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By Graeme Petterwood | Wednesday, February 4, 1998

On 28th. June 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo in Bosnia by a group of young anarchists. This tragedy culminated in a declaration of war by Austria, on Bosnia and Serbia - who were held responsible for the murders. Austria- Hungary, prompted by its greatest ally, the German Empire, had been looking for an excuse to invade Serbia - which they did on 28th.July 1914. The German Empire has been formed by an expansionist Prussia in 1871 and it was obsessed with the fear that Russia and the other Slavic states would rise again to make war on Germany. They considered that it would be better to strike first and gain the advantage. However, the numerous treaties, obligations and political deals that had been arranged throughout Europe by all the other paranoid nations meant that escalation was a foregone conclusion. As the war progressed to encompass all of Europe by 4th. August 1914, greater demands were placed on the economy of the German Empire and the hoarding of precious metals, including coinage, became a 'fact of life' even up to corporate levels.

Left : 10 Heller. Issued by the community of Gairnfarn, Austria, 26th. May, 1920. Redemption date was 31st. December 1920. The note was signed by the Burgermeister and three councillors. It was designed by Robert Leitner and printed in Vienna.
Right : 80 Heller. Issued by the community of Grunbach bei Freistadt, Austria, 16th. May,1920. Redemption date was 31st. January 1921. The note is signed by the Burgermeister and his Deputy. It was designed by L.Haase of Linz.

The  Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his hierarchy, had decided that it would be quicker to print notes suitable for some of the countries that were either occupied by the German Army, or those who had allied themselves to the Empire, than to devote the hard currency, manpower, time and essential resources that would be needed for the manufacture of armaments and munitions, to such a trivial thing as the production of small change! With the worsening coinage shortage at home, and the German government's actions as an example, the alternative was soon forth-coming!

A Cheap Alternative.

The decision to print locally acceptable, small change 'trading' currencies, with a redemption date, was quickly made at district levels, by German and Austrian-Hungarian Burgermeisters (mayors) and their councils, to suit the needs of their immediate community, town or city. Soon the practice became widespread throughout the Empire, with many businesses also printing their own notgeld, as the metal coinages disappeared rapidly from the banks and the pockets of the public.

The first reported issue, totalling only 100 Mark, was made as early as July 31st. 1914 by the Buergerliches Brauhaus GmbH, Bremen, in values of 1, 2, and 2.5 Mark, on heavy paper, with hand-written signatures but not serial numbered.

So many instances have now been recorded, and more are still coming to the notice of those that specialise in this area of collecting, that it is obvious that hundreds of thousands of different value notgeld were in the German Empire's economy during 1914 -18.

The notgeld from one area was often acceptable or interchangeable in near-by areas but, like any situation that requires a certain amount of trust, there were also those who would arrange for the sale and distribution into general circulation of huge amounts of unsecured notes, that were nearly past their 'use-by date', and then to dishonour the late redemptions to make a tidy profit. Because of the 'unofficial' nature of the local currency and the naivety of some of the issuers in those early days, the abusers of the system were quick to take advantage of any loopholes.

Some entrepreneurs even printed their own spurious paper notes, and over 110 instances are known where whole denomination ranges of bogus notgeld notes were manufactured in the Hamburg area for districts that didn't even exist.

Because of the sheer scale of the frauds, these notes would often be accepted and circulate for months until the redemption dates became due and then - there would be no-where to redeem them! (It is an interesting fact that many of these 'fake' notgeld  are now acceptable collectibles in their own right!)

The German Lemon.

Even after the Great War was over, the practice of issuing notgeld continued because of the hyper-inflation that had built up in the defeated German Empire, when it was forced to pay crippling compensation payments, in hard currency, for it's 'aggression'. The politically conceived wording of Article 231 in the Treaty of Versailles surrender document, bluntly implied that the Germans had admitted 'national guilt' for all the lives and material lost in the war and would be made to pay for them totally, by way of compensation - even though the victors knew that the beaten and bankrupted Empire could not hope to do so! Because of an intransigent belief by France and, in part, by Great Britain, that Germany still had the means to recover after the Armistice, their solution was to force the country to it's knees, financially. The harsh system of reparation was applied and, over the following 20 years, the German Empire was bled dry and it's colonial holdings were seized by other smaller countries, who had participated in the war and demanded their 'share of the spoils'. One English politician, Sir Auckland Geddes, stated, 'We will squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak...'

Little did they know that they were pushing this proud and once prosperous country towards a  bitter scenario that spelt future disaster for countless millions. Every country that had been involved on the Allied side, no matter how remotely, had put in a claim - in some cases without true justification - which Germany was forced to pay. 'Of the 32 nations that were represented at the peace conference in 1919, some of them did not exist in 1914 and 22 of them were non-European.'

Coupled with years of inflation, political turmoil and the national humiliation that had fed on the implied 'guilt' that was written into the documents of 1919, the stage was being set for Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich- and the introduction of ghetto and concentration camp notgeld which would gain a terrible and sinister history when the world was again at war with Germany between 1939- 45.

Quantity not Quality!

In recent years, because of the numismatic interest in notgeld, fantasy issues have appeared which have further confused an already chaotic situation, so collectors - beware! Notgeld expert, the late Dr. Arnold Keller (b.Jan.31st.1897-d.Dec.13th.1972), recorded that in 1914, 452 localities issued 5,500 notes and between 1916-22, small notes (under 1 mark value), were issued from 3,658 place and totalled 36,000 notes while large notes (over 1 Mark) came from 579 places and totalled over 5,000 notes.

The German Reichsbank had issued 300 basic types and 30,000 varieties, while the German colonies issued another 3,800 notes, during World War I. When the inflation started to escalate out of control in 1922 -23, 800 places issued 4,000 notes between 10 -1000 mark and another 5,849 places issued 70,000 notes ranging from 1000 mark upwards. Dr. Keller also stated that the figures, quoted in his reports, were subject to correction due to many other institutions having issued notgeld and the records had been lost or destroyed during the war, e.g. Concentration camps and P.O.W. camps. For those who are interested in collecting 1914 -23 German or Austrian notgeld it is suggested that you specialise in any one of the theme aspects e.g. Pictorial Themes - Animals, Buildings etc....., as even  Dr. Keller acknowledged - it is nearly a hopeless task to put together a definitive range of German Empire notgeld.

A Guide and Checklist of World Notgeld 1914-1947.  by Courtney L. Coffing Published by Krause Publications (Second Printing) 1988.
History of World War I.     Editor-in-Chief A.J.P.Taylor. Published by Octopus Books Limited. London. 1974.