12/15/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Nazis and Europe's Gold: The Chase Was On

Once upon a time, long before Bitcoin and PayPal and mortgage-backed securities, the world's monetary system was based on gold. Real money, the only kind of money that everyone on Earth would accept, took the form of shiny coins or glittering bars. Instead of being merely entries in a database, it was heavy stuff, so heavy that large amounts of it had to be stored in vaults and transported on trucks, trains or ships. If you want to see what lengths men would go to -- what evil they would do, what heroic feats they would perform -- to get and keep gold, you can do no better than read the new book Chasing Gold: The Incredible Story of How the Nazis Stole Europe's Bullion (Pegasus Books, New York), by George M. Taber, a former Time magazine correspondent and editor.

Taber's enjoyable previous books, written after his 21 years at Time, have all been about wine, including the bestseller Judgment of Paris, which recounted the historic 1976 blind taste test in which a group of California wines shockingly bested some of France's finest vintages. But ever since his early days in Time's Bonn and Paris bureaus, Taber has been gathering material for a bigger project. Chasing Gold is his magnum opus, and a magnificent one it is. Besides covering the highlights of World War II in highly readable fashion for anyone not already an expert in European history, the book is a meticulously researched and tensely dramatic account of the movements of gold just before and during the conflict -- a story full of ruthless plunder, desperate maneuvers and narrow escapes.

The title of Taber's book, with its emphasis on the Nazi thefts, doesn't do his tale justice. Sure, the Nazis financed their war machine by stealing at least $598 million worth of gold from Europe's central banks, and that doesn't count all the coins, jewelry and gold teeth snatched from the millions of concentration camp victims. The Gestapo even raided a monastery in Yugoslavia and came away with nearly a ton of gold that had been hidden there. But, to me, even more fascinating are the extraordinary stories of how, as Germany threatened to occupy all of Europe, banks and governments managed to keep much more gold out of the Nazis' clutches. In Taber's riveting narrative, we ride along as a caravan of gold-laden Polish buses try to outrace the relentless advance of the German army, and we feel like we're on board the French cargo ship Victor Schoelcher (which had previously hauled bananas from Africa to Europe) as it eludes German mines, U-boats and the Luftwaffe in French coastal waters and somehow gets a load of gold to Casablanca. The routes gold took were often long and tortuous. Some of Poland's gold traveled, by various trains and ships, across Romania and the Black Sea to Istanbul, then overland to Beirut, across the Mediterranean to France, then to Casablanca, to Dakar, and eventually to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

We meet villains, like Bruno Melmer, an SS officer who delivered valuables stolen from death-camp prisoners to the German Central Bank in Berlin, and heroes, like Fredrik Haslund, a political appointee who directed the perilous transport of gold out of Norway while unknowingly walking around with a case of scarlet fever. Then there were characters who were simply dunderheads, like the customs agents in the port of Le Verdon, France, who, even as the Nazis were on the march, would not allow an emergency shipment of part of the French national gold reserve to leave the country until the proper paperwork was drawn up.

Some players in these dramas faced impossible dilemmas. When the British cruiser HMS Edinburgh, carrying a load of gold away from the Soviet Union, was crippled by a German torpedo, Rear Admiral Stuart Bonham Carter, with a heavy heart, ordered another British ship to sink the Edinburgh rather than let the Nazis capture the vessel and its precious cargo. The sunken gold wasn't found until the 1980s, by treasure hunters.

But as grim as much of Chasing Gold is, Taber kept a sharp eye out for bits of color and humor. As British sailors were helping unload gold from the former Polish cruise liner Sobieski, which had safely arrived in Halifax, "a heavy ingot dropped through a hatchway to the fourth deck. A sailor looked down and shouted, 'Is that gold okay?' A middy barked back, 'What about our bloody heads?'"

The climax of Chasing Gold, which is previewed in the book's prologue, comes when, as the war neared its end in the spring of 1945, the Third Army of U.S. General George Patton discovered a vast trove of stolen gold and artworks that had been hidden by the Nazis in old salt mines and tunnels beneath the German village of Merkers. Arriving with General Dwight Eisenhower to inspect the discovery, General Omar Bradley "told Patton that if they were still in the 'old freebooting days, when a soldier kept his loot, you'd be the richest man in the world.' Patton didn't say a world, and just grinned."

So, is Taber's book just a quaint historical tale with little relevance in today's Digital Age? Has gold lost its allure in troubled times? Hardly. During the first 12 years of the 21st Century, a period that encompassed the 9/11 attacks, two wars, a financial crisis and a global recession, the price of an ounce of gold surged from about $300 to almost $1900, before falling back now to about $1200 as the world economy recovers. If we ever again come close to anything like the chaos of World War II, or if malevolent hackers ever take our precious Internet down for the count, governments and individuals may once more be frantically asking: Where is our gold? How can we get it to safety?