October 30th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 43
Looking Back - John Kinnear
War and Paper Money- The Fall of the Old German Reichsmark
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
April 1910 Reichsmark - Mercury at left, Ceres at right
The U.S. dollar is looking stronger than it has in a long time. But in the yin and yang of things if something is strong something else must be weak. So should we be nervous? Our dollar is at a twenty month high right now so are we in for a yo-yo effect or not?

Remember that short period of time in the 1970's when the buck was worth $1.10 U.S. How we got to rub it into our American neighbours for once. Wasn’t that just so much fun going stateside? The world‘s currency fluctuations are a complicated story and can vary quickly. Even Donald Trump’s mouth can affect ours and other countries currency value. But all this fluctuation can't hold a candle to what happened to the post World War 1 German Reichsmark.

Back in 1922 this unfortunate currency suffered on of the most disastrous plunges of any legal tender ever. The chain of events that led to this disaster is said to have begun with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when the victorious powers from World War 1 met to draw up a peace settlement. The agreement that was signed at that time is referred to as the "Treaty of Versailles", Versailles being the palace near Paris where the meeting took place.
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History notes that the treaty provided an official peace between Germany and the thirty or so victorious Allied nations. It also provided for a reorganization of the boundaries of the pre-war European nations. It in fact completely changed the face of Europe, dismantling the Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Empires. It became a pie of a totally different cut.

Germany was forced to give up its foreign colonies in the North Pacific and China to Japan and also gave up territory to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France and Poland. France got Alsace-Lorraine and was given control of the German coal fields of the Saar Valley for 15 years and part of Germany's Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied troops for up to 15 years. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men and they were forbidden from having an air force or a navy. They were also required to pay the Allies reparations for war damages to the tune of 33 billion dollars. Starting to get the picture yet?
There was really no negotiation of this treaty, Germany was told to sign or risk invasion. Interestingly enough the United States did not sign the Versailles Treaty, their Senate finding the generous approach of the war torn nations of Europe objectionable.
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The U.S. president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, had put forth his own proposal referred to as the "14 points". He felt that Germany's economic and territorial punishment should be more moderate. An approach he felt would encourage Germany to establish a democratic government, to help rebuild Europe and to refrain from waging war in the future out of bitterness. Well we all know how that went.

One of the things Wilson objected to at Versailles was the fact that as early as 1915 some Allies had actually met and drawn up secret pacts with regards to the carving up of Europe after the war was ended. Rather diabolical, aye whot? In fact the promise of some of the "pie" is what convinced Italy to join the Allied war effort.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened to Germany's economy because of this treaty. By 1922 /1923 their economy totally collapsed, inflation ruined the value of their money and the old “Reichbanknote mark” became not worth the paper it was printed on, literally. Burning money for fuel became a symbolic gesture in Germany in the 1920's. In November 1923, the inflation reached a peak: one dollar was worth 4,200 billion German marks. Unfathomable. A 50 trillion mark bill was issued.
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Throughout the inflationary period the Reichsbank in Berlin had to re-issue more and more banknotes as previous issues lost their value. In the end, a colossal 10,000,000,000 notes had been issued. In order to produce all of these, a total of 30 paper mills were in full production providing paper, and 132 private printing firms were contracted to assist the Reichsbank print the actual notes.

The effects of the treaty, the lost land and the huge reparations greatly angered many Germans. They also felt bitter about a "war guilt" clause in the treaty that declared Germany solely responsible for the war. It is widely felt that these factors contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party during the 1930's. Germany had been crushed economically and politically by the Allies and the Nazi Party declared that Germany had a right to become strong again. Nationalism was the chief cause of World War 1 and it grew even stronger after that war. While it is understandable that the German people desired to regain some national pride and control over their country nothing could ever justify the terrible path that Hitler took them down.

I was fortunate enough to acquire a few dozen of these infamous "Reichsmarks" from my daughters Tracy and Kelly who spent time stationed in Germany in the 1960's with the Canadian Armed Forces. They found handfuls of them stuffed in a barn wall near Baden Solingen, no doubt being used for insulation, and their only apparent worth back then. The Reichsmarks are of a variety of sizes and colors and the intricacy of their design is mind boggling. The ones the girls found range in denomination from 10 (zehn mark) to 50 million (funfzig millionen mark). One brilliantly blue coloured note, twice the size of our dollar bill, is of particular interest. It is a 100 mark bill, dated April, 1910.
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The note has a white two inch by four inch panel on the right side that appears blank until you hold it up to the light where upon the ghostly embossed image of Kaiser Wilhelm the Second is revealed. This mark is a marvellous piece of work and the craftsman who produced the intricate master template for it was truly a gifted artist.

Seated to the left of this embossed image of the Kaiser is the figure Germania. Germania is the Latin name of Deutschland and the regal looking woman that personifies Germania on this note, who is seated next to an oak tree, is described as a: “robust woman with long, flowing, reddish-blonde hair and wearing armour”. She often wields the Reichsschwert (imperial sword), and is holding a medieval-style shield that sometimes bears the image of a black eagle on a gold shield.

Another 1908 hundred mark note the girls found bears the crowned imperial German eagle on one side. The other has allegorical figures of women representing agriculture and industry who are holding a large portrait of the Norse goddess Freya. Freya is associated with gold, love, sex, beauty, war and death and her name is the basis of the day of the week Friday. How about that? Ever had all those associated things happen on a Friday?

It is kind of sad that, as we move inexorably toward dealing almost exclusively with electronic money, the wonderful world of intricately designed paper currency will eventually be relegated to the collector’s domain only. I suppose someday bank cards and Visa cards will be obsolete and we will be able to view collections of them at flea markets as oddities of the past.

I did find it no small irony, though, that the modern version of the Reichsmark, the Deutschmark was in its day one of the strongest currencies in the modern world. In January 1999 it was set aside for the euro when it was worth two marks to a euro. Back then a euro was worth about one and a half Canadian dollars. Today a Canadian dollar equals .70 Euros.

Even though it is no longer legal tender the German mark can still be exchanged for equivalent value in euro at Deutche Bundesbank branches. Apparently, as of 2017, there was a total of 12.64 billion Deutschemarks still in circulation, squirreled away in old cupboards. Nostalgia? Money collectors adding them to their collections? Lost or destroyed? Who knows? The French, Italians and Spanish apparently are also hanging on to their old currency. It is too late for those French francs and Italians lire to be cashed in now but Spain has until the end of next year.

The American treasury on the other hand just keeps printing billions of dollars worth of paper money as they need it, just like Germany did in 1923. Printing money creates more problems than it solves. You never know what can happen economically. The Yankee buck could someday wind up like the old Reichsmark; insulation for barns.
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October 30th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 43
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