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Austrian Alps Wartime Drama

by Mary Robinson Sive

Few tourists vising the World Heritage Salzkammergut east of Salzburg probably are aware of the dramatic events that took place there at the end of World War II. The #1 defendant at the Nuremberg war crimes trial was captured in these mountains as he hid out at a remote hunting lodge. The 300-foot deep lake where the Nazis dumped fake British money is a popular destination.

In early 1945 Hitler clung to a last desperate hope: a mountain redoubt in the Alps, where his remaining forces would somehow survive to establish his dreamed-of 1000-year Reich. The Salzkammergut, not far from his eyrie at Berchtesgaden, was to be part of this mountain fortress. Top Nazi leaders, including Adolf Eichmann, sought safety here as Germany crumbled.

The movie "The Counterfeiters" told the story of how British currency was manufactured and how the Nazis abruptly dismantled all printing equipment for disposal once defeat was clearly imminent. The film received an Oscar for best foreign film of 2007, but it took some liberties. It was in tiny Toplitzsee, not in a cave as the movie claims, that crates full of pound notes were discarded when it was clear that Hitler's planned invasion of the British Isles would not take place.

The German Navy had used the lake near Badaussee earlier in the war for testing underwater rockets and explosives. Rumors of gold in the lake began at war's end, and many attempted to find it. The first of several people to die while trying to find gold was a U.S. Navy diver in 1947. In 1959, a German reporter found no gold but did bring what appeared to be £72 million, in mint condition, to the surface. A film the same year, "The Treasure in Toplitzsee",speculated about its origin. Salt has been mined in these mountains since the 7th century BC, and the saline content of the water near the bottom had perfectly preserved the counterfeiters' product. The lake was declared off limits after another death in 1963. In the 1980s authorized divers found more money, printing equipment, and other war materiel. Biologists have discovered bacteria and a worm indigenous to the oxygen-free waters at depths below 60 feet. Dives for treasure routinely come up empty-handed because submerged logs block retrieval efforts, but speculation and attempts undoubtedly will continue.

At nearby Altaussee the Nazis came close to blowing up art treasures stored in the local salt mine for safekeeping. In 2001, a Dutch touristmaking a recreational dive in Altaussee Lake came across a medal that turned out to have belonged to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the SS security chief. Kaltenbrunner had apparently dropped it in the lake as he fled approaching units of the U.S. Army under another identity.

Adolf Hitler failed at art, and the world knows the result of his turning to politics instead. Political success gave him another chance, and he began to collect art soon after attaining power in 1933. This activity went into high gear beginning in 1938, when many Jews fled Germany and the recently annexed Austria. They had to leave behind what they could not carry or smuggle out or had not sent abroad earlier. As German forces overran Austria, Poland, the Low Countries, and France, they emptied out the museums. The plan was to establish Fuhrer museums in Berlin and in Linz, Austria. The looting continued through the war years under the direction of a sizeable staff of art historians, museum directors, and others. Over one thousand cases arrived at Altaussee in 1944, and shipping still went on in early 1945, leaving little room for safe storage of legitimate museum treasures.

An overeager local functionary took it upon himself to order the destruction of priceless art rather than have it fall into the hands of "Jews and Bolsheviks." Large heavy chets marked "Marble—Do Not Drop" arrived at the mine in April 1945. When employees opened one they discovered a bomb. It did not take long for word to spread locally. The salt mine was the leading local industry and employer of generations of local families. Neither management nor employees could countenance what would amount to destruction of the local economy. Kaltenbrunner, who was staying with a local girlfriend, was contacted and agreed to order removal of the bombs.

His self-interest is clear, as a few days later he asked for help to escape from the Allies. For years an informal resistance group dedicated to Austrian independence had been in existence locally.* Now they had a mission. Two local young men took his party into the mountains. Upon return to the village, they alerted the occupation forces, already on the hunt for this most-wanted war criminal, and guided a U.S. infantry detachment to Kaltenbrunner's hide-out. He was tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and executed in October 1946.
At the Altaussee salt mine guided tours take visitors to the underground chambers where the more than 6000 paintings, sculptures, graphic works, and tapestries, including the famous Eyck Ghent Altar, were stored. A multimedia presentation provides information about the hoarding and rescue of the art.

* The area has a history of independence, with protests during the Counterreformation,resistance to military recruitment in the 1700s, and a continuing high percentage of Protestants in the predominantly Catholic country.


Nichols, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Rech and the Second World War (1994)
Petropoulos, Jonathan. The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (2000)
Topf, Christian. Auf den Spuren der Partisanen: Zeitgeschichtliche Wanderungen im Salzkammergut (In the Partisans' Footsteps: Historic Hikes in the Salzkammergut)(1996). Based on oral histories.