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  • Notgeld: The emergency cash of hyperinflation

Object lesson

Notgeld: The emergency cash of hyperinflation

To combat the hyperinflation of the 1920s, Berlin started to print its own emergency money. We take a closer look.

This watermill in Reinickendorf was once owned by the von Humboldt brothers. Photo: DHM

In the early 1920s, Germany was in a dire economic situation. By 1923, prices were rocketing at a daily and even hourly rate. To combat this financial mayhem, different authorities began to print their own emergency cash, or Notgeld.

This 1921 series, displaying historic depictions of the city’s districts, can be found in the archives of Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum.


Grazing animals in Neukölln. Photo: DHM

All the scenes depicted on these notes are deliberately nostalgic. They show a time before Berlin had arrived at its state of chaotic modernity. This note shows Neukölln in 1820, when it was still the village of Rixdorf with grazing cows and goats.

The reality in 1921 was quite different. When these notes were in use, Neukölln was already an overcrowded workers’ district. Immediately after receiving their pay, those who could afford it would buy up long-lasting products – lard, rice, dried plums – which kept their value more reliably than currency. 


The southern gate of Berlin’s customs wall. Photo: DHM

Here we see Hallesches Tor in 1845, making this the most modern scene of the entire Berlin Notgeld series. This southern gate of Berlin’s former customs wall was one of the few places through which Jews were allowed to enter the city.

Each of these Berlin notes has the same modest value: 50 pfennigs. Local Notgeld was not subject to quite the same inflationary pressure as the nationwide Papiermark, so the values remained lower. As the official currency became worthless, agitators would take the notes and print over them a second time, adding Nazi or Communist propaganda messages. This was a cunning strategy: people were hesitant to throw away the money and would carry around these makeshift political leaflets.


This note was later amended to correct a mistake with the date. Photo: DHM

The depiction on this note is a little confusing. The date given is 1830, but the vessel depicted (the Prinzessin Charlotte von Preußen, Germany’s first steamship) had been sold for scrap in 1824. This mistake was amended on later printings.

Tiergarten was the site of a popular excursion spot known as In den Zelten (“In the tents”), because Huguenot traders once set up stalls there, offering refreshments. It played an important role as a meeting place during the political turmoil of 1848. Tellingly, none of the romantic Berlin scenes from this series are dated later than that year of revolution.


Dahlem village church has some of Berlin’s best preserved mediaeval murals. Photo: DHM

This is one of the oldest depictions from the Notgeld series. Dahlem village church was built in the 14th century and contains some of the most important mediaeval murals in Berlin. Even during inflation, these notes were probably a collector’s item, though Notgeld came in many forms. Money could be issued to fund local causes or printed with advertisements.

Improvised bills and coins even began to appear made from practical substances: wooden and porcelain coins, notes of silk or leather. A wooden coin could be burned; a silk note gathered with others and sewed into a garment. Rather than representing value, this material-money retained its value through how it could be used.