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Personal Accounts of the Inflation Years (1919-1924)

During the inflation years, people who had saved their money in banks or were living on pensions or disability checks found themselves bankrupt. Those with jobs found that their salary increases could not possibly keep up with the almost instantaneous rise in prices. Artist George Grosz described what shopping was like in those days.

Lingering at the [shop] window was a luxury because shopping had to be done immediately. Even an additional minute meant an increase in price. One had to buy quickly because a rabbit, for example, might cost two million marks more by the time it took to walk into the store. A few million marks meant nothing, really. It was just that it meant more lugging. The packages of money needed to buy the smallest item had long since become too heavy for trouser pockets. They weighed many pounds. . . . People had to start carting their money around in wagons and knapsacks. I used a knapsack. 1

Under the leadership of Gustav Stresemann, a conservative politician who supported the republic, the government eventually brought inflation under control. But it took time and many people could not forget that the government had allowed it to happen. One German expressed their feelings when he wrote:

Of course all the little people who had small savings were wiped out. But the big factories and banking houses and multimillionaires didn't seem to be affected at all. They went right on piling up their millions. Those big holdings were protected somehow from loss. But the mass of the people were completely broke. And we asked ourselves, "How can that happen? How is it that the government can't control an inflation which wipes out the life savings of the mass of people but the big capitalists can come through the whole thing unscathed?" We who lived through it never got an answer that meant anything. But after that, even those people who used to save didn't trust money anymore, or the government. We decided to have a high-ho time whenever we had any spare money, which wasn't often.2

In a letter Bertha Pappenheim wrote in 1923, she recounts the story of a trip she took in Germany to inspect some foster homes. In this excerpt, she talks about the impact of inflation on German citizens:

We traveled from Isenburg to Frankfurt, where Emmy debarked, then continued by a roundabout way. It was cold; heat did not reach our car. We changed trains in Eberstadt. To understand the conditions in Germany, one only has to look and listen in a fourth-class car; tired, worn, angry faces. And what rags, what talk! How one has to slave to earn nothing at all. All those millions buy nothing. Bread is 600 billions (today, 850 billions). A pale sickly woman sitting next to me seemed not have learned the price yet. She bobbed up, repeating desperately, “600 billions!” The others griped about the young folks who earn money but won’t help, they only smoke cigarettes and wear sheer stockings. And about the peasants who hide potatoes, feed them to the livestock and sell them for dollars only.3

From Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., Brookline, Massachusetts) 1994, p. 136.

Citations

  • 1 : George Grosz, A Little Yes and a Big NO, trans. L.S. Dorin (Dial, 1946), 124.
  • 2 : Quoted in Ralph Knight, A Very Ordinary Life, 64.
  • 3 : Melinda Given Guttman, The Enigma of Anna O.: A Biography of Bertha Pappenheim(Moyer Bell, 2001).

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