The art of German hyperinflation
by Tom Wilkinson  /  20 February 2020

“There is a card-bound album in the library of the Warburg Institute inscribed with the portentous title Historical Memorial Pages from Germany’s Hardest Time and Deepest Need. Opening the volume, however, one is greeted by an unexpectedly cheerful spectacle: colourful rectangles of paper arranged in neat little rows, their faces depicting pretty landscapes and villages, and humorous caricatures. These are examples of the Notgeld, or emergency money, that was printed by towns and cities across Germany during the period of inflation that began with the First World War and ended in 1923.

“Notgeld issued by the Braunschweig public transport authority, 1921”

In issuing this ersatz currency, municipalities and businesses hoped at first to compensate for a chronic shortage of small change, which had vanished from circulation thanks to war-spooked hoarders and the government’s withdrawal of coinage for its metallic content. Then, as the appeal of such objects became apparent, special collectible notes were issued by towns desperate for revenue, often in sets and with their rhetoric ramped up to catch the eye of potential buyers. There are retellings of historical and literary episodes across series of notes, including Faustian scenes and a life of Luther – somewhat incongruous, given its medium. In 1922 the government attempted to put a stop to this practice, evidently fearing the damage it was doing to the national economy, but by then it was too late, and, when hyperinflation took hold the next year, notes with huge denominations were issued – sometimes in the billions and trillions.

An exhibition currently on display in the British Museum’s coin gallery plunges visitors into the world of Notgeld, surrounding us with its bewilderingly efflorescent iconography. As well as the charming scenes described above, the emergency of which it was both cause and witness also impinged on the appearance of this money. Besides floods of valueless paper and forlorn figures gazing into empty purses, some examples of Notgeld show macabre figures, scatological jokes and acts of violence. Witches, ghosts and devils stalk these notes, animals vomit and excrete money, heretics are burnt at the stake, and – inevitably, but no less shockingly for that – Jews, who were often blamed for the crisis, are hanged from trees.

“Notgeld from the Harz Mountains, 1921”

There are also advertisements for the businesses that issued these tokens. One particularly overwrought example shows a donkey – the Dukatenesel from the fairytale ‘Little table, lay yourself!’ – exuding money from both ends. There it is collected by a shabby man in a top hat, presumably a profiteer, and a young woman who lifts her skirt to catch the miraculous draught. In doing so the latter exposes the tops of her stockings, which were a local speciality, while shooting us a coquettish glance. Her Phrygian cap identifies her as Marianne, personification of France; the French were occupying the Ruhr at the time, and greatly resented for what was seen as their extortion of the Germans. The loose morals of the French woman illustrated on this note, who abuses the poor German donkey while simultaneously supporting its stocking manufacturers, sends a mixed message, at once titillating and censorious.

While a few of these designs are of a crude naivety, many were made by professional artists, some of them well-known. The show’s curator Johannes Hartmann has included several notes from a series designed by illustrator Olaf Gulbransson, a frequent contributor to the popular illustrated magazine Simplicissimus. These elegant little images depict among other things a spectral skeleton appearing in Paris, pasting one of that city’s familiar advertising columns with the fateful words ‘mene, mene, tekel upharsin’ (you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting). This warning came back to bite him: Gulbransson’s choleric view of the Allies led to him being ostracised in his native Norway during the Second World War.

“100 Mark Notgeld note from Braunschweig from October 1918”

Another example included in the show was designed by the future Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer, then a student at the school. This starkly simple note attempts to rationalise an intensely irrational situation by clearing room for the orderly accumulation of zeroes on its sparsely decorated face. In doing so it stands out dramatically from its neighbours, with their jumble of genial and horrific iconography. Bayer was reacting to the fact that the inflation had produced a parallel inflation in the world of images, and this was not just limited to the design of money: artists also printed vast quantities of works on paper in this period, hoping to attract buyers eager to transfer their rapidly devaluing cash into tangible assets. And, just as with Notgeld, this sparked an attention-seeking turn to violent and grotesque imagery – one thinks for instance of the prints produced by George Grosz and Otto Dix at the time. Then, as now, the sleep of economic reason brings forth strange monsters.”

The Intricate Makeshift Money Germans Relied On Between World Wars
by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan  /  9.24.13

“State-issued currency is the scaffolding upon which capitalism was built, but it’s always been prone to mayhem. For instance in 1920s Germany, extreme inflation forced German businesses to actually print millions of their own customized paper bills. Now largely forgotten, thisnotgeld, or “emergency money,” was once ubiquitous—amounting to an ornately-decorated I.O.U. in Weimar Germany. Notgeld was a catch-all name for private currency, printed between World War I and World War II in Germany and Austria. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of unique bills, each created for a specific amount of gold, cash, or even corn and grain. Each printer created (or commissioned) its own design, which ranged from beautiful turn-of-the-century engravings to modernist Bauhaus-inspired typography. The most complete collection of notgeld online comes courtesy of Brooklynite Miguel Oks, whose German ancestors began archiving the bills in the 1930s—thousands of which you can see on his Flickr.

So what sparked this proliferation of wildly decorative—and often quite beautiful—emergency currency? There’s a long version and a short version, the latter of which began during World War I, with incredibly rapid inflation spurred by the cost of war. Compounding the problem, the demand for metals used to make weapons and ammunition caused the value of traditional coinage to skyrocket—and soon, banks were printing more and more paper money to make up for the disappearing coins. Even after the Great War ended, strict reparations and a subsequent depression made for even more inflation—this was Mack the Knife-era Weimar, where hunger and unemployment were the norm. Companies were often forced to issue specialized notgeld to pay their employees, simply because the state-run mints couldn’t print enough money to satisfy the demand for bills. So instead, businesses and organizations made their own—and according to Oks, it was often even more stable than conventional bills, since it was tied to gold or another tangible resource.

Fascinatingly, there was also a financial logic to the elaborate decorations that grace many of these bills. Miguel Oks explains: “They made it very pretty on purpose: many people collected the bills, and the debt would never have to be paid. Many were specifically made for collecting, they were called “Serienscheine”, and special albums were sold for the specific purpose of organizing and displaying them. They were printed on all kinds of materials: leather, fabric, porcelain, silk, tin foil…”  So the decorations on notgeld bills weren’t just “of their time.” They were actually calculated attempts to create collector’s items—which would thus never be turned in for actual compensation. Of course, financial instability—and all the social ills that came with it—would play a huge role in the rise of National Socialism. If you look closely, the designs on some of these bills speak to the earliest inklings of Nazi ideology, too, from wounded German soldiers to Germanic mythological figures—innocuous signals of darker times ahead. But they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of this hard-fought era. Check out some of the voluminous collection below.

His entire collection of over 5,500 notes can be viewed on Flickr.”


“After 800 years of life in the same region, part of my family left Germany. In 1935 Nazism had become unlivable and the danger too clear. They were lucky enough to understand the risk it was for Jews living in Germany and they left. Until then, they had been part of a comfortable and prosperous middle class, involved in the tobacco business in the city of Karlsruhe. The collection was started by our ancestor when he noticed that Notgeld was not the norm but the exception in the history of currencies. He started collecting Notgeld produced by many German and Austrian towns and companies to make front to deflation first and inflation later with the objective of providing stability to workers and residents. Notgeld (emergency currency) was issued by cities, boroughs, even private companies while there was a shortage of official coins and bills.

Nobody would pay in coins while their nominal value was less than the value of the metal. And when inflation went on, the state was just unable to print bills fast enough. Some companies couldn’t pay their workers because the Reichsbank just couldn’t provide enough bills. So they started to print their own money – they even asked the Reichsbank beforehand. As long as the Notgeld was accepted, no real harm was done and it just was a certificate of debt. Often it was even a more stable currency than real money, as sometimes the denomination was a certain amount of gold, dollars, corn, meat, etc. They made it very pretty on purpose: many people collected the bills, and the debt would never have to be paid.

Many were specifically made for collecting, they were called “Serienscheine”, and special albums were sold for the specific purpose of organizing and displaying them. They were printed on all kinds of materials: leather, fabric, porcelain, silk, tin foil… It was not legal tender, so the only people who dealt in it were those that wanted to. It was very stable and debt free. To keep it flowing, sometimes it was set up to lose 2 or 3% of its value every month, which kept people from hoarding it.

There were several advantages to issuing Notgeld. First, it stabilized local government and local markets, so people could sell and buy what they needed and government services kept functioning. Second, it was a stabilizing influence on the real currency, which was still used. And third, it helped to concentrate the real currency at the government level, so they could import things not found locally. It was a controlled complementary currency, so prices were set by whoever issued it. In effect, this created wide scale and orderly rationing.

At a personal level, my interest in these notes lies in the fact that everyone one of these pieces of paper carries the seed of the development of twentieth century artistic and political movements. These artistic and ideological movements still influence our thinking and inform our consciousness, our taste and every aspect of our life. I cannot but shiver at the emergence of National Socialism palpable in the art of many of these notes.

I admire the level of craftsmanship and obsession that characterizes this nation. But when looking at these virtues in a historical context we see what they have come to mean for our civilization. And it allows me not to forget the consequences in a positive light. I still buy Notgeld occasionally; I have about 5,500 notes, about 125,000 different ones were minted, so I don’t expect ever to have a complete collection. Every once in a while I open the binders where they are stored and enjoy the designs.”


Civil War Tokens: Value Me As You Please  /  December 20, 2011

“During the US Civil War, metal monies were hoarded for their value, resulting in a shortage of available coins. The Union government issued official “paper coins” that weren’t backed by by gold or silver. This “faith paper” lost value quickly, and for a short while, stamps were official currency. That didn’t take, either, so enterprising individuals took it upon themselves to mint their own coinage.

These are now known as Civil War Tokens (CTWs), and were made and used between late 1862 and mid 1864. On April 22, 1864, Congress set the weight of coins and set punishment for counterfeiting coins of up to one thousand dollars and imprisonment up to five yearsYet there are over ten thousand varieties of tokens, representing 22 states, 400 towns and about 1500 individual merchants. Melvin and his son Dr. George Fuld wrote key books in the CWT field, creating the rarity scale and composition key used by most numismatists. Given sheer number of CWTs, starting a collection might be daunting. Enter collector Ken Bauer, whose method breaks down the vast world into smaller collections, from anvils to watches and so much more.”



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