In talks at the end of the war, he and the Swiss delegation denied accepting any tainted gold. But when Mr Vaidie, the French delegate, produced documents showing how the Reichsbank melted down Belgian gold, changed numbers on ingots and shipped most of it to Switzerland, Mr Hirs was rattled.
In his consternation that the Allies really might lay claim to all the wealth which had landed in his safe-keeping from Germany, he let slip how much was at stake - $500m, worth perhaps $6.5bn (pounds 4.3bn) today and twice the amount of gold reserves Germany might have owned legitimately. US estimate of Nazi stocks at the time were about $200m, yet only $60m (Sfr250m) was ever handed over by Switzerland.
As shown in the documents released by the Government yesterday, the US, Britain and France had to accept they had "struck the best deal possible ... Sfr250m was a lot better than nothing". And as the Treasury said in response to complaints by Czechoslovakia that the Swiss were let off lightly, "no arguments of Allied rights could move the unalterable attitude of the Swiss that there was no legal basis which they would admit as conveying an Allied right to German assets in Switzerland".
It was not a view shared since. There are many points of contention, not least that Britain was too concerned about its post-war trading position to pursue neutral countries properly (Portugal, Sweden and Spain all dealt with smaller Nazi hoards). The Americans wanted to threaten sanctions if the neutral countries would not co-operate.
More seriously, Greville Janner and his colleagues at the Holocaust Educational Trust and World Jewish Congress are angry that the Allies decided it would be impossible to trace what proportion of the gold processed through Switzerland came from private individuals.
The Tripartite [Allies] Gold Commission, set up to regain the looted gold, dealt with national gold reserves, not individual wealth. It aimed at excluding any private claims for restitution because the total number might have run into "many thousands".
Yet, Mr Janner believes, among the German ingots which found their way to Switzerland must have been those made from jewellery belonging to Jews and fillings extracted from concentration-camp inmates.
It was known that not all the German gold could be accounted for legitimately. Bank of England intelligence showed that by March 1943 Germany had already sold more gold than it had possessed in 1939. As the Foreign Office report highlighted yesterday: "Any further purchases must necessarily have been made with looted gold."
In producing its memorandum yesterday the Foreign Office said all the information in it had been available in public archives since 1972. But only six weeks ago Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, made no mention of it when replying to earlier inquiries by Mr Janner.
Many questions remain unanswered, such as whether any of the gold and other valuables stolen from individuals ended up in the Tripartite Gold Commission funds.Reuse content