Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic

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Piles of new Notgeld banknotes awaiting distribution at the Reichsbank, during the hyperinflation. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R1215-506, Berlin, Reichsbank, Geldauflieferungsstelle.jpg
Piles of new Notgeld banknotes awaiting distribution at the Reichsbank, during the hyperinflation.

Hyperinflation affected the German Papiermark, the currency of the Weimar Republic, between 1921 and 1923. It caused considerable internal political instability in the country, the occupation of the Ruhr by France and Belgium as well as misery for the general populace.

Hyperinflation Rapidly accelerating inflation

In economics, hyperinflation is very high and typically accelerating inflation. It quickly erodes the real value of the local currency, as the prices of all goods increase. This causes people to minimize their holdings in that currency as they usually switch to more stable foreign currencies, often the US Dollar. Prices typically remain stable in terms of other relatively stable currencies.

German Papiermark currency of germany from 1914-1923

The name Papiermark is applied to the German currency from 4 August 1914 when the link between the Goldmark and gold was abandoned, due to the outbreak of World War I. In particular, the name is used for the banknotes issued during the hyperinflation in Germany of 1922 and especially 1923.

Weimar Republic Germany state in the years 1918/1919–1933

The Weimar Republic is an unofficial historical designation for the German state from 1918 to 1933. The name derives from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly first took place. The official name of the republic remained Deutsches Reich unchanged from 1871, because of the German tradition of substates. Although commonly translated as ’German Empire’, the word Reich here better translates as ’realm’, in that the term does not have monarchical connotations in itself. The Reich was changed from a constitutional monarchy into a republic. In English, the country was usually known simply as Germany.

Contents

Background

To pay for the large costs of the ongoing First World War, Germany suspended the gold standard (the convertibility of its currency to gold) when the war broke out. Unlike France, which imposed its first income tax to pay for the war, German Emperor Wilhelm II and the Reichstag decided unanimously to fund the war entirely by borrowing, [1] a decision criticized by financial experts such as Hjalmar Schacht as a dangerous risk for currency devaluation. [2]

Gold standard monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold

A gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. The gold standard was widely used in the 19th and early part of the 20th century. Most nations abandoned the gold standard as the basis of their monetary systems at some point in the 20th century, although many still hold substantial gold reserves. In a 2012 survey of leading economists, they unanimously opined that a return to the gold standard would not benefit the average American.

French Third Republic Nation of France from 1870 to 1940

The French Third Republic was the system of government adopted in France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War, until 10 July 1940 after France's defeat by Nazi Germany in World War II led to the formation of the Vichy government in France.

An income tax is a tax imposed on individuals or entities (taxpayers) that varies with respective income or profits. Income tax generally is computed as the product of a tax rate times taxable income. Taxation rates may vary by type or characteristics of the taxpayer.

The government believed that it would be able to pay off the debt by winning the war, when it would be able to annex resource-rich industrial territory in the west and east. Also, it would be able to impose massive reparations on the defeated Allies. [3] The exchange rate of the mark against the US dollar thus steadily devalued from 4.2 to 7.9 marks per dollar, a preliminary to the extreme postwar inflation. [4]

The strategy failed when Germany lost the war. The new Weimar Republic was saddled with a massive war debt that it could not afford. That was worsened by the fact that it was printing money without economic resources to back it. [3] The Treaty of Versailles, with its demand for reparations, further accelerated the decline in the value of the mark, so that 48 paper marks were required to buy a US dollar by late 1919. [5]

Treaty of Versailles one of the treaties that ended the First World War

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to an end. The Treaty ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to the war. The other Central Powers on the German side signed separate treaties. Although the armistice, signed on 11 November 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the League of Nations on 21 October 1919.

World War I reparations were war reparations imposed during the Paris Peace Conference upon the Central Powers following their defeat in the First World War by the Allied and Associate Powers. Each of the defeated powers was required to make payments in either cash or kind. Because of the financial situation Austria, Hungary, and Turkey found themselves in after the war, few to no reparations were paid and the requirements for reparations were cancelled. Bulgaria, having paid only a fraction of what was required, saw its reparation figure reduced and then cancelled. Historians have recognized the German requirement to pay reparations as the "chief battleground of the post-war era" and "the focus of the power struggle between France and Germany over whether the Versailles Treaty was to be enforced or revised".

German currency was relatively stable at about 90 marks per dollar during the first half of 1921. [6] Because the WWI Western Front had been mostly in France and Belgium, Germany came out of the war with most of its industrial infrastructure intact. It was in a better position to become the dominant economic force on the European continent. [7]

Western Front (World War I) Main theatre of war during the First World War

The Western Front was the main theatre of war during the First World War. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by invading Luxembourg and Belgium, then gaining military control of important industrial regions in France. The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the Marne. Following the Race to the Sea, both sides dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France, which changed little except during early 1917 and in 1918.

France Republic in Europe with several non-European regions

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.02 million. France is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

Belgium Federal constitutional monarchy in Western Europe

Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a sovereign state in Western Europe. It is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast, France to the southwest, and the North Sea to the northwest. It covers an area of 30,688 km2 (11,849 sq mi) and has a population of more than 11.4 million. The capital and largest city is Brussels; other major cities are Antwerp, Ghent, Charleroi and Liège.

In April 1921, the Reparations Commission announced the "London payment plan", under which Germany would pay reparations in gold or foreign currency in annual installments of 2 billion gold marks, plus 26% of the value of Germany's exports; this was accepted by Germany after an Allied ultimatum the following month. [8]

The first payment was made when it came due in June 1921. [9] It marked the beginning of an increasingly rapid devaluation of the mark, which fell in value to approximately 330 marks per dollar. [5] The total reparations demanded were 132 billion gold marks, but Germany had to pay only 50 billion marks. [10]

Since reparations were required to be repaid in hard currency, not the rapidly depreciating paper mark, one strategy that Germany used was the mass printing of bank notes to buy foreign currency, which was then used to pay reparations, greatly exacerbating the inflation of the paper mark. [11] [12]

Late in 1922, Germany failed to pay France an installment of reparations on time, and France responded in January 1923 by sending troops to occupy the Ruhr, Germany's main industrial region. The German government ordered a policy of passive resistance in the Ruhr. Workers were told to do nothing which helped the invaders in any way. What this meant in practice was a general strike. But all the workers on strike had to be given financial support. The government paid its way by printing more and more banknotes. Germany was soon awash with paper money. The result was a hyperinflation. [13] A loaf of bread that in Berlin cost around 160 Marks at the end of 1922 cost 200,000,000,000 Marks less than a year later. [13]

Hyperinflation

Weimar Republic hyperinflation from one to a trillion paper marks per gold mark; values on logarithmic scale. Germany Hyperinflation.svg
Weimar Republic hyperinflation from one to a trillion paper marks per gold mark; values on logarithmic scale.

From August 1921, Germany began to buy foreign currency with marks at any price, but that only increased the speed of breakdown in the value of the mark. [14] As the mark sank in international markets, more and more marks were required to buy the foreign currency that was demanded by the Reparations Commission. [12]

In the first half of 1922, the mark stabilized at about 320 marks per dollar. [5] International reparations conferences were being held. One, in June 1922, was organized by US investment banker J. P. Morgan, Jr. [15] The meetings produced no workable solution, and inflation erupted into hyperinflation, the mark falling to 7,400 marks per US dollar by December 1922. [5] The cost-of-living index was 41 in June 1922 and 685 in December, a 15-fold increase.

By fall 1922, Germany found itself unable to make reparations payments. [16] The mark was by now practically worthless, making it impossible for Germany to buy foreign exchange or gold using paper marks. Instead, reparations were to be paid in goods such as coal. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the industrial region of Germany in the Ruhr valley to ensure reparations payments. Inflation was exacerbated when workers in the Ruhr went on a general strike and the German government printed more money to continue paying for their passive resistance. [17] By November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks. [18]

Stabilization

The hyperinflation crisis led prominent economists and politicians to seek a means to stabilize German currency. In August 1923, an economist, Karl Helfferich, proposed a plan to issue a new currency, the "Roggenmark" ("rye mark"), to be backed by mortgage bonds indexed to the market price of rye grain. The plan was rejected because of the greatly fluctuating price of rye in paper marks.

Agriculture Minister Hans Luther proposed a plan that substituted gold for rye and led to the issuance of the Rentenmark ("mortgage mark"), backed by bonds indexed to the market price of gold. [19] The gold bonds were indexed at the rate of 2790 gold marks per kilogram of gold, the same as the pre-war gold marks. Rentenmarks were not redeemable in gold but only indexed to the gold bonds. The plan was adopted in monetary reform decrees, on October 13–15, 1923. A new bank, the Rentenbank, was set up and controlled by new German Finance Minister Hans Luther.

Two Rentenmark note, issued in line with the Decree of 15 October 1923 Zwei Rentenmark a.jpg
Two Rentenmark note, issued in line with the Decree of 15 October 1923

After November 12, 1923, when Hjalmar Schacht became currency commissioner, Germany's central bank (the Reichsbank) was not allowed to discount any further government Treasury bills, which meant the corresponding issue of paper marks also ceased. [20] The discounting of commercial trade bills was allowed and the amount of Rentenmarks expanded, but the issue was strictly controlled to conform to current commercial and government transactions. The Rentenbank refused credit to the government and to speculators who were not able to borrow Rentenmarks, because Rentenmarks were not legal tender. [21]

On November 16, 1923, the new Rentenmark was introduced to replace the worthless paper marks issued by the Reichsbank. Twelve zeros were cut from prices, and the prices quoted in the new currency remained stable.

When the president of the Reichsbank, Rudolf Havenstein, died on November 20, 1923, Schacht was appointed to replace him. By November 30, 1923, there were 500,000,000 Rentenmarks in circulation, which increased to 1,000,000,000 by January 1, 1924 and to 1,800,000,000 Rentenmarks by July 1924. Meanwhile, the old paper Marks continued in circulation. The total paper marks increased to 1.2 sextillion (1,200,000,000,000,000,000,000) in July 1924 and continued to fall in value to a third of their conversion value in Rentenmarks. [21]

On August 30, 1924, a monetary law permitted the exchange of a 1-trillion paper mark note to a new Reichsmark, worth the same as a Rentenmark. By 1924 one dollar was equivalent to 4.2 Rentenmark.

Revaluation

Conversion Table Img-Z121706-0001.jpg
Conversion Table

Eventually, some debts were reinstated to compensate creditors partially for the catastrophic reduction in the value of debts that had been quoted in paper marks before the hyperinflation. A decree of 1925 reinstated some mortgages at 25% of face value in the new currency, effectively 25,000,000,000 times their value in the old paper marks, if they had been held for at least five years. Similarly, some government bonds were reinstated at 2.5% of face value, to be paid after reparations were paid. [22]

Mortgage debt was reinstated at much higher rates than government bonds were. The reinstatement of some debts and a resumption of effective taxation in a still-devastated economy triggered a wave of corporate bankruptcies.

One of the important issues of the stabilization of a hyperinflation is the revaluation. The term normally refers to the raising of the exchange rate of one national currency against other currencies. As well, it can mean revalorization, the restoration of the value of a currency depreciated by inflation. The German government had the choice of a revaluation law to finish the hyperinflation quickly or of allowing sprawling and the political and violent disturbances on the streets. The government argued in detail that the interests of creditors and debtors had to be fair and balanced. Neither the living standard price index nor the share price index was judged as relevant.

The calculation of the conversion relation was considerably judged to the dollar index as well as to the wholesale price index. In principle, the German government followed the line of market-oriented reasoning that the dollar index and the wholesale price index would roughly indicate the true price level in general over the period of high inflation and hyperinflation. In addition, the revaluation was bound on the exchange rate mark and United States dollar to obtain the value of the Goldmark. [23]

Finally, the Law on the Revaluation of Mortgages and other Claims of 16 July 1925 (Gesetz über die Aufwertung von Hypotheken und anderen Ansprüchen or Aufwertungsgesetze) included only the ratio of the paper mark to the gold mark for the period from January 1, 1918, to November 30, 1923, and the following days. [24] The galloping inflation thus caused the end of a principle, "a mark is worth a mark", which had been recognized, the nominal value principle. [25]

The law was challenged in the Supreme Court of the German Reich ( Reichsgericht ), but its 5th Senate ruled, on November 4, 1925, that the law was constitutional, even according to the Bill of Rights and Duties of Germans (Articles 109, 134, 152 and 153 of the Constitution). [26] [27] [28] The case set a precedent for judicial review in German jurisprudence. [29]

Analysis

The hyperinflation episode in the Weimar Republic in the early 1920s was not the first or even the most severe instance of inflation in history (the Hungarian pengő and Zimbabwean dollar, for example, have been even more inflated). However, it has been the subject of the most scholarly economic analysis and debate. The hyperinflation drew significant interest, as many of the dramatic and unusual economic behaviors now associated with hyperinflation were first documented systematically: exponential increases in prices and interest rates, redenomination of the currency, consumer flight from cash to hard assets and the rapid expansion of industries that produced those assets.

German monetary economics was at that time heavily influenced by Chartalism and the German Historical School, which conditioned the way the hyperinflation was analyzed. [30]

John Maynard Keynes described the situation in The Economic Consequences of the Peace : "The inflationism of the currency systems of Europe has proceeded to extraordinary lengths. The various belligerent Governments, unable, or too timid or too short-sighted to secure from loans or taxes the resources they required, have printed notes for the balance."

It was during then that French and British economic experts began to claim that Germany deliberately destroyed its economy to avoid war reparations, but both governments had conflicting views on how to handle the situation. The French declared that Germany should keep paying reparations, but Britain sought to grant a moratorium to allow financial reconstruction. [7]

Reparations accounted for about a third of the German deficit from 1920 to 1923 [31] and so were cited by the German government as one of the main causes of hyperinflation. Other causes cited included bankers and speculators (particularly foreign). Hyperinflation reached its peak by November 1923 [32] but ended when a new currency (the Rentenmark) was introduced. To make way for the new currency, banks "turned the marks over to junk dealers by the ton" [33] to be recycled as paper.

Aftermath

Germany, 1923: banknotes had lost so much value that they were used as wallpaper. Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00104, Inflation, Tapezieren mit Geldscheinen.jpg
Germany, 1923: banknotes had lost so much value that they were used as wallpaper.

Since the hyperinflation, German monetary policy has retained a central concern with the maintenance of a sound currency, a concern that still affects Germany's attitude to the European sovereign debt crisis from 2009. [34]

The hyperinflated, worthless marks became widely collected abroad. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 1924 that more of the decommissioned notes were spread about the US than existed in Germany. [33]

The cause of the immense acceleration of prices seemed unclear and unpredictable to those who lived through it, but in retrospect, it was relatively simple. The Treaty of Versailles imposed a huge debt on Germany that could be paid only in gold or foreign currency. With its gold depleted, the German government attempted to buy foreign currency with German currency, [14] equivalent to selling German currency in exchange for payment in foreign currency, but the resulting increase in the supply of German marks on the market caused the German mark to fall rapidly in value, which greatly increased the number of marks needed to buy more foreign currency.

That caused German prices of goods to rise rapidly, increasing the cost of operating the German government, which could not be financed by raising taxes because those taxes would be payable in the ever-falling German currency. The alternative was some combination of running a budget deficit and simply creating more money, both increasing the supply of German currency on the market and reducing that currency's price. When the German people realized that their money was rapidly losing value, they tried to spend it quickly. That increased monetary velocity and caused an ever-faster increase in prices, creating a vicious cycle. [35]

The government and the banks had two unacceptable alternatives. If they stopped inflation, there would be immediate bankruptcies, unemployment, strikes, hunger, violence, collapse of civil order, insurrection and possibly even revolution. [36] If they continued the inflation, they would default on their foreign debt.

However, attempting to avoid both unemployment and insolvency ultimately failed when Germany had both. [36]

See also

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References

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  3. 1 2 Evans, p. 103.
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  18. Coffin; "Western Civilizations"; p. 918
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  21. 1 2 Fergusson, Chapter 13
  22. Fergusson, Chapter 14
  23. Fischer 2010, p. 83.
  24. Fischer 2010, p. 84.
  25. Fischer 2010, p. 87.
  26. Friedrich 1928, p. 197.
  27. RGZ III, 325
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  32. Fischer 2010, p. 64.
  33. 1 2 Americans With Marks Out of Luck, Cable and Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, 15 Nov 1924
  34. Greece bailout: What's the future of the euro?, Ben Quinn, Christian Science Monitor, 28 March 2010
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  36. 1 2 Fergusson; When Money Dies; p. 254

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