The Corner

National Security & Defense

Remembering One of Europe’s Most Infamous Con-Men

One of the most outstanding crooks and con-men of modern times was Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski. He died last June. Most probably he was not a Communist at all, but in the DDR, the old Communist East Germany, he had official support for his schemes. Operating outside the legal restrictions of capitalism through a front organization known as KoKo, he manipulated stock markets, carried out switch operations and currency hedges, speculated in gold and other commodities, and specialized in insurance frauds. He even sold off 668 pictures from Dresden museums. His financial relationship with West German politicians remains to be explored. After the collapse of Communism and the end of the DDR, I interviewed Günter Mittag, the former DDR Minister of Finance. He told me that he had never dared reveal to those who ran the Party that the country’s economy was only a successful swindle. Easily deceived, the CIA used to declare that the DDR was the world’s tenth largest economy, when it was in fact Schalck-Golodkowski’s shell. Settling in West Germany, he threatened to reveal the dealings — perhaps involving bribes — that he had had with its politicians. The blackmail worked. He got away with everything.

This December, Licio Gelli, a crook and con-man of almost equal stature, died at the age of 96. Most probably he was not a Fascist at all, but just out for himself. One of the Italian Blackshirts fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he afterwards made sure to keep in with the Nazis and the Allies. His equivalent of KoKo was P2, short for Propaganda Due, ostensibly a Masonic Lodge, actually about a thousand careerists and insiders, including cabinet ministers, police chiefs, and not least Silvio Berlusconi. Evidence exists linking Gelli to Roberto Calvi, chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, with ties to the Vatican. A member of P2, in 1982 Calvi was found hanged under a London bridge with stones in his pocket to weigh him down. Gelli was charged with Calvi’s murder but the case was dismissed and this strange and sinister death has never been explained. Gelli went on the run. The Times obituary says, “He was arrested in disguise in Geneva while trying to withdraw $120 million.” The Daily Telegraph obituary gives the figure of $150 million, adding that this money had been “deposited by South American affiliates of Banco Ambrosiano.” He bribed his way out of a Swiss prison, and was spared on grounds of old age from Italian prison. Under the geraniums in his garden he had hidden gold ingots worth $2 million.

The world puts a brave face on everything that happens. Yet when it turns out that Saudi Arabia is the chair of United Nations committee on Human Rights and the EU boycotts Israeli goods, or that international football and the Olympic Games are rigged, the examples of KoKo and P2 offer rightful understanding of the scheme of things. 

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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