Asia-Pacific, Headlines

ASIA: Nazi Gold Trail Leads to Macau, China

Yojana Sharma

HONG KONG, Jan 19 1998 (IPS) - After going around Europe, the trail of Nazi gold looted from victims of the Jewish Holocaust now stretches as far as Asia, after surprise revelations by a retired civil servant who once served in the Portuguese enclave of Macau.

While many countries had sought to launder gold through Macau during the 1950s and 1960s, at least some Nazi ingots may have ended up in China, according to former Portuguese civil servant Fernando Brito, who was on Macau’s Gold Import Commission for half a year in 1969.

Nazi gold may have reached China as part of an agreement between Beijing and Macau officials to avoid a possible Chinese invasion of the Portuguese enclave in the sixties and early 70s, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, said Brito and Lisbon-based historian Antonio Louca, who has been tracking Portugal’s dealings with Nazi gold.

The two believe Macau may have used the gold to “buy” its way out of the threat of a Chinese invasion at the time of the U.S. trade embargo of China.

“The government of the (Portuguese) colony was very careful not to make any move to irritate the Chinese or drive them into an occupation of Macau,” Louca told Hong Kong’s ‘South China Morning Post’ newspaper recently.

“Remember this was during the Cultural Revolution, and a fascist government was in control of a colony full of people with Mao pictures,” Louca said. “But Macau was useful to the Chinese government. With the U.S. embargo, it was a door through which they could break this embargo.”

Brito has claimed elsewhere he and other members of the Gold Import Commission also believed Argentine General Juan Peron was selling gold he had received from the Nazis during the war years.

More specifically, Brito has said that during his tenure at the Gold Import Commission in 1969, more than four tonnes of Nazi gold ingots passed through Macau via Hong Kong.

“I remember seeing Nazi gold bars engraved with the Nazi eagle and swastika and ‘Reichsbank’,” Brito claimed in the Macau weekly ‘Ponto Final’ earlier this month.

The gold hoard arrived by ferry boat from the British colony of Hong Kong and was escorted to a bank in the centre of sleepy Macau, he said.

“That bank was a bank only in name,” Brito recalled. “The doors would only open when the gold arrived. Then in the presence of the commission and the bank’s representative, we weighed the gold. And then we would certify it for the government to collect tax.”

Nazi gold arrived “very frequently” in Macau in 1969, he said, along with gold bars of Dutch, Spanish and South African origin. Nazi ingots were shipped into Macau as cargo from Johannesburg and London en route to China and other Asian countries.

Brito estimated that some 80 kilogrammes of Nazi gold were imported via Hong Kong every week in 1969. “The gold entered Macau legally and left – well, no one knows how.”

Other researchers in Portugal, where a investigation commission has been set up in the National Bank under former president Mario Soares to follow the Nazi gold trail, believe that Portugal may have sold the gold to Philippines, Indonesia and China, after laundering it through Macau.

Although many are sceptical of Brito’s claims, China has reacted with unusual swiftness to the reports. Less that a week after the revelations appeared in ‘Ponto Final’, the foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, Shen Guofang, said the People’s Bank of China had launched an investigation.

“According to our verification, the mainland has never accepted such gold,” he said the other week. “The People’s Bank of China has determined there were no such shipments.”

However, Brito maintains that as China’s currency was not convertible, the country had an “immense need” for gold to pay for imports.

Costa Leite of the University of Lisbon and a researcher for the Bank of Portugal, said the archives had not produced any evidence that Nazi ingots were shipped to Macau during the period claimed by Brito, though he has not dismissed Brito’s claims outright.

The imports into Macau were legal because they were not bound by the Bretton Woods agreement which restricted the trading of gold within and between member countries, and would have been documented both in Portugal and Macau, according to experts.

Experts say revenue collected from gold import duties during the 1950s and 60s was an important revenue earner for Macau, and many countries are thought to have used Macau to launder their gold.

Commented Stephen Ward of the London-based Holocaust Education Centre: “This is the first time — to my knowledge — that the trail has taken us to Asia. Once gold has been laundered, any country in Asia could find that it has something in its vaults which is ex-Nazi, either recognisably or not.”

But the problem is that though gold ingots usually have clear markings on them to ensure authenticity, these may not mean they came from Holocaust victims. “Just because it had Nazi insignia and Reichsbank markings on it, (the gold) isn’t necessarily looted,” Ward said in a radio interview.

“The German government had its own gold reserves before the war. The complication comes in because they stole millions worth of gold, not only from other countries. As they invaded, they swept the gold out of their vaults and then resmelted it to make it look like German gold,” he added.

Although Portugal was technically neutral during World War II, the country’s trade with the Nazis is well-documented in a U.S. government report last year into Nazi gold.

Allied investigations in 1947 indicated that Portugal received between 38.45 and 46.76 tonnes of looted gold as payment for tungsten ore, tin and other industrial metals. But Allied-held documents showed Portugal was actively trying to “launder” Nazi gold, mostly through Switzerland, in exchange for paper money.

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