Aktion Licht: how the Stasi confiscated valuables from banks

Most people remember the Stasi from films or books as the nasty security service of East Germany, or the DDR. But the Stasi not only spied. It also carried out ‘projects’ like Aktion Licht: looting and confiscating valuables from East German banks.

Aktion Licht

A top-secret project, Aktion Licht lasted less than five days in January 1962.Trusted Stasi members secretly opened safes and safe deposit boxes in almost all DDR banks. Aktion Licht was so secret, even the orders handed out at its start were collected after ‘mission accomplished’. The Stasi itself estimated between 3,000 – 4,000 locations, safes, securities accounts or safe-deposit boxes were opened and contents confiscated.

Though Aktion Licht was a top-secret project, some documents were discovered in the Stasi headquarters after die Wende and fall of the Berlin Wall. What documents were found reveal, valuables confiscated in the course of Aktion Licht included jewellery, silverware, watches, paintings, porcelain, stamp collections, valuable manuscripts (e.g. by Fontane, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Gerhard Hauptmann, Goethe, Darwin, Gustav Freytag, etc.), but also shares, life insurance policies and savings-books.

The Stasi estimated the total value of their loot at DM 4.1 million – in 1962. This sum was accounted for in a “top secret” list from the Ministry for State Security dated 11 July 1962.

Nazi victims, DDR refugees, fascists, capitalists, citizens

The fact that this loot included legally acquired property of Nazi victims hardly bothered those in charge. What documents were discovered repeatedly state that something was the property of “persons who had disappeared as a result of the war”, or a looted item was of “fascist” or “capitalist” origin. Valuables of people who had fled the DDR or ‘could not be traced’ were of course also confiscated.

In addition to banks, company safes from before 1945 were also searched. Private houses, castles, museums were searched as well. The Stasi seems to have been particularly interested in secret hiding places. Even old mines were systematically searched for secret passages where depots of valuables hidden during the war might remain hidden.

In case owners could be traced or hidden valuables were discovered in homes, one of the ways in which such items changed hands was identical to Nazi practices. In countries occupied by Nazis, wealthy Jewish people were taxed to the hilt? Unable to pay the inflated taxes, they were forced to sell for a pittance or even hand over their belongings for free?

The DDR operated in exactly the same manner. Taxing owners to the hilt was just one way in which the Stasi and DDR government looted and stripped East Germany of valuables. Why? One of many reasons was the fact that the DDR was already strapped for cash in the early 60s. But as part of propaganda, some items were not sold for much needed cash. Such items entered museum collections by means of dodgy provenances.

Dodgy provenance; museum collections

Now, experts are starting to check how works of art became part of museum collections. Take the Schwerin State Museum, where professor Michael Busch is going through inventory lists. His task is hampered: documents related to Aktion Licht are incomplete. Worse for rightful owners or their heirs: the deadline to apply for restitution has expired.

Professor Busch told German media he “estimates that around 1.5%-2% of the items that entered the museum’s collection from 1945 to 1990 have an unclear origin. It still remains to be determined whether the works were obtained through “Aktion Licht”, or other questionable methods.”

Mind: this is just one museum, formerly located in East Germany, which is trying to come to terms with not just Nazi stolen art or colonial loot, but art and valuables stolen by the Stasi and DDR government.

Interested in learning more about Aktion Licht? The Stasi Unterlagen Archiv has some information. The former Stasi headquarter in Berlin is now the Stasi Museum; currently closed due to COVID.

Header image: the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin; public domain.

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