“The Bank for International Settlements is the bank which sanctions the most notorious outrage of this generation— the rape of Czechoslovakia.”
— George Strauss, Labor MP, speaking in the House of Commons, May 1939
“the Bank for International Settlements should be liquidated before it
furnished any more sinews of war to Germany, and that the odd
relationship between the British government and the Bank of England
should be re-examined without delay.”
— “Sees British Hands Tied on Czech Gold,” New York Times, June 6, 1939
When Nazi Germany annexed the Czechoslovak border province of the Sudetenland in September 1938, it immediately absorbed a good part of the country’s banking system as well as most of Czechoslovakia’s strategic defenses. By then the country’s national bank had prudently transferred most of its gold abroad to two accounts at the Bank of England: one in the name of the BIS, and one in the name of the National Bank of Czechoslovakia itself. (Countries had deposited some of their gold reserves in a sub-account at the BIS account in London to ease gold sales and purchases.) Of the 94,772 kilograms of gold, only 6,337 kilograms remained in Prague. The security of the national gold was more than a monetary issue. The Czechoslovak reserves, like those of Republican Spain, were an expression of nationhood. Carved out of the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Czechoslovak Republic was a new and fragile nation. A good part of the gold had been donated by the public in the country’s early years. Josef Malik, the governor of the national bank, and his fellow Czechs believed that, even as the Nazis’ dismembered their homeland, if the national gold was safe, then something of the country’s independence would endure.
They were wrong. The Czechoslovaks’ faith in the probity of the BIS and the Bank of England was tragically misplaced. The gold was sacrificed, with barely a second thought, to the needs of transnational finance and the Third Reich.
The Nazis’ first demand came in February 1939 when Berlin ordered Prague to transfer just over 14.5 metric tons of gold, supposedly to back the German currency now circulating in the Sudetenland. This was certainly an innovative idea— first invade a neighboring country, annex part of it, and then demand that the newly truncated state supply the gold to pay for the loss of its territory.
The following month the question became academic. On March 15 the Wehrmacht marched into Prague. The German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was declared, and Czechoslovakia no longer existed. But the gold reserves did. Three days later a Reichsbank official was dispatched to the National Bank of Czechoslovakia and ordered the directors, under the threat of death, to issue two orders. Thanks to diligent detective work by Piet Clements, the BIS archivist, we have a clear picture of what happened next. The first order instructed the BIS to transfer the 23.1 metric tons of Czechoslovak gold held at the BIS account at the Bank of England to the Reichsbank BIS account, also held at the Bank of England. The second order instructed the Bank of England to transfer almost 27 metric tons of gold held in the National Bank of Czechoslovakia’s own account to the BIS’s gold account at the Bank of England.
Malik and his fellow directors hoped that it would be obvious that the instructions had been issued under duress and so would not be implemented. The Nazis had just invaded Czechoslovakia and would obviously target the national gold reserves. But Malik had not reckoned on Montagu Norman. The governor of the Bank of England had no interest in whether Czechoslovakia was free or a Nazi colony. “Political” considerations must not affect the BIS’s transactions. The transfer order, he said, must go through.
Meanwhile, in Basel, Johan Beyen, the Dutch president of the BIS, wavered. Beyen discussed the matter with the BIS’s legal adviser, Felix Weiser. But like Norman, Weiser took the most formalistic approach possible. As long as the paperwork was in order, the monies must go through. Weiser argued, somewhat bizarrely, that there could be no legal grounds to claim that the transfer order had been issued under duress, as such a plea could be brought before a Swiss court only by the persons who had acted under duress. Clearly, the directors of the National Bank of Czechoslovakia were unlikely to travel to Switzerland to present their case. Therefore any decision not to authorize the transfer would be one of BIS policy, rather than administration. The board of the BIS made policy. Thus Beyen would have to consult the board to stop the payment. (This was poor advice for another reason— under the terms of the BIS statutes the Swiss authorities anyway had no jurisdiction over gold transfers between states.)
Beyen was unwilling to take a decision without authorization. But who could he ask? The chairman of the BIS board, Sir Otto Niemeyer, of the Bank of England, was traveling to Egypt and so was incommunicado. At 6 p.m. on March 20, Roger Auboin, the bank’s general manager, told Beyen that the governor of the Bank of France had discussed the matter with London. The Bank of England and the Bank of France would not be taking any action to stop the transfer, because they felt that there were no grounds for action. The BIS transfer order went through.
With London, Paris, and Basel’s compliance, Nazi Germany had just looted 23.1 metric tons of gold without a shot being fired. More than two-thirds of that gold was traded with the Dutch and Belgian national banks and was eventually transported from Amsterdam and Brussels to the Reichsbank’s vaults in Berlin. Czechoslovakia’s diligent planning to safeguard its national gold reserves, together with its misplaced faith in the integrity of the new international financial system, had come to nothing. The second transfer order for the 27 metric tons held in the National Bank of Czechoslovakia’s own account at the Bank of England did not go through. Sir John Simon, the chancellor of the Exchequer, had instructed banks to block all Czechoslovak assets. But Czechoslovak gold held in a BIS account at the Bank of England, it seemed, was not defined as a national asset and was beyond the reach of UK laws.
Norman and Beyen’s decision caused despair and incomprehension in Prague and uproar in London. The loss of the Czechoslovak gold was all “Norman’s fault,” exclaimed the Daily Herald. Paul Einzig, of the Financial News, ran a stream of stories exposing the complicity of both the treasury and the Bank of England in the affair. Einzig demanded to know why the treasury had not stopped the transfer, as it was in clear violation of the law known as the Czechoslovakia Act. Brendan Bracken, a journalist and ally of Winston Churchill, declared in the House of Commons that “the Bank of England after what has happened may no longer be looked on as the safest place in the world and the phrase ‘Safe as the Bank of England’ may no longer apply.” Churchill himself demanded to know how the government could urge people to enlist in the military when it was “so butter-fingered that six million pounds of gold can be transferred to the Nazi government.”
The real villain of the affair was Norman. Beyen, who later served as Dutch foreign minister and as executive director of the International Monetary Fund, was an ineffectual bureaucrat, paralyzed by the idea that he might have to take responsibility for a decision. Norman could have stopped the transfer immediately. He was the governor of the Bank of England, which held the two BIS accounts involved. At the very least he could have asked for the transfer to be referred to the BIS board for a decision, which would also have been a face-saving measure. He chose not to do so. It was clear that war was coming, one that Britain would have to fight. The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia had destroyed the last hopes of peace. That country’s gold reserves, held in London, were now a British national security issue.
Yet Norman’s priority was not the best interests of his homeland, but rather the independence of his beloved BIS. Even as the shells were loaded into the German tanks, Norman still believed that for the bankers it could be business as usual. Nothing could interfere with the bankers’ sacred neutrality and gentlemanly trust in one other, not even the coming conflagration with a regime whose evil was now plain to see. The Bank of France had refused to stop the transfer but had also asked Norman to block it. Norman was adamant. There could be no political interference in the operations of the BIS, even, it seemed, when they were ordered at gunpoint.
Norman did not express any regret at all over the Czech gold transfer. In fact, he was positively indignant at the very idea that the British government might have some say in the bank’s actions. He wrote, “I can’t imagine any step more improper than to bring government into the current banking affairs of the BIS. I guess it would mean ruin. I imagine the Germans would never have paid any interest to the BIS, and at the board we would have then likely have found the Germans, Italians, and Japs standing together!” Norman then lied to Sir John Simon, the chancellor of the Exchequer, albeit with a very telling falsehood. Simon asked Norman if he could not have warned the government that, thanks to the BIS, Germany was about to acquire “large additional financial strength.” Norman told Simon that while the Bank of England held gold for the BIS, it did not know if the gold was actually owned by the BIS or was held by the BIS for other central banks. This was untrue, as Norman later admitted. Norman then made a significant, even shocking, admission. He told Simon that “he was very doubtful that he would have thought it his duty, as Director of the BIS, to make a statement about its transactions to the British government.”
Norman even wrote to Beyen to clarify the matter and to assure the BIS president where his ultimate loyalties lay in Basel. Norman did not want to publicly correct the minutiae of what was being reported in the press and Hansard, the British parliamentary journal— that the Bank of England did not know whose gold was held in the BIS accounts— as that would expose him. “The difficulty is that if I point out to the Treasury that this is incorrect, I lay myself open to being asked details of BIS transactions, which I do not consider the Treasury are entitled to know.” This was little short of treason. As Norman’s compatriots were enlisting in the military, preparing to risk their lives for the freedoms and luxury that he enjoyed, as his country prepared for the war against the Nazis that all knew was coming, Norman blithely announced that his primary loyalty was not to Britain, but to a hyper-privileged, international bank that was not even a decade old.
The mistake of Malik, the director of the National Bank of Czechoslovakia, was to believe that either Norman, Beyen, or indeed any of the BIS management could conceive of any moral or political dimension to their decisions. The world’s most powerful international bankers were not only unwilling to obstruct the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovak— or Austrian— assets. They simply could not conceive of any reason why they should do so. As long as the formalities were observed, the necessary papers were stamped and the gold was re-assigned. Norman’s precious independence for both the Bank of England and the BIS had been bought at a high price— in mountains of gold ingots to pay for steel to build bombs that would soon rain down on London.
* * * * *
... the affair had highlighted the deeply unsettling connections between the Bank of England, the British government, and the BIS. There was a good deal of cross-party feeling in Britain, reported the New York Times, that “the Bank for International Settlements should be liquidated before it furnished any more sinews of war to Germany, and that the odd relationship between the British government and the Bank of England should be re-examined without delay.” The New York Times then was able to assume that its readers would understand a classical allusion. The word “sinews” was a reference to an epithet of Cicero, the Roman philosopher, who had said, “The sinews of war are infinite money.” Cicero’s observation was as prescient then as during the late 1930s. But those who wanted the BIS to be liquidated were too late. Thanks to the BIS the “sinews of war” and the flow of near-infinite money were about to be immeasurably strengthened.
Source: TOWER OF BASEL: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World by Adam LeBor.