Shortly before the end of the Second World War, despite staring defeat in the face, Nazi leaders tried to salvage what was left of their crumbling empire. In the last months of the war, some of the Third Reich's secret archives were hurriedly transported from Berlin to the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, an area believed to be safe from US bombing. Although some of the hidden material was recovered after the war, there are still many people who believe that valuable treasure may still lie buried in Central Bohemia...
In the first shots of a documentary film that chronicles the last thirteen years in the life of Josef Muzik, a Czech treasure hunter, Mr Muzik's hair is black. Now fifty-five and grey-haired, Josef Muzik is no less enthusiastic than at the start of his quest. After having spent thirteen years clearing rubble from underground tunnels and investing all his money into the effort, Josef Muzik now says he's come as close as ever to uncovering the treasure that he believes lies hidden near the village of Stechovice in Central Bohemia.
"Back then, thirteen years ago, we started from scratch. We gathered a huge amount of documents from the archives and we studied all the information available about the so-called treasure of Stechovice. From the data we collected we decided there was about an 80-90 percent chance the treasure was buried there and our work was worth completing."
The so-called "Treasure of Stechovice", believed to have been hidden by the Nazis at several locations in the valley of the Vltava River in Central Bohemia, has excited treasure hunters since the end of the Second World War. According to Professor Vladimir Nalevka of Prague's Charles University, their conviction has real grounds.
"It is certain that the archives of the deputy Reichsprotektor Karl Hermann Frank were hidden at Stechovice. But close to the end of the war Frank tried to transport what he could out of the Czech Lands - for example, that's how the insignia of Charles University disappeared for ever. Frank's archives - including confidential material from the Gestapo - had been hidden in a tunnel in the Stechovice valley, Reportedly, it contained lists of confidents. But basically, it was just regular paperwork of a deputy Reichsprotektor."
A much more appealing story dates from April 1945. Some believe the Nazis buried priceless war booty in specially-created tunnels near the village of Hradistko near Stechovice. It is believed to have included gold, diamonds, jewellery and pieces of art, as well as secret files and scientific documents. Some even believe the Nazis hid the famous "Amber Room" looted from Russia in 1941 in the tunnels. However, so far the successes of Josef Muzik's team, searching in the area, have been rather humble.
"We've found four crates containing various documents. Among other things, there were savings books from towns near the Baltic coast in northern Germany, where the V1s and V2s were developed. The accounts contained 200,000 marks and more. Somebody who took part in developing the missiles must have moved to Hradistko and brought the savings books with him."
After the end of the war, one of the SS officers who participated in hiding the archives disclosed the location to the Americans. In February, 1946 the United States dispatched a special intelligence unit to retrieve it from Czechoslovakia. Historian Vladimir Nalevka.
"Shortly after the war, the Americans exploited the Allies' unlimited freedom of movement around Europe. Using the SS officer, they uncovered the archive and carried it away. Of course, the Czechoslovak police were informed about the presence of the Americans. The Czechoslovak government protested against the transportation of the documents and the Americans were forced to hand the Treasure of Stechovice back. Whether they returned the complete archive or not, is another question. The documents were seized by the Interior Ministry, which was already controlled by the Communists. Until recently they were part of the secret archives of the Interior Ministry. Today, parts of it belong to the Interior Ministry, the rest is in the Central State Archives."
In the post-war years and during the Cold War, many treasure hunters and some intelligence services believed the Americans had not retrieved all that the Stechovice underground tunnels concealed.
"This post-war US operation was well documented in many studies and gave conviction to a number of people, including Mr Muzik, that there might still be something at Stechovice. They believe there are other hideouts concealing more treasures, including the "Amber Room". I myself am sceptical. After all, the Interior Ministry with all the resources at its disposal repeatedly searched at Stechovice from the 1950s - and found nothing."
After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, new treasure hunters emerged in Czechoslovakia. Josef Muzik is one of the best known. After thirteen years of efforts, Mr Muzik now says success is within reach.
"We selected three sites which were remembered by most of the witnesses and mentioned in historic documents. We are hundred percent convinced that the crates with the Nazi loot are stored there."
Josef Muzik says he is convinced he will find crates containing Nazi plans for a nuclear bomb as well as old paintings from French galleries and documents written by the French king Louis XVI. He says he possesses evidence that helps him understand maps that were of no use to seekers in the 1980s. All he needs now is several million crowns - and quick. By May 2004...
"With EU accession approaching we need to act fast. Some of those people who hid the crates there are still alive and they may try to get those crates across the border. We have positive evidence that very important documents are hidden there along with jewels looted by the Germans during the Holocaust. We think it would be a bad thing to discard this part of history and squander the thirteen years of our effort and just surrender the treasure to someone else."
After all those years of vain effort, the Czech public have become largely indifferent to the once thrilling story of the "Treasure of Stechovice" and Josef Muzik may find it difficult to lure new sponsors. The coming months may prove whether Josef Muzik and other hopeful treasure hunters were right and the tunnels of Stechovice might yield secret archives and Nazi war treasures. Or, one of the many enduring but futile post war treasure hunts, the search for the "Treasure of Stechovice" will go on...