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Meet the American Banker Who Helped Hitler Loot Jewish Gold—While Spying for the OSS

Thomas McKittrick, head of the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements, was a key go-between for the Axis and the Allies

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Thomas Harrington McKittrick (date unknown) and the BIS headquarters in 1931, in a former hotel in Basel, Switzerland. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos courtesy of BIS)
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After Thomas McKittrick, the former president of the Bank for International Settlements, died in a New Jersey nursing home in 1970, at age 81, the New York Times eulogized him as a world financier. His brief obituary described him as a man sufficiently daring to attend a bank meeting in Switzerland in 1940 “within earshot of a French-German artillery duel,” while his peers voted by proxy instead. But like many obituaries, McKittrick’s death notice was more notable for what it omitted.

As head of the BIS, headquartered in Basel, from 1940 to 1946, McKittrick played a crucial role in abetting Hitler’s war—and, at the same time, in revealing details about his Nazi colleagues to his friends in Washington, D.C. On McKittrick’s watch, the BIS willingly accepted looted Nazi gold, carried out foreign exchange deals for the Reichsbank, and recognized the Nazi invasion and annexation of conquered countries. By doing so, it also legitimized the role of the national banks in the occupied countries in appropriating Jewish-owned assets. Indeed, the BIS was so indispensable to the overall Nazi project that the vice-president of the Reichsbank, Emil Puhl—who was later tried for war crimes—once referred to the BIS as the Reichsbank’s only “foreign branch.” In the closing months of the war, as American GIs fought their way across Europe, McKittrick was arranging deals with Nazi industrialists to guarantee their profits after the Allied victory.

But McKittrick was also a key contact between the Allies and the Nazis, passing information back and forth from Washington to Berlin. His relationship with the Third Reich was encouraged both by factions within the State Department and by the leadership of the Office for Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also served as a back-channel between anti-Nazi German business interests and the United States—and ultimately served to help preserve the power of German industry after the war, over the opposition of no less a figure than Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.

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Born in St. Louis in 1889, McKittrick graduated from Harvard in 1911. He joined the U.S. Army in 1918, at the end of WWI, and was sent to Liverpool, England. There he was seconded to British military intelligence, checking that no spies were using the docks to pass in and out of the country. After the armistice in November 1918, McKittrick was dispatched to France to work with the Allied occupation forces. The following year he returned to New York and started work at Lee, Higginson & Company, then a renowned Boston investment house.

In 1921, McKittrick was sent to London to work for the firm’s British wing, and he was made a partner. He quickly built up an impressive network of contacts with international connections. Much of his time was spent working on German loans and investments, many of which were arranged by John Foster Dulles, then a lawyer working at the immensely powerful law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. McKittrick enjoyed his time in London and became a kind of honorary Englishman, complete with a butler who ironed his copy of the Times of London each morning before he read it.

McKittrick’s involvement with the BIS began in 1931, when he joined the German Credits Arbitration Committee, which adjudicated disputes involving German commercial banks. One of the other two members was Marcus Wallenberg, of Sweden’s Enskilda Bank, who taught McKittrick about the intricacies of international finance. Marcus and his brother Jacob were two of the most powerful bankers in the world. During the war, the Wallenberg brothers used Enskilda Bank to play both sides and harvest enormous profits. (Their nephew Raoul would later save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews before disappearing into the Soviet gulag, abandoned by his uncles.) In May 1939 McKittrick was offered the position of president of the BIS, which he readily accepted. Once he was in office, Marcus Wallenberg remained his most important mentor, teaching the American banker how to negotiate the delicate path between the opposing European powers—just as the Wallenbergs themselves had so skillfully done.

At first glance, McKittrick seemed a curious choice to run the world’s most influential bank, especially during wartime. He was a lawyer by training with no direct experience of central banking. But that did not matter, for McKittrick was the ideal contact person between both sides: He was an American, and thus, when he was appointed in 1940, a citizen of a country that was still neutral in the growing war between the Axis and the Allies. He had excellent connections in Washington and on Wall Street, in London and Berlin.

The BIS was founded in Basel in 1930, where it is still headquartered today. Ostensibly set up as part of the Young Plan to administer German reparations payments for WWI, its real purpose was detailed in its statutes: to “promote the cooperation of central banks and to provide additional facilities for international financial operations.” The establishment of the BIS was the culmination of the central bankers’ decades-old dream to have their own bank—powerful, independent, and free from interfering politicians and nosy reporters. Under the terms of the founding treaty, the bank’s assets could never be seized, even in times of war. Most felicitous of all, the BIS was self-financing and would be in perpetuity. Its clients were its own founders and shareholders—the central banks. The BIS, boasted Gates McGarrah, an American banker who served as its first president, was “completely removed from any government or political control.”

Based in a former hotel near Basel’s central railway station, the BIS swiftly made itself into the principal pillar of the new international global financial system at a time of worldwide financial crisis. It organized bailouts for Austria, Spain, and Hungary. It provided banking services for central banks. Its annual reports on the state of the global economy were soon required reading in the world’s treasuries. Every month, the BIS brought together some of the most powerful central bankers in the world, in conditions of extreme secrecy, to discuss the world economy. Reporters were forbidden from even looking into the room where the directors met after they had left. The cabal of central bankers, aided by their numerous friends on Wall Street, including John Foster Dulles, the future American secretary of state, and his brother Allen Dulles, had been instrumental in rebuilding Germany after WWI—a project that continued after Hitler took power in 1933.

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Before he moved to Basel, McKittrick had established himself as a valuable go-between for the Americans. In October 1939, lawyers for Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s former propaganda chief, asked McKittrick to provide a character reference for their client. Hanfstaengl, a Harvard graduate, had lived in New York and was well connected in American high society. He returned to Germany to become one of Hitler’s earliest backers. Hanfstaengl was appointed foreign press chief in 1931, and his job was to present a moderate, sophisticated face to journalists. However, his eccentric mannerisms, dry sense of humor, and close connection to Hitler made him enemies, and he fled in 1937, eventually winding up in a British prison camp. McKittrick was ready to declare that the former Nazi spin doctor would not act against British interests if he were set free—although it is unclear how McKittrick could know this. Hanfstaengl was duly released and sent to the United States, where he compiled psychological profiles of Nazi leaders for American intelligence.

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Meet the American Banker Who Helped Hitler Loot Jewish Gold—While Spying for the OSS

Thomas McKittrick, head of the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements, was a key go-between for the Axis and the Allies