Stamp Collection, Part One: Germany

by Derrick Bostrom

Though it may come as a surprise to those among you who find me boring, I don't actually collect stamps. I never did. However, I am a pack rat, and at this point in my life I've accumulated far more stuff than I could ever remember where it came from. Case in point: a couple of very old stamp collections from 1940 and 1935. My wife disavows any knowledge of them, which suggests they must have been left in lieu of rent by one roommate or another from the distant past. To the good fortune of those among you who don't find me boring, I intend to share some of my favorites. The stamps themselves are probably worthless, but many of them are very beautiful. But our first foray is more concerned with history than aesthetics.

Hyperinflation is one of my favorite civic nightmare scenarios. I love the idea that a country's currency could lose it's original tenuous underpinnings, causing the population to discard the mutually agreed upon illusion that the paper in their pockets and the enterings next to their names in the ledgers of their local banks actually have any actual discernible meaning. The hyperinflation affecting the German Wiemar Republic in 1923 has taken on the status of bona fide urban legend. Saddled with massive unpayable debt as a result of its failure to prevail in the Great War, and held in sway at the same time by early 20th century industrial expansion and its attendant in-vogue speculation and finance schemes, the German government yielded to the temptation to print money at will, devaluing the currency along the way as needed. Soon, people were hauling wheelbarrows full of money to the market, and buying their refills of coffee up front to hedge against mid-meal price hikes.

You can see the rapid deterioration of confidence in the stamps below. At the outset, normalcy rules the day. Germania retains her popularity. Winged airmail issues remain reasonably priced. Liberal postwar themes appear, as on these celebrating the traditional German worker. But things soon start to slip and prices begin their hallucinatory upward spiral. Rates rise at such a rapid pace that even reprints become too expensive. Initially, new prices are stamped by hand on existing issues. Finally, they just leave the prices off and they just create higher denominations as they go along. These stamps were in circulation for a very short period, and most were never actually used. This is why so few of them have cancellation marks, and those that do are usually forgeries (the brown 400 Mark-er below looks like a likely candidate).

Finally, the authorities had no choice but to retire the currency and substitute it with a new one, one that this time they promised was actually worth something. Exhausted, the general population had little choice but to go along. All the zeros disappeared. Portraits of generals, politicians and other heroes returned. But the credibility of the responsible institutions was soundly shaken. Shadows of resentment quickly began to darken corners of the country, not only against the victor nations demanding "reparations," but also against a boogeyman concept known as "Jewish bankers." As things turned out, this fantasy, once minted, wrecked far more havoc on the German Weltanschauung than any belief in a chimerical currency ever could.

Funny thing, though: economic theorists insist this situation is not specific to Germany, or even the early 20th Century. Hell, any government trying to support an interminable and unpopular war, finding itself with both mounting debt and waning investment in its war bonds, might be tempted to untether the printing presses. But that's a scenario too boring to contemplate.