In the British Museum at the moment is an exhibition about a period of German history that’s both well known, and hardly known at all – the hyperinflation of the world war periods.
While many of us who paid attention at school will remember images of people carrying huge piles of cash to buy food, but what’s not taught is what those bank notes looked like – and it’s not what you expect.
As the central bank couldn’t supply the metal for coins, it eventually lost control over currency and local banks and even independent institutions started issuing their own paper currency – the Notgeld (necessity money) and with no central control, the design of the bank notes exploded with creativity.
This Notgeld’s text and image tells the local story of a “farting coppersmith”, which was a famous story at the time.
In Notgeld world, money would be funny.
And that’s really what the exhibition is about – the many different designs for the money, and how they often poked fun at local customs, or held hidden criticisms of the government.
This seemingly ordinary note has been very subtly edited so that some of the text in the circles instead of saying “Niederlahnstein 1917” carried a message criticizing food shortages. The maker was arrested when the alteration was noticed.
Some Notgeld were adverts for the local area, others blamed “outsiders”, often Jews for the hyperinflation that the country suffered from. This Notgeld from 1921 shows the desire for medieval punishments to be inflicted on profiteers.
With a shortage of paper for more bank notes, Notgeld notes were often simply stamped with new denominations, such as some on show which were revalued.
By November 1923, it’s estimated that half the money in circulation in Germany was Notgeld. Only in 1948 did the German government finally regain full control of its own currency and the Notgeld banned.
Many governments have failed to learn the lessons of hyperinflation and it still pops up at times, such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe etc to the ruin of the people the government claims to be defending.
As an exhibition is part history lesson, part art display and part social commentary. Often, cartoons can tell you more about how people felt at a time than a pile of dull history books packed full of facks, and these bank notes are an unexpected insight into a period of history we rarely read about.
The exhibition, Currency in crisis German emergency money 1914-1924 is at the British Museum until 29th March 2020 and is free to visit.