Germany’s dazzling and highly unique ’emergency money’
Notgeld, literally translated, means ‘emergency money’, and it became necessary as a result of the inflation that accompanied the outbreak of the First World War.
The Germans (and, ultimately, Austrians) found themselves in the somewhat absurd position of discovering that the value of their coins was lower than the value of the metal used to make them; coins were quite literally worth less than the metal they were printed on.
Even more absurdly, institutions started to realise that it made more financial sense to hoard coins than to spend them, and problematic amounts of metal money started to vanish from circulation. Institutions sought to remedy this by issuing unofficial, small denomination banknotes to replace the coins; Notgeld was born.
Because these notes were not government-sanctioned, there was no nationwide uniformity to the money. The various regions of Germany each had their own – often vibrant – artistic styles, and the banknotes frequently depicted local landscapes, buildings, folklore and myths.
They instantly became collectors’ items, so institutions carried on issuing collectors-only series of Notgeld (known as Serienscheine) up until 1922, when hyperinflation again made emergency money an economic necessity, notes this time issued in denominations that careened into the billions.
As can be seen in the examples below, Notgeld constitutes some of the most variedly beautiful, surreal and – in some cases – harrowing currency ever to exist.
With gold and silver
We can no longer make payments,
So we’re printing it everywhere,
And paying with paper.
A charming pastoral scene on this 50 Heller (one Heller = half a Pfennig) note from the Austrian town of Ruprechtshofen; a timeless image that would look equally at home on a box of porridge or a packet of tobacco as it does on a banknote printed in desperate times.
Here, a donkey in silhouette defecates quite liberally while simultaneously eating grass. A metaphor for the circle of life? Or the work of a belligerent artist eager to point out that the German economy has essentially turned to dung?
This 1922 note from Sternberg makes tangible the compulsion to find scapegoats in times of economic hardship, and gives a sense of the social milieu that would facilitate the unimaginable horrors of the following decades. The image depicts the harrowing accusation of blood libel that has echoed through history as a manifestation of anti-semitism, suggesting that Jews use the blood of Christian children as an ingredient in the production of matzah bread. This is far from the only example of an anti-semitic Notgeld banknote.
Something a bit more light-hearted and hallucinogenic for this ½ mark entry from Ströbeck. The unusually minimalist design features a harlequin astride a giant beach ball (or a tiny harlequin atop a normal-sized beach ball), preparing to juggle two napkins branded with a crown and an octopus. And why not?
This banknote from Lenzen is a stern love letter to a local breed of cow.
Black and white like the Dreußens flag,
That’s how the “Herdbuch Bull” looks.
Its ancestors are from East Friesland
But now we breed them here,
So, you peasants, never rest,
And only breed the Herbuch cow.
Notgeld wasn’t always printed on paper; this 25 mark note from Bielefeld was printed on silk, and looks like something a spiritually progressive student would hang on a wall, hoping it might be a conversation starter the next time he’s giving someone a totally platonic massage that he repeatedly and almost convincingly insists has no sexual motive whatsoever.
Very difficult to read, but this comic book-style 75 pfennig note has a subtle anti-elitist message, warning the reader that there are no rewards awaiting the soldier in the castle, but he can still get pleasure from a nice, down-to-earth beverage in the village.
A 50 Pfennig note from Silberberg passes fairly direct comment on the economic crisis that spawned it:
At one time silver was found at this site / If only Silberberg had silver today!
And for good measure, here are a few more examples taken from a frankly astonishing collection of 5000+ Notgeld that Flickr user Iliazd inherited from his grandfather. They are so utterly striking that they deserve to be experienced without any sarcastic commentary whatsoever: