For almost a century, German inflationary money of the early 1920s
has been a staple of dealer junk boxes and an object to ponder.
What would the world be like if the post World War I inflation had
never happened? Would Hitler, whose Nazi movement grew from the
financial chaos, have lived and died in obscurity? Would World War II
never have happened?
When you hold a German inflationary bill, you’re holding history
in your hands.
In the engraved swirls of the designs, the incredibly large
denominations — up to 100 trillion marks — and the occasional old
heavy Germanic black letter printing, you can feel the misery of a
nation’s populace caught up in an economic catastrophe of such
proportion that bricks of bills were used as building blocks by children.
In the recently released The Downfall of Money: Germany’s
Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class, author
Frederick Taylor traces the ills of German currency from the start of
World War I in 1914 to the end of 1923, when a new currency was
established, resetting the mark at its prewar value of 4.2 marks to
While the book deals mainly with the policies and politics of the
Weimar Republic, it includes several vignettes about life in a society
where prices changed several times a day and where — in the end — the
preferred payment was food.
In November of 1923, toward the end of the inflationary period,
Taylor quotes a woman who bought a packet of clothes dye worth about
15 pfennigs before the war.
“He [the clerk] makes calculations on a paper bag. … At last he
looks up and says, ‘375 millions.’ I recover my breath and turn out my
market basket, in which million mark scheins (notes) are done up in bales.”
According to Taylor, she noted, food “is the most stable form of
circulating medium. I can pay my library subscriptions in rice or
dried plums, and my dentist’s bill in condensed milk. Eggs, too are
In November 1923, the exchange rate for new currency — rentenmarks
— was set at 1 trillion inflationary marks to 1 new mark.
“And one thing,” Taylor writes, “with the establishment of a
1-trillion paper mark to one Rentenmark value, Germany’s post-war
domestic debt — founded overwhelmingly on all those virtuous citizens
who had bought war bonds in the hope of a small regular reward
(interest) for their patriotism — was reduced from 154 billion marks
in November 1918 to exactly 15.4 pfennigs in November 1923.”
At the end of the inflationary period, all of those bonds together
were worth less than a nickel.
Gerald Tebben is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel.