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22 Sep 2015
The Nazi Gold Train - Roger Moorhouse

The Nazi Gold Train - Roger Moorhouse

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Would you like to hear a story that seems to have it all? Nazis, treasure, wartime conspiracy and… a deathbed confession.

Late last month, the world woke to a remarkable tale. Two ‘explorers’ – one German, one Polish – claimed to have found a wartime German train, hidden in a hillside tunnel near the south-western Polish city of Wa?brzych.

The ‘discovery’ was the product of old-fashioned sleuthing and modern technology. Not only had the explorers heard of a deathbed confession from one of those responsible for hiding the train at the end of the war, they also had ground-penetrating radar images of something that looked suspiciously like a train. The only catch? They were demanding 10% of the total value discovered as a finders’ fee.

Predictably, the world’s press went into overdrive. As if the words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Gold’ were not enough to stoke the frenzy, the famed Amber Room was dragged into the fray; and some made tantalising references to Hitler’s own art collection. The Polish authorities – who should have known better – appeared to throw caution to the wind, joining the froth of speculation. Poland’s Deputy Culture Minister declared that the radar images confirmed “with 99% certainty” that a train had been discovered.

In truth, the excitement is understandable. The “Lost Nazi Train” story has enjoyed a rather long history. During the communist era, the authorities often searched for ‘lost’ Polish treasures, looted by the Germans - but rarely with any success. There were certainly lots of treasures to find. The Nazis were systematic looters and in Poland – which was slated to be destroyed – they were especially thorough, clearing museums and private collections with ruthless efficiency. A recent estimate suggests 75% of Poland’s pre-war cultural heritage was lost during the war - over half a million items. Few have ever been found.

Moreover, the area around Wa?brzych was once the south-eastern German province of Silesia – Wa?brzych itself was called Waldenburg before 1945 – so it made sense for the Nazis to hide some looted valuables in a remote corner of Germany. The idea is not so outlandish. Indeed the area seems to have been earmarked for important developments by the Nazis. Prior to 1945, a huge complex of underground tunnels – known as Riese, or ‘giant’ – was constructed barely 10km to the south-east of Wa?brzych. The Fürstenstein castle, to the north, was thought to have been planned as a headquarters for Hitler.

It is possible, that the Eulengebirge (or “Owl Hills”) south of Wa?brzych may yet yield a train-bound treasure trove. The recent discovery of the Cornelius Gurlitt collection of looted art in Munich certainly gives reason for hope. Yet, a note of caution should also be sounded. Stories of “Nazi Gold” have been commonplace in the seven decades following the demise of the Third Reich. The vast majority of them have ended fruitlessly, in the murky depths of Alpine lakes or the dingy recesses of rural salt mines.

Though this story has much background and context to lend it the whiff of authenticity and set it apart from previous wild goose chases… there is still no concrete proof that the tunnel contains a train, or indeed if that train contains anything of any value at all.

Time alone will tell. 

Roger Moorhouse is a historian and co-founder of Historical Trips.