Notgeld: German Emergency Money 1914-1923
by Ralph Heymsfeld
In the early years of the 20th century, as Germany coped first with a wartime coin shortage and later with hyperinflation and the collapse of its currency, the country issued a dazzling array of notgeld, a term which translates to "emergency money." These improvised currencies took many forms. The best known notgeld are richly illustrated paper notes. Other types include metal and ceramic tokens, encased postage, playing cards, strips of leather, pieces of coal, and more. Notgeld was an immediate fascination for collectors in Germany and around the world. Today the field offers an affordable opportunity to build an attractive collection that truly has a story to tell.
In many ways, notgeld is perhaps too broad a term to adequately describe the various currencies of this period - roughly 1914-1923. The issues include notes and coins issued by local governments, as well as scrip and tokens produced by private businesses and organizations. Some notgeld was authorized by the Reichsbank, Germany's central bank, some was unauthorized but quietly accepted by the government, while still other issues were produced clearly outside the law. A substantial quantity of notgeld, including some of the most commonly collected today, never met an actual currency need but was produced for sale to collectors and speculators.
Beyond the basic questions of legitimacy and function, the shear volume of notgeld presents challenges for proper attribution. More than 100,000 distinct paper notes were printed by thousands of public and private entities. A good deal of the original research into notgeld was done by Dr. Arnold Keller who collected the paper notes as they were issued. Keller published a German language magazine called Das Notgeld and a number of books. Understandably, much of the literature from Keller and others is published in German. One notable exception is the English language A Guide & Checklist of World Notgeld, 1914-1947 and Other Local Issue by Courtney L. Coffing. Despite the work done to-date, there remain many opportunities for further study.
The first notgeld of the period coincides with the 1914 outbreak of hostilities in World War I. Germany was immediately faced with a shortage of circulating coinage. A number of factors contributed to this shortage. Rising silver prices made silver coins worth more than their face value, while copper and nickel supplies were diverted from the mints to other manufacturing. The shortages, along with a general sense of insecurity, led to hoarding of coins which in turn made the shortages worse.
Without coins, daily commerce becomes impossible. Municipalities began producing notgeld to fill the void. The first notgeld were relatively plain, paper issues in lower denominations - frequently seen are 25, 50 and 75 pfennig (penny) notes, as well as denominations of one or several marks. The notes were typically signed by one or more local officials and would have a short validity period after which they expired.
As the war progressed, notgeld issued by both municipalities and private businesses became an integral part of the war economy. The German state governments made some modest efforts to control the situation, but by-and-large necessities of the moment won out. The notes became considerably more elaborate featuring colorful images that ranged from romantic folklore, to advertising, to politics and social satire.
In about 1916 privately minted metal tokens appear, mostly minted by the L. Christian Lauer firm, although several dozen other private manufacturers also filled orders. The tokens were made from metals such as iron and zinc and frequently feature a common side with the denomination, with the other side depicting a coat of arms, image or landmark unique to the issuing city or business.
By the time the war ended, the collecting of notgeld was well established. With a market fueled by collector enthusiasm and outright speculation, a new type of note called serienscheine appeared. This "serial paper money" was distinguished from other notgeld issues in that it was produced in a thematic series of notes all with the same denomination. It was obviously targeted for collectors and much of it never circulated as currency. As a kind of notgeld fever gripped Germany, a number of less-than-ethical practices came into play. There were notes printed with their validity already expired, notes printed for nonexistent towns, notes sold in excess of their face value, and notes printed to counterfeit earlier issues.
From the purely numismatic perspective, the serienscheine of the post-war period is of little or no value. It never served a fiscal function and it remains available in great quantities. On the other hand, the freewheeling production of the period produced a uniquely German body of work that is of tremendous historical value. Artists across the country were employed to depict all aspects of life, leaving a cultural record of German society at a pivotal moment in world history.
While collectors were engaged in the innocuous pursuit of serienscheine, an economic disaster was unfolding that would quickly define a new era in emergency money. Between 1921 and 1923 the inflation which had plagued the country since the start of the war in 1914 spiraled out of control and the currency collapsed in a phenomenon known as hyperinflation.
The scale of the inflation became so astronomical that it is truly difficult to describe it meaningful terms. Common items that would have been priced in pfennigs or a few marks in 1918 were soon priced in tens of marks, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions. When the crisis peaked in late 1923 the German mark had the buying power of about one trillionth that of a 1914 pre-war mark.
A great deal has been written about the causes of Germany's hyperinflation and certain historical events were clearly factors. The simultaneous decisions at the beginning of World War I to abandon the gold standard and finance the war entirely with deficit spending are frequently cited, as are the massive war reparation payments that were demanded under the Treaty of Versailles. But beyond these tangibles, the country seems to have become gripped by an economic madness with the government and the Reichsbank unable to appreciate the gravity of their situation, and unwilling to take the steps necessary to regain control.
Throughout much of the crisis, fiscal policy was almost wholly centered around the printing of banknotes in fantastic quantities and ever increasing denominations. One of the natural effects of the inflation was a shortage of circulating currency. With the value of the mark plummeting towards zero, more and more marks were needed to make payrolls and conduct commerce. However, the unrestrained printing of notes served only to accelerate inflation, the result being that while currency was being produced as rapidly as possible, the actual buying power of the total currency in circulation was declining and the shortage was in fact worsening. As documented by Adam Fergusson in When Money Dies: The Nightmare of the Weimar Collapse: "Day and night 30 paper mills, 150 printing firms and 2,000 printing presses toiled away adding perpetually to the blizzard of banknotes under which the country's economy had already disappeared."
Thus the notgeld of 1920-23 must be viewed against a backdrop of a now chronic shortage of coins, an ever-worsening shortage of banknotes, and an economic environment in which the mark was losing all validity as a medium of exchange.
A variety of notgeld coins and tokens exist from this period. Postage stamps encased in small holders of aluminum and celluloid circulated. The use of stamps adding some legitimacy to the currency while the holder protected the stamp from wear. Porcelain coins, many dated 1921, were produced for a number of public and private entities. Most were produced by the famous Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Saxony and feature the Meissen crossed swords trademark.
Example of encased postage to be used as a coin.
The advertisement on the reverse reads Nestle's Kindermehl wieder zu haben
which translates roughly to Nestle's Baby Formula - available again.
In the realm of paper notes some new terms enter the vernacular: grossgeld, meaning "big money," and inflationsgeld meaning "inflation money."
In July of 1922, unable to meet the enormous demands of printing currency, emergency money laws were passed authorizing the not only state and local authorities, but private interests as well, to print notgeld. Although the laws in some ways merely legitimized a practice that had been a factor in German life for years, it also opened the floodgates in the forces that were fueling the inflation. Across the country towns and businesses were printing notgeld to meet their payrolls, some with Reichsbank authorization and other without. Nonetheless, the notes circulated side by side.
Although they could not abandon the mark entirely, there were many attempts to tie transactions to a more meaningful medium. Notgeld was created from useful materials with an inherent value such as coal, aluminum foil, and leather. There were also paper notes that were denominated not in marks but in commodities such as wheat or sugar, and workers sometimes were paid in coupons that could be exchanged for consumer goods such as potatoes or a loaf or bread.
Hyperinflation came to an abrupt end in November 1923 when the Reichsbank issued a new currency, the Rentenmark. The Rentenmark was indexed to the price of gold and although it was not redeemable in gold it was guaranteed against public land mortgages. In August 1924 an exchange was established and Germans turned in their old money for new at a rate of 1,000,000,000,000 to 1. As part of the effort to stabilize the currency, the government was aggressive in curtailing the use of notgeld. While scrip and other emergency monies would continue to be seen in Germany until after World War II, the true heyday of notgeld was over.
About the Author: Ralph Heymsfeld is a prolific writer and an avid hobbyist. Connect with Ralph on LinkedIn. You can find more of Ralph's writing on his website at ralph.heymsfeld.com