It was the Depression and not rampant inflation that drove German voters into the arms of the Nazisby Richard J Evans / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Children play with wads of cash in Germany, 1923. (© Universal History Archive/UIG/Rex)
The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury, £25)
The hyperinflation experienced by the Weimar Republic, Germany’s fledgling democracy, in 1923, was later far exceeded by the collapse of monetary values in Hungary in 1946, Yugoslavia in 1994 and Zimbabwe in 2008. But it has often been argued that its consequences were more deadly than those of any of these more precipitate descents into financial chaos. It was the loss of their income and savings, many people subsequently concluded, that drove the German middle classes into the arms of the Nazis, who promised to cure Germany’s economic ills, restore prosperity, and rescue the German people from economic instability after years of financial chaos and impoverishment.
The statistics themselves are mind-boggling: by the height of the inflation, a pound of bread cost three billion marks and a glass of beer four billion. In November 1923, you needed 2.5 trillion marks to buy a US dollar, by December 4.2 trillion. Families collected their pay packets in baskets or even wheelbarrows and spent them all immediately on enough supplies to last them until the next payday, before they lost their value. The government’s printing presses could not keep up with the rapidly changing denominations of notes, from thousands to millions to billions, and local authorities started producing emergency banknotes, printed on one side of the paper only.
In his new study, The Downfall of Money, aimed at a wide readership, Frederick Taylor argues that the inflation destroyed democracy as well as monetary value. By the time the inflation reached its height, he says, “everyone wanted a dictatorship.” And certainly, as the value of the mark spiralled downwards in 1923, it looked to some as if the political system was disintegrating: communists and socialists threatened an uprising in Saxony and Thuringia, and actually staged one in Germany’s second-biggest city, Hamburg; the French were occupying the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr, taking what they could in the way of coal and other products, and ruthlessly suppressing the ultra-nationalist resistance movements that were beginning to take action against them; above all, Hitler, hitherto an obscure far-right politician in Munich, staged a putsch against the authorities, marching from a beer hall on the…