DIRK SYNDRAM STARED out the car window from the passenger seat as the blackened streets of Dresden, Germany, zipped by. As a museum director, Syndram doesn’t get many phone calls in the middle of the night; he isn’t often roused from his bed and driven into work in the predawn darkness. That sort of thing can only mean the worst has happened.
As his car slowed to a stop outside the Residenzschloss – the city’s iconic Baroque palace – Syndram could see that the cops had the whole area sealed off. It was now a little before six o’clock on the morning of November 25, 2019, and from the street that ran past the palace, a keen observer might have noticed the damage in a nook on the ground floor. A section of an iron gate had been pried apart. Behind it, where there had once been a window, there was now a gaping hole.
Police wouldn’t allow him through to survey the damage, but Syndram didn’t need to go inside to understand what had happened. He knew – better than anybody – what the thieves had been after. The window led to the so-called Green Vault, a glittering repository of 3,000 of the most precious royal treasures in Europe: gemstonestudded sculptures, ornate ivory cabinets, miniature dioramas, massive diamonds, and hundreds of other rare objects of enormous cultural significance – much of the trove commissioned or acquired by the early-18th-century monarch Augustus II, nicknamed Augustus the Strong, who socked it all away in his sprawling Residenzschloss, or Royal Palace, on the Elbe River.
Syndram, who’d been the Green Vault’s director since 1993, was horrified and mystified: The museum, Syndram would later tell a reporter, had in recent years conducted tests of its security system and determined that all was working perfectly. What could have possibly gone wrong?
When news of the heist hit the press, the robbery was described as one of the most costly art heists in history. Reports valued the looted treasure at as much as $1.2 billion. That figure was debatable, but the scale of the loss was staggering, and Syndram knew a detail that made the problem much, much worse: None of the art was insured. The premiums on a collection that valuable would be too taxing for the museum to handle.
Eventually authorities let Syndram inside to inspect the crime scene. He walked through vaulted and mirrored antechambers into the Hall of Precious Objects, where he could see the thieves’ point of entry. Much of the room was intact, the idiosyncratic treasures – gilded ostrich eggs, nautiluses and sea snails set in silver, crystal bowls – appeared untouched. Aside from the missing window, the only sign of the intruders was on the floor, where Syndram noticed an exquisite jewellery box that had been knocked off a display table. It remained undamaged.
Syndram passed through another room and into the burglars’ ultimate destination: the Chamber of Jewels. In a far corner, a display case had been hacked to pieces, the safety glass reduced to thousands of tiny shards. Syndram could see that the thieves had made off with a slew of very particular treasures: a diamond-laden breast star of the Polish Order of the White Eagle; a sword hilt containing nine large and 770 smaller diamonds; an epaulet adorned with the Dresden White Diamond, a 49-carat cushion-cut stone of unusual radiance and purity believed to have been unearthed from the fabled Golconda mines of India. Gone as well were many diamond-studded buttons and shoe buckles worn by Augustus the Strong at wild-boar hunts and weddings.
Syndram stared at the shattered showcase. He felt as if someone had injured a person he loved. He had been the individual responsible for returning the collection to the Green Vault, after decades of displacement and near destruction during World War II and its convulsive aftermath. “The theft was brutal, shameless,” the director would later say. It was also astonishingly fast. Apparently aware that they had a narrow window of time between triggering the alarm and the arrival of the police, the thieves had used less than five minutes to get in and out of the museum. They seemed to know exactly what they had come for. Or did they? Syndram couldn’t decide for sure.
AT DRESDEN POLICE headquarters, the significance of the robbery was instantly recognized. The directors of the force assembled an elite 20-person team of detectives to begin hunting for clues. They named the team after the stolen shoulder ornament adorned with the Dresden White Diamond, calling it the Special Commando Epaulette Squad.
The unit sifted through the physical evidence, reviewed closed-circuit camera footage, and interviewed two unarmed security guards who had heard the commotion and locked themselves in the basement safe room during the robbery. Almost immediately, investigators noticed that this incident fit into a larger pattern of brazen crimes.
For roughly a decade, Germany had been beset by a rash of spectacular robberies, all noteworthy for their audacity and big payoffs. The spree had begun in March 2010, when four masked men brandishing machetes and guns burst into a weekend high-stakes poker tournament in the Berlin Grand Hyatt, stole 242,000 euros in cash, and escaped in a black Mercedes. Before dawn on a Sunday in October 2014, thieves broke into a bank in the Berlin neighbourhood of Mariendorf, emptied 100 safe-deposit boxes of nearly 10 million euros, and then blew up part of the building, possibly to cover their tracks. Months later masked robbers strode into KaDeWe, a Berlin department store, at peak shopping time, incapacitated a guard by spraying tear gas in his face, ransacked cases filled with expensive watches and jewellery, and made off with 800,000 euros’ worth of merchandise.
There had been armoured-car robberies in plain daylight, as well as another major museum heist. The range of targets was expansive; it seemed that anyplace where valuables were stored was liable to be hit. Thieves busted into a Berlin school and swiped a piece of art called “The Golden Nest,” a replica of a bird’s nest woven from 74 strands of fine gold, worth around 30,000 euros.
Each of those heists, police alleged, had been the work of individuals with apparent connections to crime families, particularly a rising network of clans of Lebanese origin that have turned Berlin into one of the gangland capitals of Europe. Many of these families had fled Lebanon in the 1980s, during the country’s civil war, turning up in what was then Communist East Germany before crossing into the West on tourist visas and applying for political asylum. They settled in Neukölln, a hardscrabble West Berlin neighbourhood beneath the flight path of jets landing at Tempelhof Airport. “They were allowed to stay, but they were not integrated into society,” says Benjamin Jendro, a spokesperson for the Berlin Police Union who has studied the families for years. “They had no access to the labour market, no official residency status. And some of them turned to crime.”
Initially, experts say, the newcomers focused on muscling in on Germany’s drug trafficking, prostitution, and protection rackets, at the time dominated by the Russian Mafia. More recently a second generation, born in Germany, has nudged the clans toward more sensational criminal exploits, like robbery and murder.
The clans have been difficult for law enforcement to penetrate; they are insular and shun contact with outsiders. But the swaggering violence of those in their ranks routinely makes headlines. In one of the most spectacular recent killings, Nidal Rabih, a 36-year-old reported enforcer from one of the clans, was shot eight times in a Berlin park on a late-summer day in 2018 while standing beside an ice cream truck with his wife and three young children. His funeral drew 2,000 mourners, many with suspected clan affiliation, from across Germany, as well as 150 police officers, shutting down streets and snarling traffic. Martin Hikel, the district mayor of Neukölln, described the scene as “reminiscent of dark Mafia films” to the German publication Die Welt. The popular TV series 4 Blocks portrays the clans as a sort of ArabGerman Sopranos – driving Mercedes and Audis instead of Cadillacs and Hummers, plotting hits and other crimes over water pipes in outdoor shisha bars on gritty Neukölln streets that could have come straight out of Damascus or Baghdad.
Perhaps the most brazen and visible of the Lebanese clans are the Remmos. The patriarch, Issa Remmo, who reportedly grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, arrived in West Berlin in the 1980s. Today, authorities say, he sits atop an extensive network made up of some dozen children and 15 siblings along with untold numbers of relatives and associates – some of whom have been connected to high-profile crimes. The clan has earned a reputation for crude violence and a brute criminal style. For example, instead of torching their way into stolen safes with welding equipment, in at least one instance that experts discussed, a safe was hauled up to the roof of a tall building and thrown to the ground in order to bust it open.
Experts say that the clans impose a culture of omertà and stoicism in the face of arrest. A prison term is considered a badge of honour. “The family says that ‘jail makes men,’ ” says Falko Liecke, a Neukölln politician who works to dissuade young people from pursuing criminal careers. “When the kids get out of prison, they throw them a big party and give them their first Rolex watch.”
Almost instantly police wondered if the Green Vault robbery had been a Remmo job. After all, it bore all the hallmarks of other cases involving the family. The thieves had left a trail of violence and vandalism: Before breaking into the museum, they’d set fire to an electrical distribution box beside the Elbe River, plunging the neighbourhood into darkness and obscuring their images from the security cameras outside the palace. They smashed through reinforced-glass cases with a dozen blows of an ax, and they attempted to cover their tracks by spraying the Chamber of Jewels with powder from a fire extinguisher. In a nearby parking garage, police discovered the charred carcass of one of the two cars they had driven to the scene, torched by the thieves in an apparent effort to destroy traces of their DNA. Though in this, they weren’t as successful as they had hoped.
The thieves had also displayed an indifference to the culture and history of Germany. The Green Vault collection had been celebrated nationally for the remarkable journey that it had taken over the past 80 years, a tale of survival tied to Dresden’s tragic history. The intruders had treated the objects with recklessness and even contempt, tearing them out of their display cases, scattering some jewels on the floor.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Adrien Brody Finds his Chill
Nearly 20 years after winning an Oscar and staking his claim as one of his generation’s most serious actors, Adrien Brody is finding a glorious new gear
How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge
It all seemed simple enough: Book a Marvel movie, get ripped, feel incredible. But, as Kumail Nanjiani learned, growing into his new body required recalibrating his whole mindset
Cartier Makes A Dramatic Comeback
One of the most iconic and memorable watches from Cartier Makes A Dramatic Comeback
The luxury travel watch just got a lot cooler
Social media seems like a rudeness machine. But it could push us toward a more thoughtful future
Does an extra set of doors make the Audi RS5 Sportback a finer blend of power and practicality?
The inspirational story of Richard Williams, who raised two tennis legends
The 29-Year-Old Designer With a Tier-One Watch Collection
With a taste honed by early noughties music videos and friends like Jay-Z, Rhude creative director Rhuigi Villaseñor is a new kind of horological connoisseur
WEAPON OF POISE
A series-production Bond watch might be just the thing your wardrobe needs
Tony Leung Enters The Marvel Universe
The greatest Hong Kong actor of his generation and an icon of global cinema, Tony Leung stars in an American film— and enters the Marvel universe— for the first time.
DEMENTED HITLER'S BIZARRE FINAL DAZE!
Newly discovered documents reveal Nazi leader lost his grip on reality
Homeopath, heal thyself
Natalie Grams believed—really believed—in the healing power of homeopathy. Then a health crisis of her own forced the German physician to question her faith
JANET JACKSON GETTING EVEN!
New documentary by Michael’s sis blows lid off family secrets
Shannon T. Lewis
A Performance of Many Lifetimes
FIVE YEARS AFTER THE ICON’S PASSING, A FAN REVIEWS THE POSTHUMOUS RELEASES
The Primary Substance
Stuck in traffic during a downpour, a driver faces a peculiar dilemma.
Christian Drosten – A Virologist Whose Government Trusts Him
In Germany, Christian Drosten has the ear of Chancellor Angela Merkel—and of millions of his countrymen via his wildly popular podcast
WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD CIVILIZATION
SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY HAPPENED over the last few decades. For the first time in human history, a single global civilization emerged.
ADENT OF CHAOS
We spoke with Marilyn Manson about his prescient new album, the loss of his close friend Norm Love Letters, and collaborating with Shooter Jennings.
How a Celtic tribe fought to defend their Iberian homeland against the emperor’s legions