In the summer of 1945 a young German in civilian clothes who claimed to be a journalist was sent for interrogation to the former prisoner-of-war camp Stalag XI-B in Lower Saxony, which was being used as an internment camp for suspected Nazis. His British interrogators weren’t satisfied with his story and were particularly suspicious of his oddly shaped shoulder-pads.
Their doubts proved well founded when the pads were found to contain top-secret documents drafted in the last days of the Third Reich. The man was actually Heinz Lorenz, Adolf Hitler’s deputy chief press secretary, and among the documents he was carrying was the dictator’s last will and testament, signed shortly before dawn in his underground bunker in Berlin on the day he and Eva Braun shot themselves.
“At her own desire she goes as my wife with me into death,” Hitler wrote in his will. “It will compensate us for what we both lost through my work in the service of my people. What I possess belongs – in so far as it has any value – to the [Nazi] Party. Should this no longer exist, to the State; should the State also be destroyed, no further decision of mine is necessary.”
He asked for provision to ensure the maintenance of a “modest, simple life” for his sister and half-siblings, as well as for his new mother-in-law and his “faithful co-workers”. Since he also stressed that the pictures he had bought over several years had never been collected for private purposes but were destined for a new gallery in his Austrian home town of Linz, the document gave the impression of a frugal figure who had never operated for personal gain.
Reality, according to a documentary on Channel 5 tonight, could scarcely have been more different. The man who claimed not even to have a bank account actually had an acute business sense, charging money for his fiery performances as a political speaker, copyrighting his own image so that he eventually received a royalty from every postage stamp sold in Germany and showing a contempt for the taxman that was translated into a formal exemption once he got into power.
At today’s prices the supposedly frugal tyrant who worked only in the service of his people was actually a billionaire – and the fate of his cash and assets has continued to fascinate historians. In 1948 an Allied court formally issued a death certificate for Hitler and said his entire personal estate was worth just DM200,000, less than £15,000 at the time and no more than £500,000 at today’s prices.
But a will written in 1938, drafted with less of an eye on public view than the bunker version, suggests Hitler knew very well his own estate was more substantial. He named specific heirs and stated exactly how much should go to each. For example his sister Paula was to receive 1,000 Reichmarks a month, the equivalent of £150,000 a year today.
Other relatives and staff were also to receive substantial bequests and had Hitler died in 1938, his estate would have had to pay out nearly £200,000 in the first year alone – £1.2million at today’s prices. For annual payments like that to be sustainable, Hitler must have been rich.”Let’s try to talk in today’s figures. By 1944 he’s definitely in the billions of Reichsmarks, which is not far off billions of euros today,” says historian Cris Whetton, who argued in his book Hitler’s Fortune that the dictator was probably the richest man in Europe.
From his earliest days in the Nazi Party, Hitler realised that people would pay to hear him speak. He used to say he took no fees for speeches – he brushed off the taxman’s queries on official forms by saying it was entirely a matter for the party not him personally – and insisted he had no bank account. But Whetton cites Hitler’s own headed notepaper which provided bank details on it.Imprisoned for nine months in 1923, he wrote the unwieldy manifesto Mein Kampf which would contribute hugely to his fortune. It was published in 1925 and he received a royalty of around 10 per cent from every sale. Initially released in an expensive volume that sold only modestly, it was then reissued in a budget edition that transformed Hitler’s fortunes.
“By 1944 he’s definitely in the billions of Reichsmarks, which is not far off billions of euros today.” – Cris Whetton, historian
Once he rose to power in the 1930s, he decreed every newlywed couple in Germany should be given a copy – with the state footing the bill and the author receiving his royalty.
By 1938 his unpaid tax bill was 400,000 Reichsmarks, equivalent to £1.75million at today’s prices. Hitler clearly felt paying tax was beneath him and his government in due course gave him a formal exemption as Chancellor, ruling that his tax papers should all be destroyed. In fact they were locked in a safe, providing a rich seam of information for future historians.
He poured the money into property: a luxury apartment in central Munich, a villa used by Braun and most of all his Alpine home at Berchtesgaden, bought in 1936 for the equivalent of £120,000 at today’s prices but steadily enlarged into a sumptuous 30-room mansion. The documentary makers estimate he ploughed the equivalent of £136million into the place at today’s prices.The house was damaged by British bombing, set on fire by retreating SS troops and finally levelled by the post-war German government in 1952.
Hitler also intended to be the world’s greatest art collector, amassing works that he genuinely did intend to exhibit in Linz. By the end of the war he had gathered some 8,500 pictures for this purpose. Unlike many Nazis he didn’t loot the treasures and does appear to have bought them legitimately, albeit sometimes at knockdown prices.
These paintings were among those recovered by the Allies from underground tunnels in Austria after the war, with a total value of almost £1million.
As for cash, in the post-war period the forerunner of the CIA found that Hitler had access to massive amounts. Agents discovered Swiss bank accounts holding 45million Reichsmarks – equivalent to £210million today.
So what happened to it? When Hitler died he left some 20 living relatives. Paula was his next of kin and the only one to pursue any of her brother’s funds. After the Allies had officially valued his estate at £15,000 she went to court in Munich to try to get control of his assets and money.
In 1960 the court ruled that she was entitled to two-thirds of her brother’s estate, with the remainder going to their half-sister and half-brother. But it put no value on the estate and Paula died four months later. The court ruled that any benefit from the estate should pass to her heirs and relatives but none has made a claim.
A recent ruling in Switzerland stated that after 62 years the funds from dormant bank accounts can pass to government coffers. That may mean the last of Hitler’s missing millions have disappeared.