A previously unknown photograph of the legendary Nazi Gold Train parked at Kilometer 65, Walbrzych, released to coincide with the BBC documentary by Dan Snow
by Andy Brockman
Trigger Warning: If you still believe in the Nazi Gold Train this review contains spoilers
“Hunting the Nazi Gold Train” [BBC2 2 October 2016, currently available in the UK on BBC I-Player] began with a big question “If?” and the confession of a guilty secret from presenter Dan Snow,
“If it’s true it’s the kind of thing which happens once in a lifetime.” said Snow to camera. “A secret underground Nazi Train, loaded with valuables, buried for decades, local people silenced first by the Nazi’s then by the Soviets finally coming out and telling their stories. It’s the kind of thing us history lovers dream about.”
Unfortunately TV commissioners prefer predictability to “if” which is why certain subjects, and certain presenters, become the “go to” staple of the broadcaster’s schedules. For example, when a catnip subject for documentary makers “the Nazi’s” [we hate those guys, but apparently can’t get enough telly about them], can be combined with another off the shelf winner for the hard of thinking commissioning editor, a treasure hunt, you have a network controller’s dream of a schedule filler. But, just in case the whole thing is a complete let down, or a massive hoax, the project needs to be tied either to a low budget, disposable presenter [someone from Horrible Histories will do], or a name presenter who can make the project bankable in a prime time slot on a major channel. At the moment the BBC’s “go to” presenter for high end history and archaeology involving war and big boys toys is Dan Snow, and so it was our history man Dan who got to fly to Poland to investigate the rumours of a Nazi Gold Train, hidden in the secret Nazi tunnels systems of Project Riese [Giant] under the Owl Mountains of Lower Silesia. The result of this nine month assignment was shown on BBC 2 on Sunday night. Unfortunately all it really proved is that there is only one thing more easily parted than a fool from their money, and that is a TV production company from its money when there is the prospect, however remote, of buried treasure.
The thirty seven year old Snow, who to be fair has a First in modern history from Balliol College Oxford and is currently President of the Council for British Archaeology, is a member of one of those accidental TV dynasties which the media nurtured in the post war period; think also of Dimblebys major and minor; and he has been presenting documentaries since he was in his early twenties. His first major TV outing was “Battlefield Britain” with former Newsnight presenter father Peter Snow; a series which was notable for being one of the first “high concept” series of historical documentary, using now ubiquitous CGI imagery to bring to life key battles in British history. As his career has progressed Snow’s solo style has matured into a cross between journalist and action hero, with Snow as interlocutor between the audience on subjects ranging from the use of earth observation satellites in archaeology, to the history of New York. On this kind of assignment Snow eschews the quirky striped jumpers, fleeces, and facial hair of a certain other strand of TV archaeology, in favour of the rock and roll archae’ style pioneered by Michael Wood in the 1980’s. In Snow’s case his latest contribution to British Archaeology Fashion Week consisted of a collarless leather bomber jacket, hoodie, and jeans. But here all the style in the world could not cover up the extent to which the programme was trying to have the Gold Train story both ways. That is, objectively, all the [non] evidence suggests at best a delightful delusion, and at worst a deliberate hoax, but then again, maybe, just maybe, if…?
One reason for this hedging of dodgy bets is that the media lives in a “Post Truth”, but also post “Burma Spitfires” era. As Snow has acknowledged, the shadow of the Burma Spitfires myth, hangs low and lowering over any such promise of buried World War Two treasure. For those of you who have , mercifully, forgotten, in January 2013, in spite of our clear warnings that we were investigating a legend, and not going to dig up aircraft, journalists and film crews were dispatched to Myanmar in the expectation of squadrons of crated Spitfires emerging from the ground at Yangon International Airport. Unfortunately the only thing the media discovered was that the amateur hero who had promised the buried treasure, Lincolnshire farmer David Cundall, had either misunderstood or vastly over interpreted, his supposed evidence for the alleged burial of Spitfires in Burma at the end of World War Two. The result was a win for the Yangon hotel industry, but a mere half column on an inside page for Fleet Street, and item eight on the TV news. The item which gets bumped if a new video of a skateboarding cat turns up on You Tube.
Perhaps as a result of the Burma debacle, and similar over promised, underdelivered programmes such as Odyssey Marine Exploration’s “Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt”which promised three treasure wrecks and just about managed one, or Barry Clifford’s preposterous “Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar,” which produced neither pirates, nor Knights Templar and certainly no treasure, this production was an altogether more low key affair. Instead of a dedicated film crew, with exclusive media rights sold to National Geographic, or another US based broadcaster with deep pockets and ambitions for an eight part series or feature length, “global event”, epic, the BBC got the gig; demands on the licence fee being what they are they won’t have paid much; and sent History Man Dan to Poland with a small film unit, a skeptical James Bond [Roger Moore period] lift of the eyebrow, and some Go-Pro cameras to make exploring the tunnels, of the supposedly mysterious Nazi Project Riese [Giant] look more edgy and exciting. And there lies the main problem with the subsequent film. It did not have the confidence to admit from the get go that the whole thing was almost certainly nonsense, and ask not “if”, but “why”?
For a start the core of the mystery is not really that much of a mystery. So unknown are the Project Riese tunnels that, as Trip Advisor shows, you can set off on your own quest for the Nazi Gold Train and tour them yourself. Indeed, you can even take the boat tour of the flooded tunnels inside Mount Wlodarz [Wolfsberg] . That is why there was electric lighting and a pre-installed rope for Dan Snow to pull himself and the crew along with.
Similarly the two levels of Nazi built tunnels below the spectacular Książ Castle are also well known, and the first level is also even open to the public, while the second is used to house scientific instruments.
And that is the key point. For all that it was dressed up as a new investigation, “Hunting the Nazi Gold Train”was an exercise in cutting and pasting the known history of a fascinating, if little known, story of Nazi industrial gigantism, and the Third Reich’s use of slave labour, into a standard documentary format, while trying, sometimes rather too hard, to maintain the pretence that “it is just possible” Nazi gold is still out there and might just turn up during the running time of the programme. Which, of course, everyone now knew it did not.
Effectively the production was the English language Wikipaedia entry about Project Riese, with added Gold Train to get the programme commissioned. As a result it was here that for all their presenters enthusiasm, the Pulse Films co-production missed making a series of obvious points.
First, while apparently begun in the Autumn of 1943, the Riese project was never even close to being finished when it was overrun by the Soviet Army in the Spring of 1945. The McAlpines of the Third Reich, Organisation Todt, did not even manage to line out with concrete the vast bulk of the tunnels, excavated at such an appalling human cost by the Concentration Camp workers from KZ Gross-Rosen and its various sub-camps, some 5000 of whom are estimated to have died, or been murdered, in the process.
If the Tunnels aren’t finished and fitted out you can’t hide a “gold train” in them, even if it is carrying gold, secret weapons, or even Herman Goering’s writing desk with its secret stash of Fin de Siecle Parisian pornography [I made that last one up, but then a lot of this story is made up- allegedly].
The second obvious point missed was that anything remotely useful left in the Riese tunnels, and much which wasn’t, will have been removed as war reparations by the Soviets in the months and years following the conquest of Lower Silesia and its absorption into Poland; while it is also the case that the Soviet intelligence officers of SMERSH had a knack of getting to the bottom of Nazi mysteries where they existed, even if they did not always tell anyone about their solutions except Stalin.
Remember that the likely fate of the famous Amber Room; stolen from the Tsars Summer Palace and burned as collateral damage during the taking of Königsberg [Kalinningrad] on or around 9/10 April 1945; was established within months of the end of the war, much to the embarrassment of the Red Army which was probably responsible, albeit unwittingly. While the secret recovery and disposal of Hitler’s remains by Soviet Intelligence is now well documented. Of course Stalins refusal to admit, for political reasons, what his operators had found out in Berlin fueled seventy years of industrial grade mythology maintaining that Hitler survived the Gottendamerung in the Reich Chancellery in May 1945, and escaped to live out the rest of his life plotting the Fourth Reich in a resort town in southern Argentina [see Harry Cooper and Gerrard Williams passim].
Grounded, and undergrounded, as it was in the Owl Mountains, the programme did a more than reasonable job in describing the canvas in the physical landscape upon which the Nazi Gold Train farce was played out. It even hinted at the obvious warning signs which were present from the start of the story. Amateur researchers Andreas Richter and Piotr Koper, using technology , Ground Penetrating Radar [GPR], which enables them to see what they wanted to see, and the fact they claimed a finders fee and hired a lawyer, before they brought in people who did know what they were looking at, are just two which the programme documented. However, the script made no attempt to address the other half of the explanation. Why such stories gain so much international traction, especially in the media, when there is so little evidence to support them, and that which does exist is usually so threadbare as to be downright suspect.
Neither did it address the issue that, if the story turned out to be true then it would be one of the most important discoveries in Conflict Archaeology ever and just lamming into it with a JCB, truffle hunting the goodies might not be the best methodology to adopt. Fortunately for the archaeology of Walbrzych the authorities seemed to be on top of that matter, issuing just enough permissions to allow our heroes to prove that they had sold the world a pup, without letting them do any real damage, except to some periglacial deposits which they had taken to be a tunnel on the GPR print out.
It is also just possible of course, that one day a TV documentary maker will step back from the hype and make a film about how and why these conspiracy theories are the farce that launches a thousand hours of TV factual. There were even hints of such a film here, and there certainly are in Dan Snows accompanying article in the Telegraph, but in the end the overriding impression is that the audience was being presented with an English Language primer relating to material which has been in the public domain in Poland for years, with the lesson sugared, in a decidedly half hearted way, by the prospect that a Nazi Gold Train might actually be still out in them there mountains.
The sugar was ladled on by the teeth rotting spoonful with the shameless story of buried Nazi treasure, told on grainy black and white TV by an alleged, and conveniently anonymous, Cold War vintage Polish spook, complete with a disguise of fedora, scarf and sunglasses. A further few minutes were filled by a similarly uncorroborated yarn told by an alleged German veteran who claimed to have been a military vet in the area in 1945. The vet vet, claimed to have been involved with a secret pack train which was tasked with carrying gold into the Owl Mountains, but tragically for posterity, although fortunately for the local tourism offer, he was unable to see the mission through, or reveal the location of the stash, because just as the mission approached its climax a fall put him in hospital and he only heard about it afterwards.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with making such a programme. Indeed, it can be regarded as a public service because the ignorance of most English speakers of the reality of World War Two on the Eastern Front is generally woeful [see ClearStory Productions “World War Two Battlefield Recovery” for a knowledge and context free case study in precisely that level of ignorance being immortalised on HD video]. However, for all that a series of Polish experts were interviewed in the programme, missing was the explicit acknowledgement that the Poles knew all this already. Indeed, there is an excellent website which summarises the known history and mythology of Project Riese, in Polish, German and English which came about as the result of an international collaboration facilitated by the Polish Krzyzowa Foundation for Mutual Understanding in Europe and beginning its work as long ago as 2006.
It is also true that archaeologists understand that anything built underground attracts an air of risk and mystery, principally because in folklore underground is the interface between the world of man, and the Gods, Hell, or as Snow says here as he is lowered into another tunnel, the “dark heart” of Nazism. However, as the authors of the Polish project point out, there is a perfectly good explanation as to why the area attracted so many myths after World War Two.
After the pell mell evacuation of Wroclau/Breslau to escape the encircling forces of Marshal Ivan Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front in January 1945 and the subsequent collapse of Nazi Germany in early May, Lower Silesia underwent a cultural upheaval, whereby,
“the former German inhabitants of the region disappeared, while new Polish settlers moved in who had not been in Lower Silesia during the war and were thus unable to give any first-hand information on the subject. Hence, all the necessary groundwork for the creation of myths had been done, and this general tendency was strengthened by the fact that the area in question remained sealed off by the military even for a long time after the war.”
In other words, the legend of Project Riese, and its delightful sidebar, Tomasz the Golden Panzer Engine, was born to fill a cultural vacuum, and grew up because local people needed to explain secret squirrel antics of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact military in the area, after the War had ended. The simple human desire to make an instant fortune and the more recent economic driver of supplying bed, board, and souvenirs to tourists, did the rest.
The script of Dan Snow’s programme really should have explored this aspect of the story properly. After all, he knew all about it because he alludes to this in his accompanying article. Instead we got the legend of Renne-le-Chateau reheated with Nazi’s instead of Knights Templar and Hitler and his stolen treasure instead of the burial of Christ, but the programme was not smart enough, or confident enough, to say so.
But on the bright side, at least, unlike Gary Lineker after Leicester won the Premiership, the programme did not start with a bet, so we were spared Mr Snow presenting the programme in his, no doubt fetching, designer boxer shorts. Perhaps he will do that if the Nazi Gold Train ever turns up?
Andy Brockman was lead archaeologist on the Burma Spitfire’s Project and edited the official report into the story behind the Burma Spitfires myth.