(Publications of the ICE, volume 16, please place orders directly at the publishers Chronos)
Schweiz und die Goldtransaktionen im Zweiten Weltkrieg
The objective of the present study is to illustrate the gold transactions of Switzerland during World War II. It is an extended and revised second edition of the interim report of the ICE published in May 1998, also taking into account in particular the economic and monetary context. The main focus of the text is on the role of Switzerland as a hub for gold from the domain of the Third Reich, with the policy of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) in the foreground. In addition, gold transactions between the SNB and the Allies, the activities of Swiss commercial banks on the gold market, and the complex interaction of vested interests in connection with the last Swiss-German gold transaction in April 1945 are examined. Finally, the study also deals with the negotiations taking place in spring 1945 in Washington between Switzerland and the Allies, the main objective of which was to come to an agreement on the gold question.
Because of its high fusibility, gold is easy to transform. There are many possibilities to cover up the traces of its origin. These properties of gold were systematically used by the ruling powers of the Third Reich for the plundering of their victims and the exploitation of the stolen goods. Gold of such origin also ended up in Switzerland. In the study, the question is therefore also investigated as to what extent the persons in charge at the SNB were informed of the origin of the gold at the different stages of the war (chapter 3.4).
The SNB also acquired considerable quantities of gold from the Western Allies. Thus, between 1941 and 1945, it bought gold in the value of 2.9 billion francs from the USA and Great Britain (table 8). These transactions were, contrary to the gold deliveries from the Reichsbank, carried out with legally obtained monetary reserves and resulted to a large extent from transatlantic capital movements.
The Swiss acquisitions of gold during World War II, in particular those from Germany, were based on different motivations. The purpose of the SNB was primarily the preservation of gold backing and the convertibility of the Swiss franc. The basis for this policy had been consolidated in the period between the wars and was focalized on the defense of the financial place and maintenance of the balance of payments equilibrium, which in the years of war were connected to the securing of vital supplies for the country (chapter 2).
The behavior of the persons responsible for monetary policies, however, cannot be explained by these motivations alone. With respect to Swiss gold acquisitions from the Reichsbank, a pattern of action can be traced which to a large extent corresponds to the evolution of the war (chapter 3.3). After 1943, the massive gold purchases from the Third Reich and the western Allies were causing difficulties for the Swiss guardians of monetary affairs with respect to foreign exchange. The increase in the circulation of bank notes and its effect on the inland price structure were threatening to undermine the objectives of a policy aimed at stability. The most important measure taken to prevent this problem consisted in a reduction of the gold holdings in the USA by means of gold acquisitions by the Federal Government from the SNB (chapters 4.5/4.6)
Transactions between Switzerland and the Third Reich
The escudos sold to the Reichsbank had been acquired by banks in Portugal in exchange for francs. Thus, the Portuguese central bank was soon in possession of large amounts of Swiss currency which it exchanged for gold from the SNB. As a consequence of these transactions, the gold reserve of the Swiss bank of issue dwindled. This situation was aggravated when on July 22, 1941, all assets of continental Europe were frozen in the United States. This also concerned the SNB, since a large part of its gold reserve was in the USA. Against this background, the Swiss central bank was compelled in fall 1941 to request that the Reichsbank no longer deliver holdings in gold to Swiss banks, but only to the SNB. Berlin complied with this request (chapter 3.3.2).
The gold purchases from the Reichsbank by the SNB reached a peak in 1942 (table 21). In that year alone they amounted to 424 million francs. Even after Stalingrad, when the center of activities in the war theater in Europe shifted, the gold policy of the SNB with respect to Germany hardly changed at first. The value of gold bought from the Reichsbank remained high and, at the end of 1943, had reached an additional 370 million francs. Only in 1944 did the volume of gold transfers decrease, falling to 180 million francs.
The pressure from the Allies, who had been warning about gold acquisitions by Germany at the beginning of 1943 for the first time, initially had no real consequences. When on February 22, 1944, a declaration was issued which opposed the acquisition of stolen gold by neutral states, the SNB still held the opinion that on principle they could not refuse to take over gold from the Reichsbank. Only in the case of gold coins acquired from the German central bank, as of the end of April, were purchases limited to coins which had been minted in Germany (chapter 3.3.3).
In February 1945, the Allies sent a delegation headed by L. Currie to Switzerland. After tough negotiations, the Swiss authorities committed themselves in an agreement dated March 8, 1945 not to conclude any more gold purchases with the Reichsbank, except if these were used to cover expenses of the diplomatic mission of the Reich in Switzerland, for prisoners of war, or as contributions to the International Committee of the Red Cross (chapter 3.3.4).
last gold transaction with the Third Reich and the role of insurance companies
purchases of the SNB from the Allies
According to information given by the SNB, more than half of the nearly 810 million francs of funds deposited in its depository in New York backed by gold, was used for the financing of Swiss exports, in particular for the watch industry. The remaining funds were used primarily for the financing of humanitarian actions and the needs of diplomacy.
of Swiss commercial banks on the gold market
justification arguments of the decision-makers at the SNB
tough negotiations, on May 25, 1946 an agreement was reached. In this
agreement it was determined that Switzerland would pay an indemnification
of 250 million francs for the compensation of the gold purchases. The
Swiss decision-makers considered this as a voluntary contribution to the
reconstruction of Europe and not as a confession of guilt. On their part,
France, Great Britain and the United States agreed to waive all claims,
for themselves and the fifteen countries represented by them, against
the Swiss government or the SNB with respect to the gold acquired by Switzerland
during the war. In turn, the Swiss-located assets of Germans living in
Germany, which had been frozen by the Federal Council, were to be liquidated.
The question of liquidation of the German assets frozen in Switzerland
was settled only in the context of a redemption package of the Washington
Agreement finalized in August 1952. Switzerland transferred a redemption
sum of 121.5 million francs to the Allies, which was compensated for by
the Federal Republic of Germany. In turn, Switzerland released the frozen
assets, allowing the owners in Germany once again to dispose of them.
(Original version in German)