The banker who tricked Tiso and sent three billion crowns to rebels

Imrich Karvaš was one of the most powerful men in the wartime Slovak State but he helped the popular rebellion. He ended up in the concentration camps and even the communist regime imprisoned him.

Imrich KarvašImrich Karvaš (Source: Courtesy of M. Karvaš)

In 1938, the life of successful economist, Imrich Karvaš, got a dramatic twist. He was about to take up the position of professor at the Charles University in Prague but the capital of then-Czechoslovakia had been recently occupied by Nazi Germany. Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš resigned after the Munich dictates that split the country but Karvaš did not agree with this step and decided to return to Slovakia, together with his family.

Even his previous career was admirable. He had lectured in France at the Sorbonne, in Germany and in the USA. Karvaš also simultaneously held many important functions, e.g. as secretary of the Union of Slovak Banks, secretary general of the National-economic Institute of Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia (i.e. Zakarpattia) and vice-president of the Export Institute in Prague.

At the age of 35, he was a minister without portfolio and later industry, trade and the self-employment minister of the Czechoslovak government.

He was an exceptional personage in Slovak history but some 20 years ago, he was almost unknown to the public – even to economic experts. This, despite Karvaš being one of nation's best financiers who wrote more than 60 specialised articles.

“The Communists succeeded in suppressing knowledge of my father for a very long time,“ his son, Milan Karvaš, who wrote a book about him, explains.

“Among outstanding Slovaks, only M.R. Štefánik may have had a similar fate – being first an excellent scientist, and then a state official,“ Milan, also a scientist but unlike his father a chemist, now aged 80, notes.

Governor's fight against Germans

Immediately after Karvaš's return home from Prague, he was summoned to the then-president of the Slovak World-War-II state, Jozef Tiso who had clear plans for him: he wanted to make him the governor of the national bank.

“When Tiso called on me to cooperate, I warned him that I did not consider myself the right person as I have all possible flaws: I am the last Czechoslovak trade minister, a freemason, my wife is Czech and of Evangelical belief, and, finally, I am of socialist leanings,“ Imrich Karvaš described his official audience in his book Moje pamäti: v pazúroch gestapa / My Memoirs: In the Grip of the Gestapo.

Tiso answered that he knew all this, and that he wanted his expertise, and not political work.

Karvaš was in doubt. He consulted his closest acquaintances – national economist and politician Peter Zaťko, Professor Jozef Fundárek and envoy to Paris, Štefan Osuský. He did not however respect the view of his wife.

“Mum was very much against him accepting the position; she wanted him to be just a scientist from then on,“ Milan Karvaš explains. "But he felt he could be useful, so he ignored her attempts at persuasion.”

From the very beginning, Karvaš was in contact with later resistance groups and their representatives, e.g. with Vavro Šrobár. At the same time, though, he tried to make Slovakia prosper.

“My father fought with the Germans against the exploitation of the Slovak economy almost every day,“ Milan Karvaš recalls. He adds that his father attempted to gain the greatest possible independence for economic policy and in negotiations with Germany he wanted to keep the principle of equal participants.

One of his students, Ján Okrucký, after the war described that he and his colleagues admired Karvaš's inexhaustible energy. “We saw him leave some of the negotiations with the Germans totally physically exhausted but the next day, he came with new plans to save our economic values,“ he wrote for the Budovateľ / Builder magazine.

Protecting Jewish valuables

Karvaš also used his position to protect the Jews. He took a stance against the extradition of Jews to the Germans, as well as against the confiscation of their possessions. He did not agree with using them to acquire foreign exchange. In his memoirs, he recalls "mentioning before Slovak government officials that in Switzerland, where we could make money from these jewels, we would suffer huge damage by losing the trust in our trade morality“.

This stance was accepted, and the confiscated Jewish jewels and other valuables were deposited at the ministry. Karvaš hoped that in this way, they could later be returned to their original owners.

He also participated in the issue of so-called white cards, i.e. temporary exemptions for Jews who had managed to keep their jobs, which helped them stay in Slovakia and not be deported to concentration camps. He also insisted that the fates of deported Jews should be investigated.

“He had a problem determining to what extent to defend the Jews – so that he was not sacked from his positions where he was preparing the Slovak National Uprising, in which he was involved as early as 1943. He backed it both financially and materially,“ Milan Karvaš explains.

The blocked gold

His position as one of the most powerful men in Slovakia enabled him to resort to a seemingly harmless lie. Under the pretence that Bratislava could be bombed, he transferred three billion crowns to central Slovakia . He also signed the order to move hundreds of thousands of litres of petrol and food for the rebels, sufficient for several months.

Moreover, he secured the deposition of seven tonnes of gold in the banks of the neutral country, Switzerland. "At the Swiss consulate, he asked for the gold to be blocked and not to be issued to anyone until the war was over,“ his son reveals.

After the end of the war in 1945, the gold was used to rebuild Czechoslovakia.

Nothing of these steps remained unnoticed, however. The financier paid dearly for his acts; he was imprisoned and tortured cruelly. Imrich Karvaš was sentenced to death for sabotaging the German economy. During the investigation he was tortured and his eye was injured due to kicks to his head.

In the first days after the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) was launched in late August 1944, Karvaš was arrested by the German secret police, the Gestapo. His family, including Milan, was already on territory held by the rebels. For a long time, they knew nothing of their father's fate.

Meanwhile, Imrich Karvaš was held in a group of 130 special political prisoners who were called to account by the top Nazi representatives, Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler.

"There were counts there, German officers who committed the assassination attempt against Hitler, the French prime minister Leon Blum, and Austrian prime minister Kurt Schuschnigg. The Germans kept them for potential barter/exchange, despite the fact they were sentenced to death,“ Milan Karvaš describes, adding that from among the Slovaks, the only countryman of his father was the captain of the rebels, Ján Stanek.

He did not regret the position

The German ambassador to Slovakia, Hans Elard Ludin, interceded on his behalf. He stressed that "Slovakia misses this economist fully“.

“The fact that Slovakia's huge indebtedness was possible without the whole economy disintegrating, is indisputably and mostly to the credit of Karvaš,“ he wrote to a top German officer, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, according to the book Kauza Karvaš / The Karvaš Case by Michal Schvarc and Ľudovít Hallon.

However, the answer from Berlin was blunt: "Based on interrogations... (…) there is an ever stronger suspicion that Karvaš must be considered the most cunning organiser of the Uprising in Slovakia who had contacts with all the leading personalities of the Czechoslovak resistance movement in Slovakia.“

The Gestapo interrogated Karvaš's wife too, but without results. "Father did not talk about politics at home on principle,“ Milan Karvaš recalls. “Mum was not informed, she just anticipated some things. This was a lucky circumstance for her because when the Germans took her for interrogation after the SNP was suppressed, she had nothing to tell them.”

Prisoners, including the former Slovak National Bank governor, were utlimately freed by the US army near the Italian lake, Laggo di Braies. The Americans sent them to Capri for healing. His loved-ones did not even know whether he was alive.

“When he came home in June, we were surprised,“ his son notes. "It was almost exactly on my birthday and we all rejoiced.“

No idyll was meant for him after the war, though. He was blind in one eye and suffered epileptic fits. However, he never regretted the decision to accept a top position in the Slovak State. "When I remembered the fight for the economic independence of Slovakia, in which all economic experts unified as one and in which we managed more successes than failures, I came to the conclusion that I stood in the right place,“ Karvaš senior wrote in his memoirs.

Slowly, he was returning back to normal life but the next disaster came soon afterwards. In 1948, Karvaš refused cooperation with the communists and they made him pay for that.

“My father was well-read, he studied Marx and Lenin, and he knew that this theory was based on hatred,“ the son recalls the reasons for his father's rebellion. He was sentenced to two years in prison and seizure of property. However, it turned out that he was un-propertied.

“Despite dealing with billions, he did not take much care of the family finances,“ Milan Karvaš explains, adding that it was his wife who managed the family coffers.

The fight for a reversal of the verdict was exhausting but in vain. "Mum fought like a wild-cat; after the first verdict, she interceded with all their influential acquaintances, including the Prague rabbi, to make them help my dad,“ Milan says.

For him, it was not easy, either: he accompanied his father to court trials, and saw many turbulent things. "During the appelate trial, a judge jumped out of the window – it was very turbulent. The verdict was six hours late, as they kept consulting the central committee of the communist party as to whether they could sentence them, and what the sentence should be.“

After the final verdict was announced, Karvaš' wife broke down mentally and had to be cured. "I was already an adult but my brother was 11 years younger, and our sister, three years older than me, took care of us,“ Milan Karvaš says, adding that he remembers attending his brother's parent-teacher association's meetings.

Unyielding optimist

His father faced another jail sentence in 1958, for espionage and treason. "To this day, I don't know why they sentenced my father – it was long after Stalin's death, and I know of no misdemeanour,“ Milan Karvaš wonders.

As the head of a subversive anti-state group, his father got 17 years in prison. Together with Imrich Karvaš, generals who fought in the SNP or in foreign armies were also sent to prison. The Communists may have feared the popular anti-communist rebellion of 1956 in neighbouring Hungary, and wanted to threaten people.

Two years later, he was amnestied but returned home a broken man. His sight deteriorated further in prison.

He was fully rehabilitated only after the atmosphere relaxed in Czechoslovakia, in 1968. As a pensioner, he retired and stayed at home. "He was not hired back by the university, although they apologised to him,“ Milan notes.

However, the financier remained active, listened to the radio to be fully informed and taught foreign languages at home – English, German and French.

“Us children, we could spend more time with him then,“ Milan Karvaš recalls the times when they, paradoxically, could enjoy their father most. "We played cards, and so on.“ In their childhood, there was not time enough for talks. "If he was not working, or serving a prison sentence, he was usually studying something,“ his son says.

“He was strict but very just,“ Milan Karvaš stresses. "He always let us know that the most important thing is how you act. He also respected the simplest people, as long as they acted well, uprightly,“ he stresses.

After all those years in camps and communist-era prisons, Imrich Karvaš was still an optimist. “He always told us – you have a splendid future, don't worry. I used to tell him: Daddy, be reasonable, communism has been here for 30 years - and for 70 in Russia... what outlook do we have? And he answered: Don't worry, communism is not sustainable economically; it will fail and you will be free,“ Milan Karvaš sums up.


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