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Igniting The Holocaust - Facing History and Ourselves: Burning Money: Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic

This LibGuide takes 5th grade students through the human behavior and historical events that precipitated WWII. It is based on the first 3 steps of the Facing History & Ourselves process and is designed to be used as a supplement to classroom discussion.

Burning Money: Hyperinflation in Weimar

1919-1924:  Hyperinflation in Germany

                       

A woman feeds her stove with money                              A man wallpapers with money because  
because it's cheaper than wood.                                     it's cheaper than buying wallpaper.

"Overshadowing the violence and discontent in the early days of the Weimar Republic was a period of incredible inflation. Inflation is a time when the value of money decreases and/or general prices increase sharply. During the war, the German government printed money freely to pay for soldiers, guns, and ammunition. After the fighting ended, there was more money in circulation than there were things to buy. The result was inflation. [...]  Prices skyrocketed and the German mark purchased less and less."   --from Facing History, Holocaust and Human Behavior, p. 135

By the fall of 1923, workers were paid twice a day.  After each pay they were given time off to go shopping, so that prices wouldn't rise any further.  At the height of hyperinflation, just buying the day's food could cost trillions of German marks; people had to shop with backpacks and wheelbarrows to be able to carry their money -- and many people who had been managing just fine found themselves starving.

That's not surprising, considering that a loaf of bread, which had cost about half a mark in 1918 sold for over 200 million marks by the autumn of 1923.  You can see some other Weimar prices on John D. Clare's website (scroll down to the subheading "Effects").  

This chart from Facing History compares the German mark to the U.S. dollar from 1919-1923.  

Reflect -- In your journal, respond to this information by answering the following questions:
  • Use the weblinks above to help you answer these questions.  If you were in a restaurant in Weimar Germany in 1919 and you had 1 American dollar, what would you be able to buy to eat?  If you were in a restaurant in Weimar Germany in 1923 and you had 1 American dollar, what would you be able to buy to eat?
  • If you were a German citizen in the Weimar Republic, how do you think you would respond to the crisis?  What would you do?  What would you say?  Who would you blame?

Children use bundles of money as building blocks.

Children play with virtually worthless marks. 1922.​Children cut German marks to create crafts.

Nothing like Weimar Germany, but inflation remains a peril for investors

Buying vegetables with baskets full of money.

Hyperinflation-Germany-8

The really fashion-forward create Deutsch Mark dresses.

Casting Blame

"In times of trouble, people often look for easy answers. Their fears and suspicions of those they regard as the other also increase."  

The people of Germany were understandably angry about the state of their economy.  They staged protests and some of them participated in violent riots.  

"ONovember 5th and 6th, 1923, a mob of 30,000 people rioted in Berlin to protest the misery brought on by the hyperinflation. Many of these Germans blamed their plight on Jews who they mistakenly believed controlled the German economy and were involved in an international conspiracy to dominate the world economy."  -- From Facing History

A veteran of WWI, Henry Buxbaum discovered for himself the increasingly bad opinion some of his countrymen held about Jews.  He wrote:  

"The train was pitch-dark. The lights were out, nothing uncommon after the war when the German railroads were in utter disrepair and very few things functioned orderly… That night, we were seven or eight people in the dark, fourth-class compartment, sitting in utter silence till one of the men started the usual refrain: 'Those [...] Jews, they are at the root of all our troubles.' Quickly, some of the others joined in. I couldn’t see them and had no idea who they were, but from their voices they sounded like younger men. They sang the same litany over and over again, blaming the Jews for everything that had gone wrong with Germany and for anything else wrong in this world. It went on and on, a cacophony of obscenities, becoming  more and more vicious and at the same time more unbearable with each new sentence echoing in my ears."  -- As quoted in Facing History, Holocaust and Human Behavior, pp. 126-127

In addition to blaming the Jews, many Germans also blamed the government of the Republic for their economic troubles.  Although politicians did eventually get the inflation under control, 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."  -- As quoted in Quoted in Ralph Knight, A Very Ordinary Life, p. 64; requoted from Facing History

Reflect -- In your journal, respond to this information by answering the following questions:  

  • If you had been on the train with Mr. Buxbaum, do you think you would have said or done anything? Have you or someone you know ever had a similar experience? How did you feel? How did you respond?    
  • In times of economic upheaval, political unrest, or social stress, people often feel powerless and angry.  How could a leader turn those feelings against “outsiders” or “strangers”?  What might be the result of such action?  
  • How might economic crises encourage people to place their faith in leaders who offer simple solutions to complex problems?