Money is supposed to be abstract. We think of it in terms of what we can buy with it, not what it is physically. Beyond its denomination, and whatever cultural or political figure it happens to be celebrating, we’re not supposed to think too much about a bill or coin as an object. But what happens when, in the midst of an economic crisis, artists are given free rein to make their own currency? When paper money becomes not just capital but a consideration of it—a commentary on currency, and a meditation on value?
In 1914, as Germany entered into World War I, the country suspended its gold standard, temporarily halting the exchange of paper marks for gold to prevent a run on the banks. No longer tethered to gold, the value of Germany’s paper currency began to inflate, and scared German citizens began to hoard coinage. As a result, the raw metal worth of a 50 pfennig or 2 mark coin quickly outstripped its face value. (Nickel and copper could be used in the growing military industry.) The German economy ran on these coins: a shirt might cost 5 marks, a pair of shoe soles, 3.75. So the sudden withdrawal of coinage precipitated a severe currency shortage—all within the first few months of the war.
Throughout the country, cities and financial institutions had no choice but to get creative. Enter notgeld (“emergency money”), whose purpose was to paper over the shortages in circulating currency. This new kind of money was never authorized by any central or state bank; it was local governments and banks, as well as employers, that introduced notgeld as a short-term, stopgap measure, a temporary currency with a fixed expiration date that functioned more or less as an IOU. Anything could be recycled into notgeld: tickets, cardboard stock, whatever was lying around. The goal was simply to keep something in circulation that could be used for goods and services so the German economy didn’t fall apart.
Germany wasn’t the first country to experiment with notgeld; DIY currency has been used in times of crisis throughout history. During the Civil War in the United States, postage stamps encased in brass were accepted as legal tender in the North during a coin shortage that lasted throughout the war. In 1685, when Canada was still part of France, the colony experienced a shortage of French coinage and soldiers threatened mutiny if the government delayed payments to them. In response, finance minister Jacques de Meulles rounded up every deck of playing cards he could find and reissued them as temporary currency. (Germany, too, used the playing-card trick during World War I, creating “spielkarten,” currency made from cut-up playing cards stamped with numerals to indicate value.)
Notgeld was illegal—one can’t, after all, print one’s own money—but government officials soon realized that it was nevertheless necessary for day-to-day transactions and mostly turned a blind eye. In fact, the less notgeld looked like actual marks, the better. Rare and unusual, the country’s provisional currency soon caught the eye of German numismatists and notaphilists. Rare-coin collecting was already a well-established hobby in Germany, so when these strange forms of currency hit the market, collectors almost immediately began to hoard them, and often wrote to issuing authorities requesting examples for their collections. The numismatist Arnold Keller was just 17 when he began collecting notgeld in 1914; three years later, he was printing his own notgeld catalogs for the growing market in ersatz cash.
After Germany lost the war and the Paris Peace Conference required the country to pay crippling reparations of 132 billion marks to the Allies for damages, the need for temporary currency continued as extreme inflation gripped the economy, making notgeld an entrenched part of German culture. By 1918, small municipalities were issuing not just emergency currency but also more formal versions of notgeld: well-designed currency intended for the collector’s market. “Issuers of notgeld—which included towns, financial institutions, manufacturers, commercial interests, estates, and municipalities—understood they could make money from collectors,” says Erin Sullivan Maynes, assistant curator of Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Maynes has spent the past six years researching the history of notgeld, which was designed, she notes, “to be looked at, to be read and scrutinized.”
As collectors started to take interest in this strange new necessity, local municipalities found they could make money by issuing limited-edition notgeld, which was sold directly to collectors. (In 1920, the town of Naumburg used the profits from a notgeld series to renovate its town hall.) The rise of this “collector’s notgeld,” Maynes says, was “not only a reflection on how dysfunctional the economy was, but also how popular notgeld was.”
Storytelling was popular on this collector’s notgeld: A bank might issue a serienscheine, a series of notes containing a narrative story over the course of four or six different images. Notgeld series would tell the history of a given town, or recount a famous Germanic story or myth—Martin Luther; Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungen saga; and the Pied Piper of Hamelin were popular choices. Gradually, the images on the bills evolved to provide a meta-commentary on Weimar Germany’s flailing economy. “Notgeld,” Maynes explains, “was both currency and commodity, part of the financial system and a symbol of that system’s failure.”
The German word schein, in addition to meaning “bill,” also has connotations of “pretense,” “appearance,” and “sham”—a pun that notgeld designers would often play up in a world of sham bills. In 1921, the town of Gera released a serienscheine sequence of currency that told its history through four images: from its medieval origins to its rise in the nineteenth century as a manufacturing powerhouse. In one series that tells the history of the town of Gera, the figures in the foreground of the final image are destitute and emaciated, but the town itself is awash in paper currency, having been obliterated by a sea of money. This last image, Maynes explains, “embodies the contradictions of the inflationary experience, the contrast between an appearance of plenty and the reality of poverty.” The caption on the final image reads, Arm vun wieder und nur ein schein-leben. “Poor once more, and just a life of illusion.”
Germans’ growing pessimism around inflation and economic depression also revealed itself in more macabre forms of currency. In 1921, the village of Ennigerloh released a set of currency featuring a gleeful Devil engulfed in flames. Beside him a poem explains that the Devil had set off in a futile search for gold—concluding, “That business is done, leave it alone. Now there are only paper notes.”
Figures of death were also a common motif in notgeld. The clock tower in the Polish town of Oława, finished in 1718, features a mechanical rooster who chases a hen every hour on the hour, and a Grim Reaper who sweeps his scythe every 15 minutes. The 1921 notgeld issued by the town government took these clockwork figures and reconfigured them into a more striking memento mori: the clock tower’s silhouette, flanked by a crowing rooster and, behind him, the Grim Reaper, his scythe sweeping up toward the center of the image. “Our death tolls every quarter hour, heard far and wide,” reads the poem that surrounds him. “Grandchildren are a blessing towards good fortune.”
Inevitably, anti-Semitism found its way into notgeld designs, as in a 50 pfennig note from 1921 from the municipality of Tostedt, which depicts two crude Jewish caricatures hanging from a tree and the accompanying caption: “So should it happen to all profiteers / Then things could be better for Germany.” (This notgeld in particular was later singled out for praise by the Nazi publication Niedersachsen-Stürmer in 1939.) Notgeld were created for the city of Sternberg in 1922 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the city’s burning at the stake of Jews, who were accused of mixing children’s blood into their matzoh. This kind of vile racism was rampant in a society eager to find scapegoats for its economic woes. Notgeld provided a platform for Germans’ baser instincts and fears, particularly in rural regions where bigotry and conspiracy theories were more endemic.
Though notgeld often reflected the worst parts of German culture, it also served as a canvas for some of the country’s best artists, who were hired by banks, local governments, or organizations to design limited-edition notes. Among the artists commissioned were Wenzel Hablik, whose notgeld work stands in sharp contrast to the idealism of his more well-known paintings, which imagined futuristic utopias. In 1921, Hablik produced a 1 mark note with an image of a figure squatting as he defecates the bill’s numeral “1,” along with the caption “Necessity knows no law!” hinting at both the extralegal need for notgeld and the fact that the bills weren’t worth, well, shit.
After 1922, inflation became exponentially worse and bills—both legal tender and notgeld—began appearing with higher and higher denominations. Two years after Hablik’s 1 mark note, he created another one, this time with a staggering denomination of 5 million marks (“fünf millionen”), written in the form of a wall of flames consuming a sinking ship. With notgeld, artists were free to convey the existential crisis of the moment. “There’s this sort of insane frenzy [to the art] because the denomination is increasing so rapidly,” Maynes explains. “But there’s also this kind of despair and chaos.”
A common motif on the back of notgeld during this time was a running list comparing contemporary, inflated prices to the prewar prices of 1913, making plain the impact of inflation. Often, these lists included ordinary items—Hablik’s 1 mark note has a list of shirts, boots, and so on—but a 1 trillion notgeld mark produced in the town of Vohwinkel in 1923 includes on its itemized list a coffin for 90 trillion marks, as if to say it was then too expensive to even die.
Ultimately, Germany's use of notgeld was perhaps one of the most audacious critiques of capitalism in the 20th century. In a time of economic collapse and rising fascism, money itself became a critique of money: It was treacherous, death-dealing, and in the end, not worth the paper it was printed on. Pulled from circulation at the end of 1923, with the introduction of a new currency backed by land (the Rentenmark), notgeld quickly faded from day-to-day life. But it's impact lingers on, bolstered by a collector's market that continues, stubbornly, to find value in this worthless currency.