Dr. Thomas Boghardt, Historian
At the height of World War II, in 1942, the Germans began to produce massive amounts of British counterfeit banknotes. Their goal—bring down the British economy by flooding the United Kingdom with fake money.
The scheme was run by SS intelligence officer Bernhard Krüger, hence its name, “Operation Bernhard.” Upon orders from SS boss Heinrich Himmler, Krüger selected over 140 concentration camp inmates to implement the operation. This course was as ingenious as it was diabolical—while the camps offered a large pool of talent (graphic designers, printers, professional forgers), the selectees could simply be liquidated at the end of the operation to ensure secrecy. Krüger himself always treated his workers kindly—in fact, some testified on his behalf after the war—, but they knew all too well that they lived on borrowed time, and that any day could be their last.
Operation Bernhard was an unparalleled success. Within two years, the inmates produced nearly 9 million pound notes—13 percent of the £1 billion worth of real notes then in circulation. When the Bank of England detected some of the counterfeit notes, it reverently described them “as the most dangerous ever seen.” And even though a lack of German aircraft prevented the notes from being dropped over Britain, and cause financial havoc there, the SS used the notes on a large scale in Europe to buy arms, raw materials, and pay their own spies. The notes also underwrote the liberation of fallen Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in a daring commando operation in 1943.
Operation Bernhard’s most cherished result, however, was that it saved lives. When the war ended, the SS guards in charge of the prisoners simply disappeared. Whether any of the inmates would have survived without joining Operation Bernhard, is highly doubtful.
Operation Bernhard was recently turned into an excellent movie, The Counterfeiters, which won an Oscar as the best foreign (Austrian) film in 2008. The International Spy Museum is pleased to screen it on 4 February, and provide a historical context. For more information, see: http://www.spymuseum.org/programs/calendar_pages/2010/q1/2010_02_04_prog.php