After 800 years of life in the same region, part of my family left Germany. In 1934 Germany under Nazism had become unlivable and the danger too clear. They were lucky enough to understand the risk it was for Jews living in Germany and they left. Until then, they had been part of a comfortable and prosperous middle class, involved in the tobacco business in the city of Karlsruhe.
The collection was started by our grandfather when he noticed that Notgeld was not the norm but the exception in the history of currencies. He started collecting Notgeld during his travels, as they were produced by many German and Austrian towns and companies to make front to deflation first and inflation later with the objective of providing stability to workers and residents.
Notgeld (emergency currency) was issued by cities, boroughs, even private companies while there was a shortage of official coins and bills. Nobody would pay in coins while their nominal value was less than the value of the metal. And when inflation went on, the state was just unable to print bills fast enough. Some companies couldn’t pay their workers because the Reichsbank just couldn’t provide enough bills. So they started to print their own money - they even asked the Reichsbank beforehand. As long as the Notgeld was accepted, no real harm was done and it just was a certificate of debt. Often it was even a more stable currency than real money, as sometimes the denomination was a certain amount of gold, dollars, corn, meat, etc.
They made it very pretty on purpose: many people collected the bills, and the debt would never have to be paid. Many were specifically made for collecting, they were called “Serienscheine”, and special albums were sold for the specific purpose of organizing and displaying them. They were printed on all kinds of materials: leather, fabric, porcelain, silk, tin foil…
It was not legal tender, so the only people who dealt in it were those that wanted to. It was very stable and debt free. To keep it flowing, sometimes it was set up to loose 2 or 3% of its value every month, which kept people from hoarding it.
There were several advantages to issuing Notgeld. First, it stabilized local government and local markets, so people could sell and buy what they needed and government services kept functioning. Second, it was a stabilizing influence on the real currency, which was still used. And third, it helped to concentrate the real currency at the government level, so they could import things not found locally.
It was a controlled complementary currency, so prices were set by whoever issued it. In effect, this created wide scale and orderly rationing.
At a personal level, my interest in these notes lies in the fact that everyone one of these pieces of paper carries the seed of the development of twentieth century artistic and political movements. These artistic and ideological movements still influence our thinking and inform our consciousness, our taste and every aspect of our life.
I cannot but shiver at the emergence of National Socialism palpable in the art of many of these notes. I admire the level of craftsmanship and obsession that characterizes this nation. But when looking at these virtues in a historical context we see what they have come to mean for our civilization. And it allows me not to forget the consequences in a positive light.