During the second half of the 1930s a growing threat of war was clearly felt. Hitler had come to power in 1933 and on the international level tension was building up. Belgium felt compelled to transfer most of its stocks of gold and other valuables abroad for safe keeping. The scale-model in room 3 of the Museum refers to the ship A4 which was used to transport the valuables of several agencies of the National Bank of Belgium to England. The evacuation of the stocks of gold went less smoothly than hoped for and part of the stocks was condemned to an odyssey.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War Belgium’s gold reserves amounted to some 600 tonnes. One third of it was transferred to the UK, another third found its way to the US and Canada. The balance was kept in Belgium to fulfil the statutory cover requirements in respect of the banknotes. As the international tension increased in late 1939-early 1940, those assets were removed on the orders of the Finance Minister Camille Gutt and entrusted to the Banque de France. 198 tonnes of fine gold, packed into 4,944 chests were brought via Ostend to the South of France. There it was stored in the cellars of the Bordeaux and Libourne branches of the Banque de France. At the time of the German invasion on 10 May 1940, only a very small amount of gold still remained in the Bank’s vaults.
In view of the rapid advance of the German troops in France, the Banque de France informed the French admiralty at the beginning of June 1940 of the presence of Belgian gold which urgently needed to be shipped overseas. The navy took the gold to Lorient, the nearest naval port, where the chests were loaded on to the auxiliary cruiser Victor-Schoelcher. Initially, the gold had to be brought ashore in the US but the ship never crossed the Atlantic Ocean. On 18 June 1940 the ship weighed anchor, and ten days later, after a hazardous voyage, it entered the port of Dakar in French West Africa. From Dakar it was transported to the military base of Thiès, 65 km inland. It did not stay there because the French colonial authorities considered Thiès too close to the sea and they feared a possible invasion by the enemy. Therefore they decided to move the Belgian gold further inland, to Kayès, in the middle of the Sahara, some 500 km from Dakar.
The National Bank of Belgium did not really appreciate what was happening to part of its stocks of gold. Hubert Ansiaux, who was looking after the Bank’s interests in London, sent the French central bank a notice of default, on account of the fact that – contrary to the express wishes of the Bank – it had not taken the gold to the US.
At the end of 1940, in the course of the Franco-German armistice talks, the Germans and the French reached an agreement whereby the Belgian gold was made available to the Reichsbank by way of atonement. Under pressure from the French Prime Minister P. Laval, who expected something in return from the Germans, e.g. the release of French prisoners of war, the Banque de France reluctantly agreed to the transfer of the gold, against its better judgment.
Transporting the gold from Central Africa to Algiers and from there to Marseille was no easy task. The transfer was not completed until May 1942, which indicated that the French were not genuinely cooperative. The gold which was stacked up in the Reichsbank’s vaults was then seized by the commissioner for the German Four-Year-Plan, Reich Marshall Hermann Göring. Following the seizure, all the gold bars were melted down in the Prussian Staatsmünze. It was hallmarked with the dates 1936 and 1937. By doing so the Nazis hoped to give the impression that this was bona fide gold from before the war.
Meanwhile, on 5 February 1941 Regent G. Theunis had brought proceedings in New York against the Banque de France, demanding part of the French gold being held in the US. A lengthy legal battle followed and it was not until April 1943 that the main hearing took place. However, the court suspended the decision because the war prevented the French from calling any witnesses or submitting any evidence. After the war France and Belgium concluded an agreement whereby the Banque de France paid the National Bank full compensation, at which point the legal proceedings were, of course, terminated.
In April 1945, in a salt mine near the Thüringian town of Merkers, the American troops discovered a massive store of treasures: works of art, valuable objects looted by the SS, plus a stock of Reichsbank gold, including part of the gold belonging to the National Bank. The Americans also found the Reichsbank’s records relating to the gold. This made it possible to check precisely what route had been followed by the largest part of the stolen gold. The Germans had used it to obtain hard currency which they then used to purchase commodities and parts for the weapons industry in Spain, Portugal and Sweden. All the gold that the allies found in Germany was collected into a pool which was used by the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold to meet the claims of the countries whose assets had been plundered. Under pressure from the allies, neutral countries such as Switzerland also paid precious metal into the gold pool. The National Bank submitted a claim for compensation on behalf of the French central bank. In the end the Banque de France received around 130 tonnes, and thus recovered two-thirds of the gold which it had lost.
- E. Buyst, I. Maes, e.a., The Bank, the franc and the euro. A history of the National Bank of Belgium, Lannoo, Tielt, 2005, pp. 146-147