“The pound’s the pound, the world around.” And for the wicked, the pound’s stability was a magnet. These previous two lines are in the first chapter of Krueger’s Men by Lawrence Malkin, titled “Attack The Pound The World Around.” This saying was true, referring to the British sterling pound during World War II, making the pound very tempting for the Nazis to counterfeit. Krueger’s Men details the Nazi’s attempts to counterfeit both the pound and, later, the dollar by using Jewish concentration camp prisoners. Under the command of SS officer Benrhard Krueger, Operation Bernhard is a little-known part of WWII history that the Bank of England would rather forget about if they could, because it came scarily close to accomplishing its aims. In the end it did not, thankfully, cause extreme havoc with the economies of England and America, but it did help fund the Nazis and some of their escapes to other countries. It’s a story of survival and intrigue with heroes, villains, suspense and intrigue worthy of the big screen.*
There was an initial desire by the Nazis to drop bundles of counterfeit pounds by air to ruin the British economy by destroying the value of the pound. As Albert Langer, the director of the first attempt by the Nazis at counterfeiting the pound called Operation Andreas, said, “We wanted to strike through the worth of the pound, thus make its value to nothing.” Operation Andreas came close to duplicating the pound accurately, but the operation was shelved for awhile, largely due to internal bickering within the Nazi’s own ranks between the technicians and SS members. The idea of destroying England’s economy had too strong of an appeal for the Nazis to drop for long, though. It took the skills and organizational efforts of Bernhard Krueger, who boasted that he was “the greatest counterfeiter the world has ever known,” to revitalize the scheme and put it back on the front burner.
Krueger must have been stunned when Walter Schellenburg, the SS chief of foreign intelligence and espionage, told him he had an important order from Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) that he wanted “the fabrication of British pounds to begin immediately” and that “The workforce is to be taken from the reservoir of prisoners of Jewish descent.” Naming the operation after him put the responsibility of the operation’s success squarely on his shoulders. As Malkin writes: “Krueger realized he was being handed a poisoned chalice, but it would also be suicide to refuse.” Probably for his own self-serving ends rather than any other reason, to get the prisoners to be more cooperative he gave the ones he selected better and more food, and other Sundays off. Still, they were in constant fear that when Operation Krueger came to an end, they would be all sent to the gas chambers to silence them forever.
Malkin relates the lives of the prisoners of Block 19 in vivid detail. Many, if not all, would have died from starvation, being worked to death, or the gas chamber had they not been selected by Krueger, for ranges of experience from graphic art to printing to hairstyling. Hairdressers would have, Krueger reasoned, softer hands with which to handle the money; and, of course, the prisoners would need haircuts now and then.
Krueger’s Men relates what may be, as Malkin puts it, just a footnote to WWII history; but it’s a damned interesting one that anyone who is a history buff or who enjoys excellent tales of real-life espionage, smuggling, and intrigue should love to read. I hope that his publishers will work to get him on Book TV; he would make for a very interesting episode, and it would help get this story to a wider audience. You’ll find yourselves caught up in the story, and feel at least a small part of the suspense the prisoners must have felt, not knowing from one day to the next if Operation Bernhard would end. As Malkin writes:
The prisoners viewed virtually every event, even the good news of the D-Day landings, through the single prism of whether it might induce Himmler to shut down the operation
that was prolonging their lives.
There were so many people involved in both the Operation Bernhard and the necessary money-laundering and smuggling aspects that this review can only suggest how complex it was, and how many lives were at stake. Lawrence Malkin does a great service to bring this remarkable little-known episode of WWII to the world’s attention. I would highly recommend it to anyone.
[editor's note: A reader writes that the book has been made into a movie in Germany, entitled "The Counterfeiters," and competed at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007.]