Hyperinflation Gone Mad: When German Children Made Kites From Money

National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Early in 1922, the German Papiermark—the currency of the Weimar Republic—was valued at around 200 Marks to the U.S. dollar. By November 1923, that figure had risen to 4,200,000,000,000. Put another way, if you had just U.S. $1 to your name, in 1920s Germany you would have been a multi-trillionaire.

How did such an absurd exchange rate come about? Precisely what set the wheels of hyperinflation and devaluation in motion in post-war Germany is debatable, but arguably the entire process began almost a decade earlier, at the dawn of the First World War.

With its efforts to secure victory in Europe in full swing, the German government opted to suspend the Mark’s gold standard—the relationship between the value of currency and the price of gold—and fund its on-going and ever-enlarging military operations by borrowing. It was an immense risk, solely reliant on one thing to succeed: Germany had to win the war.

Victory in the war, Germany presumed, would solve everything. The annexation of other European nations and their economies and assets, as well as the costly war reparations paid by the soon-to-be-defeated Allies, would together offset all the economic consequences of such a risky strategy. But unfortunately for Germany, the plan backfired. They lost the war, and by 1918, the Mark had already almost halved in value and Germany had accrued colossal international debts.

Not only that, but being on the losing side of the war meant that the costly punitive reparations the German government had intended to profit from were now being imposed on them. This only served to worsen things throughout the early 1920s, and when the government began to buy foreign currency at any price just to meet its financial obligations, the value of the Mark collapsed ever further. Inflation soon spiraled into hyperinflation—eventually peaking at a rate of 3,250,000 percent per month—and Germany quickly fell behind on its repayments.

In response, France and Belgium took control of the country’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, in 1923, but that only served to add fuel to the fire.

The German government called on workers in the Ruhr to put down tools and resist the occupation, promising that while doing so they would continue to receive a wage from the state. The strikes, protests and campaign of passive resistance that followed all but ground industry in the Ruhr to a halt, crippling the German economy even further, while the occupation sparked a new international crisis.

For some, the occupation of the Ruhr was considered controversial and a punitive step too far. Tensions grew between the French (who had their own post-war economic problems) and the British (some of whom grew sympathetic to Germany’s position, and saw the French response as a new imperialist threat). Finally, with growing pressure from the United States, an interim agreement was drawn up by future Vice President Charles G. Dawes that lowered and staggered Germany’s reparation payments. The Ruhr occupation was brought to an end, briefly kick-starting the German economy, and for his work on the crisis Dawes was the co-recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize (the other winner was Sir Austen Chamberlain). But in the long term, the Dawes Plan failed—and even by the time it was implemented the damage to the German economy had already been done.

To combat the French occupation, the Reichsbank was being forced to churn out ever more banknotes just to function on a daily basis. Printing presses were commandeered by the state for no reason other than to print ever greater quantities of cash. In May 1923, there were 8.6 billion Marks in circulation in the country; by November there were 400 quintillion. In response, the value of the Papiermark spiraled out of control.

As the numbers on German bank notes soared to 50 trillion, daily life for the German people became increasingly absurd.

Bundesarchiv, Bild / Pahl, Georg via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE

Paper currency was by now next to worthless. Employees collected their wages in wheelbarrows and suitcases more valuable than the money inside them. Banknotes were used as wallpaper and kindling to light stoves. Children played with bundles of cash in the street, cut up piles of Marks to make confetti and paper chains, and even crafted kites out of money. Shopkeepers shunned currency altogether and switched to bartering to maintain the value of their goods and services. Astonishingly, the price of one egg in 1923 would have bought you 500 billion eggs just five years earlier.

Waiters in cafés and restaurants were now reportedly mounting tables to announce price changes to their menus every 30 minutes; by the summer of 1923, patrons might sit down to a meal in a German restaurant only to find they couldn’t afford it half an hour later. One famous anecdote involves a gentleman who drank two cups of coffee, priced at 5000 Marks each, at a coffee house in Hamburg, only to be presented with a bill for 14,000 Marks. When he queried the cost with his waiter, he was told that he should have ordered the two drinks at the same time—the price had nearly doubled in the time it had taken him to drink one cup.

The crisis finally abated in the winter of 1923, when the German government introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, backed up by the mortgage value of agricultural and commercial land. Valued at the old rate of 4.2 to the dollar, one Rentenmark was ultimately equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000 of the Weimar’s Papiermarks, and returned the Mark to the same exchange rate it had been at before the war. The “Miracle of the Rentenmark,” as it was hailed, brought to an end one of the most extraordinary periods of hyperinflation in history.

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.