Nazi Past Delving into the dark side of the Bundesbank

A groundbreaking new study will focus on the Nazi-era activities of Germany's central bank and the careers of its key protagonists, surprisingly uncharted terrain.
Hiding in broad daylight? Karl Blessing, an early president of the Bundesbank, in 1969.

When Hitler’s favorite architect Albert Speer sought to curry favor with leading Nazis, he made thousands of confiscated Jewish homes available to high-ranking officials and company executives. One of them was Karl Blessing, the head of the Nazis’ petroleum monopoly.

After the war, Mr. Blessing became president of the Deutsche Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank. During Germany’s “economic miracle” of the 1960s, Mr. Blessing became famous for his hardline stance on inflation.

Outwardly, he also maintained his claim to have been a staunch Nazi opponent during the war. But that story is undermined by research showing that in November 1941, Mr. Blessing wrote a letter requesting a confiscated Jewish apartment for use by his wartime company, Kontinentale Öl.

This revelation gives a hint of what to expect from a new study authorized by Germany’s central bank, which has opened up its archives to two economic historians to investigate the Reichsbank, a Nazi-era predecessor. The project is led by Albrecht Ritschl, an economics professor at the London School of Economics, and Magnus Brechtken, deputy head of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. Sprouted from an initiative of Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, the work will take four years to complete and cost €3 million ($3.5 million).

The historians will scrutinize the evolution of the Reichsbank into the Bank deutscher Länder (Bank of German States) and finally into the Bundesbank. A special focus will be on the actions of the Reichsbank during the Nazi regime, the Bundesbank said. While there have been scattered studies on these topics, there has not yet been a comprehensive appraisal. “Some unpleasant questions were not asked,” Mr. Ritschl said. In a book commemorating its 60th anniversary this year, the Bundesbank only devoted three pages to the Nazi era.

Some unpleasant questions were not asked. Albrecht Ritschl, professor at the London School of Economics

The project opens in 1923, when Germany’s currency recovered from crippling hyperinflation after World War I and Hjalmar Schacht began his first tenure as president of the Reichsbank, and closes in 1969 with the departure of Mr. Blessing, the last Bundesbank president who belonged to Mr. Schacht’s inner circle in the 1930s.

The historians focus on Mr. Blessing, who ran the Bundesbank from 1958 to 1969, and his predecessor Wilhelm Vocke, head of the Bank deutscher Länder from 1948 to 1957. Both men were board members of the Reichsbank between the world wars, and both were dismissed by Adolf Hitler for criticizing fiscal policy, particularly the inflationary risks of endlessly printing money for Germany’s war machine.

Mr. Blessing joined the Nazi party in 1937. From 1939 he oversaw donations to the party and was a member of the Freundeskreis Reichsführer SS, a group of German industrialists who aimed to strengthen ties between the party and business and industry. Mr. Blessing also sat on the boards of two German chemical and raw-materials companies including Kontinentale Öl, which exploited, among other things, oil deposits in countries occupied by Germany. His duties qualified him as a Wehrwirtschaftsführer, an executive of a company deemed key to Germany’s war effort.

Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht, US President Herbert Hoover and US Ambassador Hugh R. Wilson in 1938.

After the war, the central banker presented himself as a member of the Nazi resistance. The Gestapo never found out he was involved in the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, which explains how Mr. Blessing escaped a purge of leading conspirators. Indeed, Mr. Blessing had even been penciled in as either central bank president or economics minister by the shadow cabinet behind the plot that ultimately failed.

His stance as an anti-Nazi, however, is now in tatters. During the war, Mr. Blessing asked to use an apartment confiscated from its Jewish owners and probably got it. Mr. Brechtken discovered Mr. Blessing’s letter dated Nov. 28, 1941, while researching a biography of Nazi architect Mr. Speer, which was published last June. The fact that Mr. Blessing requested that such a home be allocated to Kontinentale Öl indicates that he was aware of the persecution of Jews and could not pretend otherwise.

Part of the study will be devoted to the Reichsbank’s role in Nazi-occupied countries of France, Greece and Poland. During the occupation of Greece by Italy and Germany, the Reichsbank undermined the local currency by stoking inflation and creating famine, Mr. Ritschl said. The bank may have also been involved in running stolen Nazi gold. At any rate, there are few doubts that this sweeping study will connect many dots in the half-light of the Bundesbank’s archives.

Jeremy Gray is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]