Gold, World War II and Operation Fish

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Gold, World War II and Operation Fish

I recently had the opportunity to see the excellent 2017 film Darkest Hour, about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s struggle to keep the United Kingdom in the fight against the Nazis, even as members of his own government pressured him to capitulate. Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the tough-as-nails leader is at turns tender and rousing—and very well deserving of the Best Actor Oscar.

I’d recommend the film to anyone, whether they’re a student of World War II or not.

It got me thinking, though, about the important role gold played in how the war was financed, as well as the U.K.’s daring efforts to prevent its gold holdings from falling into Adolf Hitler’s hands, should Nazi forces successfully invade the island and ransack its central bank. After all, Germany had done as much in a number of Central European countries before threatening the U.K.

Although not directly addressed in Darkest Hour, the U.K. ended up evacuating billions of dollars’ worth of gold bullion and other assets across the Atlantic, all to be kept safely in Canada. The mission, codenamed “Operation Fish,” is still the largest movement of physical wealth in history.

Germany’s Economic Straits

So why was Hitler so interested in acquiring gold?

To answer that, we really need to go back to the 1920s. At the time, Germany was in serious economic straits. It faced unprecedented hyperinflation, among the very worst such incidents in world history.

This was clearly a problem for Hitler, who, soon after being appointed Reich Chancellor in 1933, set in motion the remilitarization of Germany, in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Because the Western European country is not particularly resource-rich—the one exception is coal—everything from aluminum to zinc would have to be imported to manufacture the guns, tanks, ships, and warplanes needed to wage an extended conflict in the age of advanced machines.

But this was the Great Depression, which had suffocated the German economy as much as it had the United States’. Unemployment climbed to as high as 30 percent. In his inaugural address via radio, Hitler vowed to “achieve the great task of reorganizing our nation’s economy” through “a concerted and all-embarking attack against unemployment.”

Much like Roosevelt’s New Deal in the U.S., Hitler’s government tackled unemployment by dipping into deficit spending. It financed great public works projects such as the autobahn, railroad, housing and more.

The plan worked. Within four years, just as promised, unemployment was virtually thwarted. It’s been said that, had Hitler stopped in 1936 or 1937, he might today be remembered as one of the 20th century’s most admired leaders.

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