Seasoned journalist Malkin (The National Debt, 1987) tells the compelling story of the Third Reich’s attempt to wreck the British economy by flooding Europe with millions of counterfeit British pounds.
Germany may have lost the war, but from 1942 to 1945, it succeeded in perfecting the art of counterfeiting British pounds: 132 million of them, worth U.S. $535 million. The highly skilled counterfeiters were mostly Jewish concentration-camp inmates whose success at mass-producing fake British notes proved to be their means of escaping the gas chambers. The 140-plus members of the counterfeit team, which worked out of Block 19 at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, were handpicked from the prisoner population by Bernhard Krueger, an SS officer whose generally benign treatment of his counterfeiters belied his knowledge that all were to be exterminated at war’s end. Malkin unravels the German plot in a methodical, concentrated narrative. Along the way, he introduces us to a score of curious characters, including Salomon Smolianoff, a professional Russian con man and master counterfeiter; Elyesa Bazna, the Turkish master spy known as “Cicero” to his British handlers; and Friedrich Schwend, the Germans’ oily chief money launderer, who slipped away to Argentina after the war. Equally shady are the stodgy British lords at the Bank of England who ignored numerous warnings about the counterfeiting plot, then actively covered up evidence of its success after the war, even as London’s dog-track bookies were refusing to accept British five-pound notes for fear of getting fakes. The author’s dry, trenchant prose isn’t terribly exciting, but his thorough research and authoritative voice enable this fascinating chapter of history to hold interest.
Gripping proof that indeed all is fair in love and war.