One Hundred Million Mark Note

A worthless scrap of paper's influence on world history.

By: Justin McHenry

This 100 million mark Reichsbanknote issued on August 22, 1923 was found in the basement of the Commissioners Complex amongst various other documents and pictures left behind when the Chambersburg Trust Company vacated the building.

Above is one of the most worthless pieces of paper ever.  If you were to print this blog post out and take those pages directly to a recycling center to exchange them for money, the penny they would give you just to get out of their way would be worth much more than the above bank note was worth at the time it was printed.

How this little piece of paper became so worthless dates back to the outbreak of World War I.  The first steps towards severely devaluing the mark, the German currency at the time, began in 1914 at the outbreak of war.  While other belligerent countries raised taxes or sold bonds to help pay for their war efforts (which some are still paying off), Germany, on the other hand, took themselves off of the gold standard and decided it would primarily pay for its war costs by printing more and more money.  Where in 1913 there were 13 billion marks in circulation, by the end of the war there were 60 billion marks floating around.  Combine this with a scarcity of consumer goods and rationing of food due to the economy solely focused to winning the war, it would lay the foundation for hyperinflation in the postwar era.

Policies implemented by the leaders of the Weimar Republic*, while providing short term benefits such as full employment, would have devastating impact on the value of the mark.  In addition to these policies, in 1921, Germany was saddled with reparations payments of 132 billion goldmarks (tied to the value of the mark in 1913 when it was backed by gold) as part of the Treaty of Versailles.  The Allies required Germany to pay the reparations in either gold, which they didn’t have much of, or goods, such as wood, coal, etc.  In early 1923, after Germany was late on one of their payments, France retaliated by occupying Germany’s Ruhr Valley, a vital coal mining region that provided the majority of fuel to run Germany’s industry.  This proved to be the final tipping point in sending the mark into a death spiral.

*The Weimar Republic is the name given to that era of German history between the end of WWI and ascension of Hitler to power in 1933.  Despite the economic turmoil and political instability, which certainly aided Hitler’s rise, the Weimar Republic saw an explosion of artistic and intellectual activity.  The Bauhaus school was established during the period and was home to visionaries like Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius.  Writers such as Thomas Mann, Hans Fallada, Bertolt Brecht, and Christopher Isherwood produced classic works that chronicled life during that era, and the works of composers such as Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill premiered and were played in concert halls and cabarets throughout the county.

Public confidence in the government and the mark began to wane, and with it the value of the mark.  By March 1923, one US dollar was worth 20,000 marks.  By August, when the above mark was printed, a dollar cost more than a million marks.  At the height of Germany’s hyperinflation crisis in November, a dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 marks.  It would take 42, 105 of the above 100 million mark notes to equal one dollar.  Printing of marks was a 24 hour a day operation, and, at the printing zenith, there were 1.2 sextillion marks in circulation. If you like to look at zeros, here is what that looks like: 1,200,000,000,000,000,000,000.

During this period, the mark’s value was constantly sliding downwards.  On payday, workers would receive bundles of cash and then race to the store to buy anything tangible before the prices could change.  There’s a story of a student who ordered a cup of coffee at a café for 5,000 marks a cup.  After downing the first cup, he ordered a second and asked for his check, which totaled 14,000 marks.  He asked the waiter why the bill was so high, and was told the price had gone up between his first and second cups of coffee.  He should have bought both cups at the same time.  Petty crimes increased dramatically as people resorted to theft since they could not afford the rising prices.  The mark basically became useless, and people found alternate uses for it.

Like making kites out of them:

Or using them as colorful wallpaper:

Or using them as building blocks:

The German government replaced its entire currency in November 1923, replacing the Reichsbank mark with the Rentenmark.  Public confidence returned, and the new currency and the economy began to stabilize, though hyperinflation had done its damage in playing a role in destabilizing German politics, weakening its institutions, and causing a massive and volatile redistribution of wealth.  All of which plagued the Weimar Republic up until its demise in 1933.  To this day, Germany still holds lingering fears over hyperinflation.  They actively work to stabilize prices within its borders and within all of Europe as well.  Germany dominates the European Central Bank (located in Frankfurt) which controls the central banking system of the Eurozone, and whose primary function is to combat inflation and deflation by stabilizing prices to ensure another 1923 never happens again.  

You can go on eBay and find a 100 million mark note for sale for on average $3.  That represents a 12,631,479% increase in value in just 92 short years.  Not a bad little return on investment. 

To see other, not so worthless treasures found in the basements of our County’s offices, visit the Archives’ online repository

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