting up the new fund will be announced during the course of it.

There will be an initial open, televised session at 1000 GMT on Tuesday. It will be addressed by Robin Cook, by the American Under-Secretary of State, Stuart Eizenstat, and by Greville Janner. After that the sessions will be closed, consisting of the presentation of papers by delegations and discussion of them.

The first part of the conference, until lunch-time on Wednesday, deals with the question of where the looted gold came from and what happened to it; the second part on Wednesday afternoon with the steps taken so far to compensate occupied countries and individual victims; and the third part on Thursday morning with the steps to be taken in the future. The chairman, Lord Mackay of Clashfern (the former Lord Chancellor) will then sum up and give a news conference (at 1500 GMT).

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Internet Links

Official Conference Website

The conference agenda

Information on dormant Swiss banks accounts

US State Department report on Nazi Gold - May 1997

Information on the tripartite gold commission

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