Germany’s Central Bank Funds Investigation Into Its Nazi Ties

Researchers have already uncovered a damning letter from one of the bank’s former presidents

Hjalmar Schacht, former president of the Reichsbank, at a meeting in the Reichsbank transfer commission in 1934. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H29131 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Germany’s central bank, the Bundesbank, has announced it will fund a four-year, independent investigation into its activities during the Nazi era. And as Jack Ewing reports for the New York Times, the project is expected to bring new transparency to the bank’s wartime history, from its meddling in the economies of occupied countries to its complicity in the persecution of German Jews.

The period of study begins in 1923, when the Bundesbank was known as the Reichsbank, a new currency was established to stop the hyperinflation that had broken out and Hjalmar Schacht became currency commissioner; it will conclude in 1969, when the last Bundesbank president, Karl Blessing, a member of Scacht's inner circle, left his position.

Albrecht Ritschl, a professor at the London School of Economics, and Magnus Brechtken, an expert in Nazi history at the Institute of Modern History in Munich, have been selected to lead the investigation. While a number of studies have explored the Reichsbank’s ties to the Nazi regime, as Ritschl explains in the Times, “some unpleasant questions were not asked.” The new study, by contrast, aims to be uncompromising and comprehensive. It is expected to fill eight volumes once it is finished.

Some uncomfortable truths about the Bundesbank’s past have already come to light. Take Karl Blessing, a former bank president, long hailed for his hardline stance on inflation during the postwar years. Though he has long been seen as a Nazi opponent—German officers who tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Hilter had, in fact, tapped Blessing as a possible economics minister for their new government—while researching the biography of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, Ritschl uncovered a 1941 letter from Blessing asking to take possession of a Berlin apartment, which had been confiscated from its Jewish owners.

At the time, Blessing sat on the board of Kontinentale Öl, a company that exploited oil reserves in Nazi Germany-occupied countries, Jeremy Gray explains in the English-language financial publication Handelsblatt Global. Blessing wanted the apartment to be allocated to the company—and his letter suggests that he was not only aware of Nazi persecution of the Jews, but also willing to profit from it.

The new study will also probe the Nazis’ theft of gold from other central banks, according to Claire Jones of the Financial Times. Yet another topic of investigation will be the Reichsbank’s role in the exploitation of foreign economies. In Nazi-occupied Greece, for instance, the Reichsbank helped drive local inflation, exacerbating the conditions of a famine that struck the country, most drastically between the winter of 1941 and 1942.

Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann and vice-president Claudia Buch view the fact-finding project, as a necessary development for the bank. “[T]here is a great deal of awareness that we need to uncover all that we can about this most dark of eras in German history,” Michael Best, a spokesperson for the Bundesbank, tells Jones. “It is our responsibility to know exactly what happened, it is as simple as that. You clearly cannot reverse the past, but you can face it and provide knowledge of it to future generations.”

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