In August 1914, shortly before German forces swept into Belgium and captured the medieval city of Liège, the Allies commenced their naval blockade of the Central Powers, plunging their wartime economies into a state of crisis.

The aim of the blockade, in the first instance, was to stifle German exports rather than prevent imports. In time, it was hoped, British goods could seize important markets and requisition German trading links. But the German war economy was a far more adaptable and intelligent machine than its enemies had supposed. Not for the last time it absorbed these early shocks, rebounding bigger and better. Despite the gradual collapse of exports, the blockade’s effects were simply offset by the surplus of labour it had inadvertently produced.

Instead of choking access to vital goods, the brains trust of the Prussian War Ministry, including the eminent industrialist Walther Rathenau, skilfully channelled the surplus manpower and machinery into more crucial areas of the war economy. In 1915 German munitions production boomed. But by the end of 1916 no amount of ingenuity could placate the mounting crisis. Through the war’s harshest winter, the price of foodstuffs rocketed, with rationing soon leading to severe food shortages, even starvation.

The German word Ersatz (meaning ‘substitute’) thus acquired a special significance in the period 1914 to 1918. It denoted not merely the substitution of essential consumer goods – Ersatz clothes, bread, tea – but also vital war matériel, including petrol, rubber and metal. Coinage in particular, especially small denomination Reichsmarks, became increasingly rare, as the bank ceased supply and eventually lost control of the currency altogether. When Germany surrendered in 1918 it had practically vanished.

From 1914 onwards, Ersatz Marks or Pfenninge were introduced as a convenient paper alternative. Printed fast and distributed widely, it was known as Notgeld, ‘emergency money’ and it was used to stem the chronic coin shortage. Regional banks and independent institutions rushed to issue their own paper currency. The British Museum’s exhibition (now closed for the duration), Currency in Crisis: German Emergency Money, draws on a rich collection of Notgeld, spanning the First World War to the beginnings of Weimar and the hyperinflation of the early twenties. Over the course of that turbulent decade Notgeld underwent several evolutions, making it one of the most enthralling and dynamic artefacts of the interwar period.

In its original form it was devised as a quick-fire antidote to combat the lack of metal coinage. The first notes were plain and largely featureless, marked by an elementary design, which sometimes included short patriotic epithets or symbols.

A simple note from the first week of the First World War, issued in West Prussia, modern-day Poland. The inscription reads ‘God with Us’ – an infamous slogan that German soldiers had inscribed on their belt buckles. © Trustees of the British Museum

By 1917, however, the designs were becoming more elaborate, as they began to address popular wartime themes of civilian morale and relief on the home-front.

100 Mark Notgeld note from Braunschweig from October 1918, one month before the armistice. The note depicts a soldier, a worker, a mother and Death itself. Part of the inscription reads: “I accompany hard times” © Trustees of the British Museum

Hidden and often subversive messages were employed to protest various subjects ranging from the food shortages of the so-called ‘Turnip Winter’ to the American entrance into the war. Yet speed of printing, rather than aesthetic consideration, remained the chief concern of its distributors.

25 pfennig ‘turnip’ Notgeld note from Bielefeld, 1917 © Trustees of the British Museum

At the end of the war Notgeld did not disappear from circulation. Instead it turned from an essential substitute to a stylish collectible and popular hobby. While municipalities and businesses continued issuing emergency money to raise post war incomes, the design of the notes began to explode with creativity and colour. Iconography and illustration became essential to its making, as new and diverse designs proliferated throughout Germany, each adorned with their own regional styles and inflections.

25 Pfennig Notgeld note from Bad Oeynhausen, 1921. the note is commenting on the political strife of the early Weimar Republic © Trustees of the British Museum

The currency soon became a visual travelogue of Germany, of its history and culture, of its beauty and even its malice. Historical figures, like Luther and Gutenberg, as well as other landmarks and industries were portrayed in vibrant and often arresting sketches, which promoted tourism and travel just as it did local identity and character.

The reverse side of a beautifully designed Notgeld from Oelde, Westphalia, 1921. © Trustees of the British Museum

Bremen used Notgeld to celebrate its famous port and trade; Pritzwalk issued a series chronicling its local myths and legends; Münster used it to depict historic scenes from the Anabaptist rebellion of the sixteenth century; and the medieval town of Lüneburg used it to boast of its bucolic reserves and scenic tourist destinations. The currency also attracted distinguished artists and designers, such as Herbert Bayer, who created Notgeld in the functionalist style of the Bauhaus school.

The front side of a Notgeld from Verden, 1921. © Trustees of the British Museum
A 1 million mark note from Thuringia, 1923. The note was designed by the Bauhaus © Trustees of the British Museum

But Notgeld should not be mistaken as quaint postcards to be conveyed to well-meaning relatives. They stretched well beyond prosaic notions of Germanic charm and nostalgia, flirting with the grotesque and fantastical: notes festooned with ghouls and witches, as well as other literary figures from Faust and the Brothers Grimm. Moreover, they tapped into old prejudices, often capturing Jews as greedy capitalists, misers and Christ killers.

A Notgeld from the Harz Mountains, 1921. The note alludes to famous legends about witches in the region. © Trustees of the British Museum
A 500-mark note made out of silk from Bielefeld. The note included an anti-American theme and laments the decay of (Christian) morals during the financial crisis © Trustees of the British Museum

Importantly, the idea of a substitute or replacement currency was not new — its historical roots are almost as old as money itself. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, the powerful feudal lords of Japan sanctioned the use of Hansatsu to relieve the shortage of gold, silver and copper coinage. Like its Notgeld equivalent, each fief (Han) distributed its own version of Hansatsu, which was set out on oblong strips of parchment, inscribed in Kanji and accompanied by a sketch of one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. But the extent to which Notgeld was changed and repurposed made it a far more dynamic monetary instrument, utterly unique in the history of numismatics.

Notgeld from Bitterfeld, 1921. The note depicts a train transporting coal to France as part of the Treaty of Versailles. There is a small Eiffel tower on the left of the note. © Trustees of the British Museum

Whereas the first phase of Notgeld was produced to meet urgent needs, the currency’s new, post-war phase was attended by avid collectors, clubs and a popular journal. In 1922 the government tried to stop the use of the currency, fearing long-term economic damage. But Notgeld made an astonishing comeback, as the hyperinflation of the early twenties dragged it back into mainstream circulation. The exhibitions’ display of a one milliarde note (one billion) and a plain ten milliarde note (ten billion) is a chilling reminder of the disasters that befell Germany during the hyperinflation.

Reichsbank note with 1 milliarde mark overprint from the hyperinflation, 1923 © Trustees of the British Museum

The success of Notgeld rested not merely on the novelty and elegance of its designs, but also on its capacity to illuminate the kaleidoscopic range of German memory and experience. The curator of the exhibition, Johannes Hartmann, does well to synthesise Notgeld’s complex evolutions in such a compact space. As well as articulating the dramatic shifts in innovation and design, the exhibition offers a rare insight into the German psyche during one of its most troubling epochs.