History | March 28, 2022 3:34 pm

Revisiting the Story of the Man Who Successfully Scammed Adolf Hitler

When the Nazis were looking for nickel, Freeman Bernstein saw an opportunity

Adolf Hitler gives a speech while opening the Berlin International Auto Show
Adolf Hitler at the Berlin International Auto Show in 1939.
Photo © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Getty

As anyone who was riveted to the internet during the “Summer of Scam” can attest, it’s very easy to become intrigued and fascinated by the inner workings of scammers. Some scams operate on a personal level; others involve large corporations, and have had their stories retold in prestige miniseries. There’s a hazard in telling these stories, and it has to do with the people being scammed. Most scammers leave damage in their wake, with their victims losing jobs, money or some combination of the two.

But what about a scam that targeted someone who everyone hates — like, say, Adolf Hitler? Because that’s precisely what Freeman Bernstein did in the 1930s. If you’re looking for an account of a scam you can enjoy without a shred of guilt, read on.

Writing at the New Republic, Walter Shapiro alluded to contemporary nickel shortages to tell the story of Bernstein, who happens to be Shapiro’s great-uncle. (Shapiro has also written a biography of Bernstein with the amazing title Hustling Hitler.) Bernstein’s careers until that point included, as Shapiro writes, “vaudeville agent, boxing manager, card sharp, horse-race fixer (he was banned from tracks on three continents), and jewel smuggler.”

At the time, the fascist governments in Germany and Italy were struggling with a shortage of nickel, and were attempting to procure a supply of Canadian nickel. What Bernstein and his associated sold the Nazis was purported to be 200 tons of the metal. What the Germans got was instead 20 pounds of nickel — and a whole lot of scrap metal, for which they paid $2 million. Given inflation, that’s the equivalent of over $39 million today.

Eventually, the Nazis realized that they’d been scammed, but at that point Bernstein had reached folk-hero status for his work. As memorable scams go, this is one for the history books.