Military history

THE NAZI PLUNDER OF EUROPE

The total amount of loot will never be known; it has proved beyond man’s capacity to accurately compute. But some figures are available, many of them from the Germans themselves. They show with what Germanic thoroughness the instructions which Goering once gave to his subordinates were carried out.

Whenever you come across anything that may be needed by the German people, you must be after it like a bloodhound. It must be taken out … and brought to Germany.9

A great deal was taken out, not only in goods and services but in banknotes and gold. Whenever Hitler occupied a country, his financial agents seized the gold and foreign holdings of its national bank. That was a mere beginning. Staggering “occupation costs” were immediately assessed. By the end of February 1944, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, the Nazi Minister of Finance, put the total take from such payments at some 48 billion marks (roughly $12,000,000,000), of which France, which was milked heavier than any other conquered country, furnished more than half. By the end of the war, receipts from occupation assessments amounted to an estimated 60 billion marks ($15,000,000,000).

France was forced to pay 31.5 billions of this total, its annual contributions of more than 7 billions coming to over four times the yearly sums which Germany had paid in reparations under the Dawes and Young plans after the first war—a tribute which had seemed such a heinous crime to Hitler. In addition the Bank of France was forced to grant “credits” to Germany totaling 4.5 billion marks and the French government to pay a further half billion in “fines.” At Nuremberg it was estimated that the Germans extracted in occupation costs and “credits” two thirds of Belgium’s national income and a similar percentage from the Netherlands. Altogether, according to a study by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Germany extracted in tribute from the conquered nations a total of 104 billion marks ($26,000,000,000).*

But the goods seized and transported to the Reich without even the formality of payment can never possibly be estimated. Figures kept pouring in at Nuremberg until they overwhelmed one; but no expert, so far as I know, was ever able to straighten them out and compute totals. In France, for example, it was estimated that the Germans carted off (as “levies in kind”) 9 million tons of cereals, 75 per cent of the total production of oats, 80 per cent of oil, 74 per cent of steel, and so on, for a grand total of 184.5 billion francs.

Russia, devastated by warfare and German savagery, proved harder to milk. Nazi documents are full of reports of Soviet “deliveries.” In 1943, for example, 9 million tons of cereals, 2 million tons of fodder, 3 million tons of potatoes, 662,000 tons of meat were listed by the Germans among the “deliveries,” to which the Soviet Committee of Investigation added—for the duration of the occupation—9 million cattle, 12 million pigs, 13 million sheep, to mention a few items. But Russian “deliveries” proved much less than expected; the Germans calculated them as worth a net of only some 4 billion marks ($1,000,000,000).*

Everything possible was squeezed out of Poland by the greedy Nazi conquerors. “I shall endeavor,” said Dr. Frank, the Governor General, “to squeeze out of this province everything that is still possible to squeeze out.” This was at the end of 1942, and in the three years since the occupation he had already squeezed out, as he continually boasted, a great deal, especially in foodstuffs for hungry Germans in the Reich. He warned, however, that “if the new food scheme is carried out in 1943 a half-million people in Warsaw and its suburbs alone will be deprived of food.”10

The nature of the New Order in Poland had been laid down as soon as the country was conquered. On October 3, 1939, Frank informed the Army of Hitler’s orders.

Poland can only be administered by utilizing the country through means of ruthless exploitation, deportation of all supplies, raw materials, machines, factory installations, etc., which are important for the German war economy, availability of all workers for work within Germany, reduction of the entire Polish economy to absolute minimum necessary for bare existence of the population, closing of all educational institutions, especially technical schools and colleges in order to prevent the growth of the new Polish intelligentsia. Poland shall be treated as a colony. The Poles shall be the slaves of the Greater German Reich.11

Rudolf Hess, the Nazi deputy Fuehrer, added that Hitler had decided that “Warsaw shall not be rebuilt, nor is it the intention of the Fuehrer to rebuild or reconstruct any industry in the Government General.”12

By decree of Dr. Frank, all property in Poland belonging not only to Jews but to Poles was subject to confiscation without compensation. Hundreds of thousands of Polish-owned farms were simply grabbed and handed over to German settlers. By May 31, 1943, in the four Polish districts annexed to Germany (West PrussiaPosenZichenauSilesia) some 700,000 estates comprising 15 million acres were “seized” and 9,500 estates totaling 6.5 million acres “confiscated.” The difference between “seizure” and “confiscation” is not explained in the elaborate table prepared by the German “Central Estate Office,”13 and to the dispossessed Poles it must not have mattered.

Even the art treasures in the occupied lands were looted, and, as the captured Nazi documents later revealed, on the express orders of Hitler and Goering, who thereby greatly augmented their “private” collections. The corpulent Reich Marshal, according to his own estimate, brought his own collection up to a value of 50 million Reichsmarks. Indeed, Goering was the driving force in this particular field of looting. Immediately upon the conquest of Poland he issued orders for the seizure of art treasures there and within six months the special commissioner appointed to carry out his command could report that he had taken over “almost the entire art treasury of the country.”14

But it was in France where the bulk of the great art treasures of Europe lay, and no sooner was this country added to the Nazi conquests than Hitler and Goering decreed their seizure. To carry out this particular plunder Hitler appointed Rosenberg, who set up an organization called Einsatzstab Rosenberg, and who was assisted not only by Goering but by General Keitel. Indeed one order by Keitel to the Army in France stated that Rosenberg “is entitled to transport to Germany cultural goods which appear valuable to him and to safeguard them there. The Fuehrer has reserved for himself the decision as to their use.”15

An idea of Hitler’s decision “as to their use” is revealed in a secret order issued by Goering on November 5, 1940, specifying the distribution of art objects being collected at the Louvre in Paris. They were “to be disposed of in the following way”:

1. Those art objects about which the Fuehrer has reserved for himself the decision as to their use.

2. Those … which serve the completion of the Reich Marshal’s [i.e., Goering’s] collection …

4. Those … that are suited to be sent to German museums …16

The French government protested the looting of the country’s art treasures, declaring that it was a violation of the Hague convention, and when one German art expert on Rosenberg’s staff, a Herr Bunjes, dared to call this to the attention of Goering, the fat one replied:

“My dear Bunjes, let me worry about that. I am the highest jurist in the state. It is my orders which are decisive and you will act accordingly.”

And so according to a report of Bunjes—it is his only appearance in the history of the Third Reich, so far as the documents show—

those art objects collected at the Jeu de Paume which are to go into the Fuehrer’s possession and those which the Reich Marshal claims for himself will be loaded into two railroad cars which will be attached to the Reich Marshal’s special train … to Berlin.17

Many more carloads followed. According to a secret official German report some 137 freight cars loaded with 4,174 cases of art works comprising 21,903 objects, including 10,890 paintings, made the journey from the West to Germany up to July 1944.18 They included works of, among others, Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals, Vermeer, Velazquez, Murillo, Goya, Vecchio, Watteau, Fragonard, Reynolds and Gainsborough. As early as January 1941, Rosenberg estimated the art loot from France alone as worth a billion marks.19

The plunder of raw materials, manufactured goods and food, though it reduced the occupied peoples to impoverishment, hunger and sometimes starvation and violated the Hague Convention on the conduct of war, might have been excused, if not justified, by the Germans as necessitated by the harsh exigencies of total war. But the stealing of art treasures did not help Hitler’s war machine. It was a case merely of avarice, of the personal greed of Hitler and Goering.

All this plunder and spoliation the conquered populations could have endured—wars and enemy occupation had always brought privation in their wake. But this was only a part of the New Order—the mildest part. It was in the plunder not of material goods but of human lives that the mercifully short-lived New Order will be longest remembered. Here Nazi degradation sank to a level seldom experienced by man in all his time on earth. Millions of decent, innocent men and women were driven into forced labor, millions more tortured and tormented in the concentration camps and millions more still, of whom there were four and a half million Jews alone, were massacred in cold blood or deliberately starved to death and their remains—in order to remove the traces—burned.

This incredible story of horror would be unbelievable were it not fully documented and testified to by the perpetrators themselves. What follows here—a mere summary, which must because of limitations of space leave out a thousand shocking details—is based on that incontrovertible evidence, with occasional corroboration from the eyewitness accounts of the few survivors.

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