At the start of World War II, Germany was in a deep financial depression. Its currency was worth nothing. In order to fund its war effort, the Nazi regime routinely looted gold from occupied countries. During the course of the war, the regime stole at least $400 million in gold from occupied nations and at least $140 million in gold from individuals, particularly those imprisoned in concentration camps [source: U.S. Department of State]. They were meticulous, raiding Jewish homes, safety deposit boxes and even removing gold dental fillings from people's teeth.
Most of the stolen gold was stored in Germany's Reichsbank, the bank of the Third Reich. But after a 1945 bombing raid, the Nazis moved the gold to a safer location. Much of it was taken to a potassium mine about 200 miles from Berlin. When Germany was overtaken and the Allied forces took over, laborers from this mine told American soldiers that they had watched as Nazi troops moved gold and art into hidden caves within the mine. At the end of the war, hundreds of millions in gold and silver bars, paper currency and art was recovered at the mine [source: Channel 4]. However, not all of the loot was found, and there could be millions more in stolen gold that's left in and around Germany.
A recent discovery has renewed world interest in the quest. Have treasure hunters really discovered the famed Nazi gold stash? Some say they have. Some even say they've found the Amber Room.
The Hunt for Nazi Treasure
The legendary Reichsbank treasure is said to be worth millions of dollars [source: Channel 4]. In 2000, German treasure hunters believed they'd found the hiding place (deep in the German Alps) where the rest of the gold was stashed. But the harshness of the terrain made it impossible for them to find the buried loot, and they eventually gave up [source: Channel 4].
But in February 2008, the search took on new life when treasure hunters converged on the German hamlet Deutschkatharinenberg. The mayor of a nearby town called Deutschneudorf, Heinz-Peter Haustein, has been looking for the gold there for a decade. When a man named Christian Hanisch turned up, the search became something of a frenzy. He seemed to have evidence that confirmed what Haustein believed: the gold was in Deutschkatharinenberg.
Hanisch's father was in the German air force during WWII, and Hanisch had apparently found an old journal of his father's that indicated the location of the missing gold. He joined forces with Haustein, and they gathered a full treasure-hunting team to go looking for the man-made mountain cavern that supposedly holds the loot. They claim they've not only found the gold, but also the legendary Amber Room.
The Amber Room was a chamber in the U.S.S.R.'s Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg. The room's walls were covered in paneling made of amber backed in gold. The panels were stolen by the Nazis during the war, and were last seen in an art exhibition in Germany in 1945. After that, they disappeared. A few of the panels have since been recovered, but most have never been found.
Haustein's team claims to have found pieces of the Amber Room. They say they've confirmed with an electromagnetic metal detector that the gold lies somewhere beneath the surface of the East German mountainside, probably about 60 feet (20 meters) down. They estimate a find of about 2 tons of gold, and they believe this discovery includes the Amber Room. They seem to be basing this belief on the idea that if there's that much gold down there, it must include the gold from the Amber Room, which is a significant piece of the Nazi treasure.
But the dig has so far been unsuccessful and the hunters can't seem to find the cavern. As of late February 2008, they have retained the services of a geophysicist to help them figure out exactly where to dig.
Even with the help of a geophysicist, Haustein's team doesn't expect to get into the chamber any time soon. They believe the stash might be booby-trapped, and they want explosives engineers to check out the situation before they dig any further.
In the midst of all this treasure hunting, the question arises: If they find Nazi gold, do they get to keep it? When wartime loot is recovered, to whom do the spoils go?
The Legal Side of Recovered Treasure
Many experts don't believe the Amber Room is buried in Deutschkatharinenberg. Some think the panels were lost at sea, or destroyed by Allied bombs in the final days of the war. Nonetheless, if the cultural treasure does turn up, it's unclear who will have ownership rights. Haustein says the Amber Room panels would belong to Russia, but that any other gold -- the non cultural-artifact type -- would legally belong to Germany [source: Spiegle Online].
Others might disagree. Counties have been making an effort to return stolen gold (or its monetary equivalent) to the individuals and nations from whom it was taken. This effort was meager at first, but it picked up toward the end of the twentieth century when the world took a renewed interest in restitution [source: U.S. Department of State]. Forty-two countries showed up at the London Conference on Nazi Gold in 1997 to form a joint effort to uncover stolen gold and return it to its rightful owners. Ten countries still lay claim to more than $60 million in lost gold (about 5.5 metric tons) [source: Channel 4]. At the conference, many of those countries agreed to relinquish their claims on some of this gold and contribute it instead to various humanitarian groups, especially those benefiting Holocaust survivors, from whom the Nazi regime appropriated bank accounts, gold and everything else of value [source: U.S. Department of State].
It's fairly clear, at least, where the Amber Room gold will end up if it's ever found. The Geneva Conventions outlaws the wartime looting or destruction of cultural artifacts and requires that anything of cultural significance be returned after the war if it's taken [source: IFAR]. So it's likely the Amber Room would be returned to Russia.
However, the treasure hunters in Deutschkatharinenberg have more pressing issues to deal with. As of Feb. 28, 2008, Haustein has reportedly kicked Hanisch out of Deutschneudorf [source: CNN]. The two treasure hunters argued about where to dig and whether to suspend the search until scientists and engineers arrived to assess the situation. Hanisch now says he does not believe the treasure hunters have found the Amber Room at all. He says it's just plain-old gold.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Geophysicists join the hunt for Nazi treasure in eastern Germany. International Herald Tribune (AP). February 29, 2008. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/02/29/europe/EU-GEN-Germany-Nazi-Treasure.php
- German Treasure Hunters Claim to Have Found Amber Room. Spiegel Online. February 19, 2008. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,536358,00.html
- Holocaust Reverberation: The Emerging Story of Nazi Gold. U.S. State Department. March 23, 1998. http://www.state.gov/www/policy_remarks/1998/980323_eizenstat_ngold.html
- Treasure hunters dig for Hitler's gold. CNN.com. February 27, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/02/26/nazi.gold/index.html
- Nazi gold hunt ends, treasure hunter claims. CNN.com. February 28, 2008. http://e.a.cnn.net/2008/TECH/science/02/28/nazi.gold/index.html WWII: A Chronology: Nazi Gold. Channel 4 - History. http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/i-m/lastdays3.html