Paper Money

British Museum opens exhibit of Weimar Republic notgeld

A free exhibition opened at the British Museum on Oct. 3 that while surprising in its subject matter, is illustrative of the breadth, depth, and accessibility of the museum’s numismatic holdings. “Currency in Crisis. German Emergency Money 1914–1924” will run through March 29, 2020.

It tells the story of “notgeld,” the emergency or necessity money from the early Weimar Republic. The museum describes the locally issued currency as an illustration of the turbulence of post World War I in a nation intrinsically bound to its identity. It calls notgeld “a fascinating microcosm of public feeling in post-war Germany.”

Notgeld came into being with the disappearance of low value coins that had been withdrawn from circulation. Nickel ones were removed mainly to support the war effort and all kinds of metal followed thanks to the populace hoarding things of perceived value. When even coins made of zinc and iron were not plentiful enough to have an impact, even some of the smallest of municipalities began to issue their own paper money.

The museum describes its exhibition as a revelation of how notgeld responded to a national crisis with designs commenting on German society and politics. Themes promoting glorified views of German history and culture and promoting travel were common during the early years. Later themes were sometimes subversive, often devoted to political subjects such as the food shortage of 1917 that was illustrated notes showing turnips. Other designs promoted landmarks, fairy tales, and local legends as typified by the witches portrayed on a 25-pfennig note issued in Brocken in 1922. 

Nearly from its inception, notgeld was a popular collecting subject. In fact, it was a focus fro some even before the hyperinflation of 1923 cemented its role as an alternate currency. Reflecting on the evolution of designs, Johannes Hartmann, curator of the exhibition, told The Guardian “The nicer a note, the more it drew collectors, so towns tried to make them as ornate, funny or clever as possible.” Copious amounts are still available, with some sets selling for as little as a few dollars.

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