Germans are Doggedly Sullen or Desperate Over the Mark

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Star/September 1, 1922

Freiberg, Germany.-The German people, according to their tempera­ments, are watching the plunge to worthlessness of their currency with dogged sullenness or hysterical desperation.

Last November the Austrian crown stood where the German mark does today-at 800 to the dollar. Now it has dropped to 22,000 to the dollar. That is the reason the German newspapers publish the daily price of the mark in black type in the most important place on their front pages.

The debacle of the mark has made a significant change in the attitude of the Germans toward foreigners. A year ago, with the mark 130 to the dollar, British, Canadian and American correspondents were accorded all sorts of special facilities by the German foreign office. The Germans hated the French and tried to make things as hard for them as possible, but the other nations were regarded as Germany’s possible friends in the future. Now there are no privileges for anyone. All foreigners are outlanders and enemies. For Germany is going to ruin and her only satisfaction is that she will probably take a nation or two, now supposedly in fairly sound financial shape, with her.

One of the strange results of the depreciation of German money is the money shortage. The more money is printed, the more is needed. As a result banks are frequently out of money since a factory owner with a; weekly payroll to meet may come in and take out three bushels of marks. Every store has to have great packages of fifty- and hundred-mark notes for making change. The government, to meet the shortage, has printed five-hundred-mark “temporary” notes that are simply government I.O.U.’s printed on plain, white bank notepaper saying that in January, 1923, the holder of this note will receive a real five-hundred-mark note.

There is said to be wild spending because Germans have tired of seeing their money lose its purchasing power by half again and again and are buying jewels, fur coats, motor cars and other things that will have a certain amount of real value when the marks that bought them are being used for soap-wrappers.

These spending orgies, which you read about in the German papers but never encounter, are confined to Berlin, Hamburg and other places that were always more or less orgy centers. In a little town like Freiburg im Breisgau you run into a sort of dogged, blind resistance by the merchants to the fact that the mark is tobogganing, which keeps prices from going up in any sort of proportion to the fall of the currency.

Four of us stayed four days in a Freiburg hotel and the bill amounted to 2,200 marks, or about 20 cents a day apiece. The terrific taxes that you read so much about totaled less than 15 cents on the entire stay. Tips are included.

Freiberg seemed to be going on very well. Every room in every hotel in town was filled. There were strings of German hikers with rucksacks on their backs going through the town all day long, bound for the Black Forest. Streams of clear water flowed in the deep gutters on each side of the clean, scrubbed-looking streets. The red stone gothic spire of the red stone cathedral stuck up above the red-tiled roofs of the houses. The marketplace was jammed on Saturday morning with women with white handkerchiefs over their heads selling the fruit and vegetables they had brought in ox carts from the country. All the shops were open and prices were very low. It looked peaceful, happy and comfortable.
We saw a girl in a coffee shop eating a breakfast of ice cream and pretzels, sitting across the table from an officer in full uniform with an Iron Cross on his chest, his flat back even more impressive than his lean, white face, and we saw mothers feeding their rosy-cheeked children beer out of big half-liter steins.

We saw no evidence of panic, republicanism or malnutrition. Everyone looked well fed, no one seemed panicky, no one seemed happy, and there were pictures of Frederick, King of Baden, and his queen on the walls of every inn and pub.

The alarming part of the business, and the reason that Germany has so far defied all the economic laws that indicated a complete collapse, is the way the German merchants are selling their goods. They are selling goods now at retail prices that are less than half: of what the goods would cost them to buy again wholesale.

“But what can we do?” a storekeeper said to me. “If we charged any higher prices, the people would not buy. VI e have to sell.”

It is a solution to a problem that would set the average economist gibber­ing. He could have a good gibber at the problem and the German’s solu­tion of it would intensify his gibber into the finest product of the gibberer’s art. If you have nothing else to do you might figure out what will happen to the German storekeepers when they have to replenish the stocks they are selling at half under future cost price.

The great national fire sale cannot last forever. While it is going on, however, the German storekeeper takes out his wrath on the foreigners who buy from him by acting as nastily as he can without forcing them out of the shop. He believes they are the cause of the fire, but he seems to feel he is in the position of a shopkeeper who is forced to sell goods at a fire sale to the men who set his shop on fire. That is his attitude, and he manages to be pretty nasty about it.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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