In a dense mountain forest high up in the Austrian Alps, 60 miles from Salzburg, the mysterious Lake Toplitz lies isolated. It is surrounded by cliffs and forests in the picturesque Salzkammergut lake district within the Totes Gebirge, or dead mountains. Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Goering had a villa not far from the lake. He would sit in the local bar with Adolf Hitler himself, communing contentedly with the villagers.
This region was intended to be the Alpenfestung, the Reich's Alpine Fortress and last redoubt, but by April 1945, Hitler was dead, the Allies were closing in, and the Reich found itself out of time. Allied artillery echoed in the mountains. Many of the last leaders of the Nazi regime fled here - some to make a last stand, others to try to preserve some shred of the Reich in hope of a future rebirth. Among the artifacts hidden here is rumored to be a horde of Nazi gold.
Supposedly, the Nazis stashed vast quantities of gold and other priceless plunder, including the lost panels from Russia’s Amber Chamber, as well as documents detailing the whereabouts of other Third Reich caches. These rumors have lured treasure hunters into its depths, some to their death.
Local villagers hired by the German army to transport heavy loads to the lake shore helped fuel rumors of sunken treasure. "Based on what they testified, something was definitely submerged in the lake — whether it’s a treasure remains to be seen," said Albrecht Syen, landlord of the local Fischer Hut and custodian of memorabilia from past dives. "There’s official documentation of a large delivery taken to the lake, but nobody knows what happened to it."
Ida Weisenbacher was a 21-year-old farm girl when Nazi soldiers arrived at her door on February 23, 1945. "It was five o'clock in the morning, we were still in bed when we heard the knock on the door," claims Weisenbacher. "'Get up immediately. Hitch up the horse wagon, we need you.'" The soldiers needed the wagon because their truck had reached the end of the road and only horses could venture further to the lake's shore. "A commander was there. He told us to bring these boxes as fast as possible to Lake Toplitz," says Weisenbacher.
According to Weisenbacher, each box was labeled with bold letters and a number. Three wagonloads were taken to Lake Toplitz. "When I brought the last load, I saw how they went on to the lake and dropped the boxes into the water.... The S.S. kept shoving me away but I saw the boxes were sunk into the lake."
During the war, in the years 1943 and 1944, the shore of Lake Toplitz served as home to a Nazi naval testing station, only accessible on foot by a hazardous mile-long path. Using copper diaphragms, scientists experimented with different explosives, detonating up to 4,000 kg charges at various depths. They also fired torpedoes from a launching pad in the lake into the Tote Mountains, producing vast holes in the canyon walls.
In the 1950s, two Germans who had worked for the laboratory were found dead in the nearby Totengebirgs, and another scientist was found dead after mysteriously falling from a cliff. It is unknown whether it was an accident, he jumped, or he was pushed.
In the summer of 1959, the German magazine Der Stern sent divers into Toplitz. They found crates of counterfeit British pounds, the printing plates, and even the printing press used to make them. It is also said they found propellant charges and controls for rockets, laboratory equipment, weapons, and explosives. Many crates remained stuck in the mud, however, too deep to retrieve.
In 1969, after a number of would-be treasure hunters died daring the lake's dangers, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior finally started an official investigation. Over three hundred gendarmes cordoned the area off and started a large expedition. Government divers found eighteen crates of forged money and some weaponry. "Operation Camouflage Curtain" was finished in December of 1983. During the subsequent press conference, they claimed that the entire lake had been searched and anything salvageable had been retrieved. The lake was declared empty and further diving was officially prohibited.
Despite their "conclusions," crates, ammunition, and explosives were sighted in the lake again and again. In 1978, divers found three mines and the Federal Army found one torpedo.
From 1983 to 1987, the biologist Dr. Hans Fricke explored the lake. He discovered a worm capable of living in the oxygenless water. He also found crates of counterfeit money, more ammunition, more rocket propellant charges, more weapons, more bombs and even sections of a blown up airplane. Later, they found a hidden bunker near the lake, but nothing of interest was inside. Photographs of a large crate with Russian script have fed speculation that it contains part of the Amber Chamber, but it remains submerged.
In the years 2000 and 2001, the network CBS along with Oceaneering Technologies (the firm responsible for raising artifacts from the Titanic) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center tried to recover documents regarding property stolen by the Nazi regime. Instead, they found evidence and equipment of Operation: Bernhard, a plan to flood Allied economies with counterfeit currency produced by Jewish forgers. The plan never got implemented, but its impact would have been considerable given the amount of forged currency produced.
It has inspired numerous expeditions, several mysterious deaths and plenty of books. But 60 years after Nazi officers hid metal boxes in the depths of Lake Toplitz, a new attempt is being made to recover the Third Reich's fabled lost gold.
The Austrian government has given a US team permission to make an underwater expedition to the log-infested bottom of the lake. Treasure hunters have been flocking to Lake Toplitz ever since a group of diehard Nazis retreated to this picturesque part of the Austrian Alps in the final months of the second world war. With US troops closing in and Germany on the brink of collapse, they transported the boxes to the edge of the lake, first by military vehicle and then by horse-drawn wagon, and sunk them.
Nobody knows exactly what was inside. Some believe they contained gold looted by German troops throughout Europe and carried back to Germany. Others that they contain documents showing where assets confiscated from Jewish victims were hidden in Swiss bank accounts. The state company which controls the lake, Bundesforste AG, has signed a contract with Norman Scott, an American treasure hunter, who hopes to solve the mystery.
Later this month Mr Scott will begin a detailed underwater survey of the 107 metre (350ft) deep lake, though there is profound official scepticism that there is anything left to find.
"I really don't know if there is anything down there, but we want to resolve the mystery once and for all," Irwin Klissenbauer, a director of Bundesforste AG, told the Guardian yesterday. "The aim at first is to measure the lake."
He added: "This is a beautiful area. You have heard of Loch Ness. For Austrians this has been a bit like Loch Ness. Lots of people come here. And whether there is gold down there or not, the mystery has been very good for tourism."
Mr Klissenbauer said that under the terms of the deal - which allows the US team to dive for the next three years - any treasure found will be divided between the Americans and the Austrian state."Obviously if they recover anything which has an identifiable owner, under Austrian law we have to give it back." This is not the first time explorers have tried to retrieve the lake's legendary lost gold.
In 1947 a US navy diver became entangled in Lake Toplitz's many submerged logs and drowned. Then in 1959 a team financed by the German magazine Stern had more luck, retrieving £72m in forged sterling currency hidden in boxes, and a printing press. The currency, it turned out, was part of a secret counterfeiting operation, Operation Bernhard, personally authorised by Adolf Hitler to weaken the British economy.
Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who had retreated to the Austrian Alps intending to fight a last-ditch guerrilla battle apparently dumped the currency to prevent its discovery. In 1963 the Austrian government imposed a ban on explorations after another diver, led to the lake by an SS officer, drowned during an illegal dive. More recent expeditions have had mixed fortunes.
In 1983 a German biologist accidentally discovered more forged British pounds, numerous Nazi-era rockets and missiles that had crashed into the lake, and a previously unknown worm. The last diving team to explore the lake, in 2000, had less luck. After a three-week search in an underwater diving capsule they came away with nothing more than a box full of beer lids, apparently dumped in the lake as a practical joke.
Mr Scott, whose previous expeditions have included a search for a steamer carrying gold coin which sank on the way to Panama, said he was confident he would find "something damn big".
"Until now nobody has explored the lake using hi-tech equipment. We will be the first people to go to the right spot," he told the Swiss news magazine Facts.
Mr Scott, 72, claims to have discovered fresh clues in archives in Berlin and Washington pointing him towards the gold, though he refuses to give details. Some experts believe he may be right. They point out that the bottom of the lake is encrusted with a thick carpet of logs. Any treasure could be stuck in the mud underneath, they suggest.
"There is a lot of wood down there. We don't know yet whether it is possible to get through it," Mr Klissenbauer said. "You have to remember that the last lot who went down there with a mini U-boat didn't find anything."