The Third Reich attempted a number of unconventional plots to win World War II, including counterfeiting U.S. and British currency to destabilize the Allies’ wartime economies.
Not surprisingly, the Nazi plan relied on Jewish slave labor. Operation Bernhard recruited Jewish artists, printers, bankers, and others from concentration camps and pressed them into creating engraving plates and physically counterfeiting money and important documents.
Prisoners pressed into counterfeiting who survived the war described an initial test where they would be asked to print greeting cards. Prisoners who printed it well enough or who had a strong background in art or printing were then sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Adolf Burger, a printer who survived the war and wrote memoirs detailing his experiences, was personally congratulated by Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoss when he was selected for the program.
“Herr Burger!” Hoss reportedly said. “We need people like you. You’ll be sent to Berlin. You will work as a free man and I wish you every success.”
The men were granted special privileges not afforded to other prisoners, but they were not free.
Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in the Ebensee, Austria, concentration camp. Prisoners forced to create counterfeit English bank notes were sent here for execution but survived thanks to a prisoner revolt. (Photo: U.S. Army Lt. A. E. Samuelson)
“I always said I was a dead man on holiday,” Burger told a historian. “We never believed we would get out of there. But in the block we had everything — food, white sheets on the bed. Each one of us had his own bed; not like Birkenau, where six of us slept under a single lice-ridden blanket.”
The plan to print American currency was scuttled quickly due to problems with getting the necessary papers and inks, but the Nazis were able to collect all the proper supplies to print British bank notes.
While the Nazis destroyed most of their records and the counterfeit notes after the war, Allied investigations into the scheme estimate that nearly 9,000 banknotes with a total value of over 134 million British pounds were printed, though as little as 10 percent may have been usable.
The initial plan called for the Luftwaffe to airdrop the illicit currency into Britain and other Allied areas to get it into circulation, but a shortage of aircraft led to them distributing the money through a network of agents.
Surprisingly, they actually got some of the money into circulation by using it to pay unsuspecting intelligence sources and agents, a move that could have caused their intelligence networks to collapse if it had been discovered.
Britain learned about the plot from a spy in 1939, three years before the printing got underway in earnest. By 1943, it was finding some of the notes in circulation. Some of the first counterfeits were caught when people tried to redeem bank notes for pounds sterling using serial numbers that had already been redeemed at the bank.
As the Allied war machine bore down on Berlin, the counterfeiting operation was moved two times before the Nazis running it made the decision to destroy the equipment and records and kill the printers.
Luckily, the order was given to kill all the printers at the same time at the Ebensee prison camp, but a prison riot occurred while a truck was ferrying the printers to the site of their execution.
The printers escaped into the Ebensee prison population and were liberated by the Allied armies on May, 6, 1945.
Today, few of the counterfeit notes remain, though a large quantity was recently recovered from where it was dumped in Lake Toplitz. The lake has little to no oxygen below a depth of 65 feet, preserving the bank notes.