During the lockdown, I started work on some larger cataloguing projects. One of them is an extraordinary collection of German Notgeld, the ‘emergency money’ which originated, out of necessity, during the First World War, but which later became a way for towns to try and make some money in the early Twenties (before hyperinflation took hold) by advertising their local attractions: a phenomenally rich seam of graphic design. As a collection, it’s a ready-made exhibition, and would work very well digitally, everything being very easy to scan. I also know, from an album of Notgeld notes I had a couple of years ago now at the University of Edinburgh, how well students respond to them.
By way of introduction, I recommend listening to the 15-minute episode from Neil MacGregor’s 2014 BBC Radio series Germany: Memories of a Nation. Notgeld seems to be something largely unknown outside Germany (in the UK, at least). I suppose that is one reason the British Museum held its exhibition earlier this year.
Notgeld is the temporary currency initially borne out of necessity but which soon blossomed across the former German Empire as a visual expression of local cultural identity in straitened times. Largely untapped by historians, it provides a fascinating resource for studying the post-war economic crisis and understanding public feeling in the early years of the Weimar Republic at the local level. It also offers a wealth of material for those interested in the history of graphic design, advertising, and, more broadly, the history of collecting itself. In its recent exhibition, the first on Notgeld to be held in the UK, the British Museum called the colourful currency ‘a powerful illustration of the turbulent years during and after the First World War in Germany’.
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the catastrophic German hyperinflation of the early 1920s, thanks to photographs of people pushing wheelbarrows full of money, or burning bundles of worthless banknotes as fuel. But there was another pecuniary phenomenon to come out of those years: Notgeld, or ‘emergency money’, which was issued locally right across the country in place of the low-value coins which had vanished due to a shortage of metal during the War. Neil MacGregor explains: ‘as there was no longer an effective national currency for the lower denominations, every town and city had to make its own. High-value notes from the Reichsbank continued to circulate. Notgeld is the small change of daily life: that is what makes it so interesting. As the central state faltered, regional memories and loyalties revived … in colourful explorations of local identity and civic pride. An example from Mainz promotes the city’s attractions, including its statue of Gutenberg; Bremen boasts its fine international harbour; the Baltic resort of Müritz depicts the chic seaside fun on offer there …’ (Germany: Memories of a Nation, 2014, pp. 419–21).
‘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 [so-called Serienscheine] and with their rhetoric ramped up to catch the eye of potential buyers … 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’ (Tom Wilkinson, Apollo website, 20 Feb. 2020).
‘Looking through these notes is like flicking through a travelogue of Germany, each town presenting its distinctive aspect most likely to appeal to the curiosity of the visitors and the pride of the local inhabitants. But the interest of these notes is not just topographical. They present a remarkable survey of the public mood in the years 1919–23, as the Weimar Republic struggled into life; of the issues that alarmed, fascinated and preoccupied the population. You can chart the continuing desire to honour those who fell in the war. There is a note from Hamburg and Bremen nostalgically showing Bismarck and the lost German colonies in Africa; another from Gramby, which was in danger of being removed from Germany in the plebiscite in the Danish-speaking area of Schleswig-Holstein, requested by Denmark and monitored by Britain and France. There are nasty anti-Jewish jokes, disturbing hints of popular prejudice, and much, much more. These notes are a compendium of German memories, hopes and fears in the early 1920s’ (MacGregor, pp. 421–5). Uniquely, the whole country is represented, giving us an opportunity to travel right across the newborn nation and look into the minds (and the pockets) of people in small-town Germany, away from perhaps the traditional view of the Weimar Republic as exemplified by the cabaret nightlife of liberal-minded Berlin.
Another demonstration of regional diversity and pride in local industry is reflected in the actual material of the Notgeld itself, for not all the notes are printed on paper: Bielefeld, the great textile centre, has some of its money printed on linen or silk, Osterwieck in the Harz uses chamois leather, the Austrian towns of Hadersfeld and Pischelsdorf small rectangles of plywood and veneer, and the Lautawerk factory, near Bautzen, aluminium foil:
Not all Notgeld was issued by towns either. Businesses also produced their own currencies (more properly, scrip), whether for local shops, Berlin trams, a sugar factory in Demmin, or Hamburg zoo:
Notgeld designs often depict local landmarks or legends, or advertise the attractions of a particular town or area, but occasionally there is social comment, or even political subversion. A note from the Rhineland town of Niederlahnstein, 1917, has a hidden message criticising food shortages; when it was discovered, the designer was arrested:
Then there is a note from Bielefeld. ‘It is an early one, from 1917, the so-called turnip winter [Steckrübenwinter], when people were so short of food they fed on little else but turnips. A weeping turnip accompanies the inscriptions on the side, “Durchhalten den Not ist Kriegs Gebot”, meaning, “Enduring hardship is the law of war”.
‘There is no humour about this at all. It is redolent of a much darker tone that leads into one of the key issues in Germany in the early 1920s – reparations and the demands of the victorious powers. The Notgeld addresses that too.’ For example, those from Bitterfeld, a coal-producing area north of Leipzig, on the back of which are ‘trains carrying coal, heading first of all for Cologne – you can see Cologne Cathedral in the background – and then to the left you can see the Eiffel Tower.
‘This is coal being taken from Germany to France, and it tells us very precisely that from April 1920 to March 1921 28.1 million tons of coal were exported. Of this, 67.1 per cent went as reparations. Only 11.5 per cent was sold on the world market’ (MacGregor, p. 429).
‘Some of the most distinguished Notgeld came from Weimar, the birthplace of the Bauhaus art and design movement, where in the early 1920s the aesthetic and functional world was being entirely reimagined. The Weimar notes were designed by Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus. There are no historical or touristic themes on these notes. Just pure function, clear communication, bold design. Bayer used strong colours and then simply words and numbers in characteristic typography. Form uncompromisingly follows function. This Notgeld is an aesthetic manifesto for modernism. Bayer had only two days to design these notes in 1923, but he realized this was a rare chance to present Bauhaus typography and design to a mass public who would have no option but to use them. Advanced modernist design would reach every household within hours. Notgeld gave Bauhaus a previously unimaginable degree of public exposure’ (op. cit., pp. 425–7).
‘In its short lifespan, Notgeld’s purpose and design changed dramatically. It was introduced as a substitute currency during a coin shortage in the First World War, with patriotic and sometimes subversive messages. Popular with German people, it became highly collectable and then, during the hyperinflation of 1923, regained its role as an alternative currency’ (British Museum) until it was abolished with the introduction of the Rentenmark as the national currency in November 1923. For us now, in the 21st century, it offers a fascinating visual record of the economic and political upheavals of a century ago.
The collection comprises around 7000 individual notes, from 1914 through to 1923, including notes which were produced for use in prison camps during the War. Over 1000 towns are represented. Some of the notes from what might be called the ‘collecting period’ in the early 1920s are still as issued, in their original printed envelopes or sleeves, and certainly the condition of the vast majority from this period is excellent. For further details, or for more images, please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.