Exhibition:  Currency in crisis

Cryptocurrencies may be dazzling and high tech, but the challenges they have thrown at bankers’ feet are not necessarily new. An exhibit at the British Museum on notgeld, German paper currency issued by local governments and merchants in the 1910s and 1920s, speaks powerfully, if indirectly, to several burning issues of 2019.

Dangerous as it became for its role in Germany’s hyperinflation, notgeld in its heyday was an opportunity for local issuers to indulge their quirky side – something rarely seen in the world of money. Anyone who has ever stared in bafflement at the single-eye pyramid in the design of a US dollar bill will goggle at notes featuring a smirking cartoon turnip, a reference to a famine during the “turnip winter” of 1916-17 when Germans were forced to subsist on the vegetable typically used as animal feed.

There is plenty of social commentary and propaganda, of course, such as images showing what should happen to supposed profiteers from inflation (the desire to find villains in the arbiters of complex phenomena clearly was not just a 20th century issue, as high court judges labelled “enemies of the people” can attest). Anti-semitic caricatures are reminders of the period’s looming conflict. But there are also oddly lighthearted examples, particularly among those used by towns and regions to promote local products, such as notes made out of leather or silk, or tourist attractions: one note from the Harz Mountains boasts that it has the best witches.

The question of who gets to print money was effectively settled after the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, when countries agreed to better coordinate international exchange rates by exercising tighter control through their central banks. With cryptocurrency, the question has been reopened, but many threats are the same.

In 1923, when Germany ended hyperinflation by introducing the Rentenmark, it banned notgeld; the many issuers of the colourful and unusual notes had gone a bit rogue. You probably do not want regions like Duisburg printing their own 50-trillion mark notes whenever they feel like it. Or, for that matter, Facebook.

Currency in crisis: German emergency money, 1914 – 1924. The British Museum. To March 29, 2020. Free.

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Dave Morris

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