When Money Dies: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation, and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany Paperback – Oct 12 2010
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“Engrossing and sobering.”
Allen Mattich, Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2010
“One of the most blood chilling economics books I’ve ever read.”
Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2011
“Every body ought to read this book. But baby boomers must.”
”a brilliant account of how Germany's Weimar Republic was consumed by hyperinflation.”
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Top Customer Reviews
Recognizing that the volume was written over 30 years ago, the grammatical style and parochialism used make it difficult reading at times. The run on sentences has the reader wondering if the editor in fact made any effort to correct the author and how much research was done outside repeating what other others wrote firsthand.
The anecdotal ramblings at times make the writings more "bar room" banter than solid evidence of the sufferings of the masses to the ravages of hyperinflation.
With descendants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the reality of hyperinflation is life changing. Regrettably this volume has little of the credibility to the lessions and stories repeated by "Grandpa" during his fireside chats with us at Christmas.
Better annals with solid economic research, written without the colloquialisms of the "Queens English" exist and the serious student of this realm of Hapsburg misery would well consider another author for that reference library addition.
For the reader whose mind wanders at anything making reference to economic analysis, this book may begin your journey into seeking out the realities of hyperinflation and the misery it brings to all who live through it. Make sure you also have plenty of bitter ale or rum to make the story all the better.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
So, if you've ever wondered about the hyperinflation in Germany following the Great War (WWI), and by extension what the REAL consequences of inflation, hyperinflation, deflation and depression might be, this is the book you've been looking for. In fact, I've only read one other book which even comes close; that being `The Fiat Money Inflation in France: How It Came, What it Brought, and How It Ended' by Andrew Dickson White. But this book is much more timely, much broader in scope, much more comprehensive, and much easier to relate to our more modern times.
In it, you'll learn a lot and find the answers to many puzzling questions. Among them: what caused the inflation, what were its impacts, and why it was allowed to continue; which groups and social classes fared the best, which the worst, and why; how the inflation resulted in the redistribution of wealth; what happened to landlords, shop owners, government employees, members of unions, free workers, and pensioners, as well as the middle-class; what the man or woman on the street had to do simply to survive; who prospered, who lost everything, and why; what the government did and didn't do and what the impacts were on people at all social levels, and on industry; how the hyperinflation was finally ended, why the resulting deflation and depression was worse in many ways, and why; and what those living through the deflation/depression period had then to do in order to survive and, in some cases, prosper.
There is also much anecdotal evidence as to just how much misery both inflation and deflation can cause. For example: the well dressed elderly man who couldn't afford two cents (American money) for a bag of apples; the little old lady who supported herself by selling her crucifix chain one tiny gold link at a tme; the foreign students who bought rows of houses out of their allowance; the substitution of paste-board coffins for wooden ones; the life insurance policies that eventually were worth less than their annual premiums; the banks that did away with smaller savings accounts because the paper required to book them was worth more that the money in the accounts; the man who said it was better to have a prostitute in the house than the corpse of a dead baby; the beggars who, in October 1923, purportedly wouldn't accept anything smaller than a one million mark note; and finally, that even with the first "billiard" [a thousand million million] and five billiard notes being printed in November 1923, people still clamored for more.
Apart from the Weimar Republic: This book is essentially a case study in inflation and its aftermath which should be of interest to anyone contemplating or concerned about the current state of America's, and the world's economic future, and the direction America is headed. In reading it, it is well to keep in mind what Gunter Schmolders articulates (pg. 248), "With inflation alone can a government extinguish debt without repayment, or wage war and engage in other non-productive activities on a large scale: it is still not recognized as a tax by the tax-payer."
In any event, if you do read this book, and if you are anything like me: You'll likely conclude, as I did, that everyone talks about inflation, but no one, especially the politicians who cause it, really knows what they are dealing with or what the consequences may be.
Below I list salient points from When Money Dies:
* The inflationary period was for 10 years, the last 4 being extreme (the Weimer mark finally died in 1923). The end of the inflation was sudden.
* Government and banks continually reassured the population the worst was over, and people usually were encouraged as a result.
* To service debt, government enacted many new taxes, even some unusual taxes. But tax collection wasn't very successful and tax evasion became socially acceptable.
* Logically, the enormous government debt could only be paid back through inflation. Nevertheless, people were not prepared for hyperinflation.
* Most Germans had not grasped the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles at the time it was agreed upon.
* Food and fuel prices went up faster than those of clothing and other goods.
* The middle class in particular was wiped out.
* Laws were enacted against hoarding fuel and food. Shops were often closed and had reduced hours. For the sake of survival, everybody broke laws concerning hoarding, black markets and taxation.
* The German and Austrian people were long-suffering. They believed in their currency until almost the end, and they were constantly saying the worst was over when in fact things only got worse and worse.
* Foreigners descended on the land, buying up and exporting anything of value that could be moved. Eventually foreigners were buying businesses, land and anything that could be sold. Because foreigners got everything at fire sale prices, resentment built against them.
* The Army, defeated in WWI and starved of funds, revived very quickly. This was a big surprise within Germany.
* Extremist factions arose. The best paid workers finally couldn't afford the necessities of life. Riots and unruly mobs became common.
* When nationalist spirit was eventually revived, out of defeatism after WWI and the great hyperinflation, it was rooted in revenge.
The appeal now of this book, When Money Dies, is obvious. Mathematically, sovereign debt in so much of the world cannot be repaid in real terms. The International Monetary Fund has recently come out with extremely dire warnings. However, signals from government and banking officials are encouraging. Like the German people almost a century ago, I want to believe them when they say we're in recovery and the worst is over. It would be easier to believe had I not read this book.
I first read this book some 25 years ago. I was so impressed I immediately bought a dozen copies & gave them to pals. (In 1980 they were 3-4 pounds sterling each--it's ironic & interesting that the price of this out-of-print book now fetches multiple zeros).
Here are some parallels with our time:
The Germany of the '20s finds it cannot meet the costs of war reparations. The US of the 2000s starts a war intending to pay reparations before it begins, and then finds itself unable to meet the mounting costs of war reparations it originally thought would leap out of the ground and just pay themselves. (Meanwhile, the US's wounded soldiers [& the families of its dead soldiers] are going to require entire lifetimes of domestic reparations).
The Germany of the '20s attempted to buy/finance prosperity with ballooning deficits. The US of the 2000s wants to buy/finance prosperity with ballooning deficits. Neither nation-State can be told it is wrong--and neither admits (or even recognizes) inflation is a hidden and pernicious tax.
Germany before the '20s had every confidence in the mark. The US in the 2000s believes the only currency in the world is the dollar, & the only thing money can be made of is paper and ink (never gold or silver). But as one mixes ink with paper, hoping the mixture will have exchange value, one finds that one has given value to neither material.
As Germany becomes more unhinged in the '20s, it moves towards a strong man as a moth to a flame. As the US grows more unhinged, it loses faith in its 'strong man' (even if he does not lose faith in himself). If the US should subsequently shun whoever wants to be the next 'strong man', there may yet be be hope. Since it is possible for the next wannabe 'strong man' to be laughed off the stage, it is yet possible the US will not succumb. The jury is still out.
At times the mark strenghthens (goes against the ultimate trend, for short periods): the Germans of the '20s (and other investors) think the crisis is over and it is time to buy. At times the dollar strengthens (goes against the ultmate trend [?], for short periods): the world of the 2000s thinks the crisis may end--isn't it now time to buy cheap US assets?
The Germans of the '20s can add more zeros to their paper--but paper production does not keep up with the 'demand' for money. The US of the 2000s has but to generate a computer entry and like magic, the 'demand' for money is met. The paper of Germany leaves a trail [Fergusson proves this]--computer entries can be a hidden and dirty little State Secret [until prices rise as the money actually depreciates, the state can suppress much of the evidence].
At many levels, this book about a frightening past speaks to a menacing present. Because of its price, many will not get to read that message. Between the Germany of the '20s and the US of the 2000s, there are differences too, but not differences that necessarily help. The potential for money supply to soar (the Fed's ability to create credit by computer without even having to buy ink, paper, and printers) has never been so boundless. We of the 2000s prefer to believe we are more intellegent than the Germans of the 20s. We live with the hope that our enlightened leaders [!] comprehend inflation & understand that deficit spending shall ruin us. Enlighted people that they are, from government top to government bottom, we know and rely upon our leaders' fiscal responsibility. Just look at how enlightenment runs through the Nation--budgetary constraints are placed upon our brilliant leader, by those guardians of the Public Purse & Trust, a US legislature that checks and balances all his raw power. In truthiness [that is, if one buys their spin], they all do their utmost to preserve & protect the currency, while shouldering their duties to preserve and protect our Constitution. Tonight, can I sleep contentedly, knowing both these National Treasures are safe and sound?
Read this book: it is still found in libraries. You will be witness to ink on paper that actually has and holds its value.
May 25, 2006
Addenda No.1 of 2:
I'll use this post to import a comment I wrote in a later review of this book by "Yoda" (p.5, of these reviews). Yoda was critical of the fact that Fergusson did not offer any charts of changing values of the mark, to back his assertions that increased money supply was causing inflation--Yoda commented:
'''Fergusson does not claim explicitely anywhere in the book that he was going to "prove" that increases in the money supply cause inflation. However, he states or hints on just about every other page that there are excessive or great increases in the money supply. This is in a book on hyperinflation. Ferguson's implication, in this regard, is pretty clear.
'''With respect to "chronicling the history of what happened" the book is quite a joke. There is, literaly, not one mention of what inflation even was, despite the fact that the book, in your words is supposed to "chronicle" just this. What was the CPI? 100% per year? 1000%? 10,000%? What was the increase in industrial prices? There is barely a mention of it at any fixed time, nevermind how it developed over the time period the book discusses. Even a single table would have sufficed in this regard. In a book "chronicle" on the topic, this is a fatal mistake. In addition, there is no information or hard data on other negative ancillary aspects of inflation. For example, Ferguson mentions that inflation had serious negative impacts on employment and industrial production. Yet, again, there is not a mention of what either were during any fixed time period that the book covers, never mind how these changed over time. How can a "chronicle" of inflation and its impacts over this time period not even mention these numbers?'''
I replied (and Yoda later kindly acknowledged my reply filled in at least some of these blanks left by Fergusson) on Jul 8, 2011 2:38:55 AM PDT...
Jamal J. Hattab says:
"""The value of the mark against foreign currencies such as (1) the pound sterling (7.9864+ grams of 22 carat [0.91667/1 gold] gold or 0.2354 of an ounce of gold); (2) the dollar ($20 = 0.9677 ounces of fine gold, so that a dollar is 0.048385 ounces of gold, or about $4.865 dollars would equal one pound sterling, which at the time would be one British gold sovereign); or (2) the French, Swiss or Belgian francs, which are 20 to 0.1867 oz of gold (you can calculate that ratio of francs to dollars or sterling yourself) indexes its external fall in value. Therefore, Fergusson catalogs the fall of the mark by noting its fall against these various amounts of gold, that just so happened to be foreign currency at the time. Today as we watch the euro, dollar, swiss franc, et al plunge in value, one can still see how they chart against gold (see any chart of year gold values against the various paper monies that are tumbling downwards in value over the last ten or twelve years). Perhaps a conversion table of the various gold currencies (or a recalculation of marks per gram of gold or some other accounting, rather than referring to the various franc, dollar or sterling rates) might have helped the reader, but the account of the mark's fall is its fall against these other, at the time, sound currencies--i.e., gold money--worked for me. Those falling rates are the book's empirical evidence, evidence that I think you missed, perhaps because you did not recognize that these other currenceis at the time were actual amounts of real gold. While cataloging the mark's fall, against external gold coin, Fergusson simultaneously provides the reader with domestic price data (not officially calculated by the govenment), which, because it includes many commodities and servicies, and moves at different rates to the external value of the mark (which is why goods in marks are so cheap for foreigners at times), is considerably more difficult to pin down than the faster-moving (and better published, in business and other journals) external rates of mark depreciation against gold equivalents. At the same time, the book also catalogs even more esoteric falls in other values--declines in civility; stability; freedom from crime; rises in anarchy; items that one almost took for granted at the end of the twentieth century, but, as I write in the early 21st, for how much longer? The value of gold today, against paper money, when not manipulated, is often a harbinger of things to come. Because of gold's manipulation by various central banks and governments, the message it might telegraph to the observent gets obfuscated and is undermined. But today, I watch gold nonetheless, as an indicator of what might lie ahead. Have you bought any yet?"""
Addenda No.2 of 2 (written May 2011):
Recently, while chatting with someone about the economy at a small gathering, a women who was within earshot opined, "You know, economists don't do any good in the world."
I concurred, adding, "But if one is to accomplish real EVIL in the world, one needs to understand economics."
As the EU decides what to do about Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, et al (The so-called PIGS [or PIIGS to be accurate]: if Greece left, what would the acronym then be?), and Quantitative Easing continues across the pond, we are coached: "Inflation is not a problem." I suppose if one benefits from it (as a Central Banker, printing money to help out his pal banks) inflation is NOT a problem (for the issuer of fiat money), but for many of the rest of us, this seems to be Bernanke's grand delusion.
But for those of us not in the bank-clubs, it soon will be problematic. While one can debate specific issues, the META-issue is wheter fiat money should exist in the first place: other discussion simply revolves around minutia, argued for, & over, by statists who form imagined justifications [bad arguments, rooted in 'the sky is falling' worst case scenarios, i.e. smoke screens. Or as philosphers call such 'arguments', 'rationalizations'] to maintain abusive powers to control money and enslave the rest of us through their hidden taxes and redistributions of wealth [to their all-knowing 'good' selves].
In passing, I note that Rationalization appears most often in the vicinity of Conflicts of Interest.
[...] One might better argue for possible answers: unadulterated gold money; constitutionally mandated balanced budgets--in sum, defacto and dejure taxation, but only if accompanied WITH informed representation. Accept neither hidden taxes, nor sub rosa powers, and their corollory, the special interest groups that render conflict of interest and corruption commonplace.
Consider the mid-war inflation of the mark: it went from being around 1 Gold Mark= 1 Paper DM to 1 Gold Mark= 1 TRILLION Paper DM within a scant four years. Such a radical inflation led to some strange events, including--
* thieves stealing suitcases of marks and immediately dumping the contents to run away with the empty suitcases (which were worth more than the money they contained)
* diplomats finding themselves lucky enough to have one US dollar treating six of their friends to riotous parties at numerous clubs and hotels over the course of a weekend and still leaving with an inordinate amount of change
* restaurant patrons sitting down to enjoy a 5,000 mark cup of coffee, only to find that the price had increased to 8,000 marks by the time they had finished drinking it
* workers demanding to be paid twice a day, as the marks they received at the beginning of the day would be worthless by the afternoon
* people finding that the savings which would have bought a summer house were, a couple of years later, only able to purchase a few bottles of champaign
* An old bachelor found that by the time the queue he was in had reached the store, all that remained to purchase were infant's clothes. He purchased them in the realization that holding *anything* tangible was better than holding marks which would be worthless in a few hours
Why did Germany keep the printing presses rolling in the face of such events? The standard response is that only through runaway inflation could she hope to settle her war reparations with France, which she would otherwise have no way of paying. The British Prime Minister lamented that France sought to punish Germany without end, cynically maneuvering Germany into default and therefore paving the way for a French occupation of the Ruhr-- all of which played out exactly as he feared.
Indeed, France emerges as being more responsible for German suffering than has been previously described. She indirectly bears responsibility for the conditions that gave rise to National Socialism and Adolf Hitler. France occupies a seat of honor in the great tally of epic mistakes made by nations during the 20th century.
One wishes Fergusson would have settled upon a more imaginative design than to open each chapter with dire words about how just when Germans thought things couldn't get any worse, the sky really began to fall. Perhaps that is an unavoidable hazard in telling a story about hyperinflation, where things, a-hem, continue to get worse and worse.
A more effective approach would have been to track the human tragedy, to which Fergusson pays scant attention. When telling a story like this, one quickly grows weary of adding yet more zeros to the rate of exchange; such numbers only become meaningful when human affairs are attached to them. Although Fergusson faithfully recounts excerpts of diplomatic letters, there is not enough examination of what average Germans experienced through the monetary nightmare.
One cannot help but feel that a more visceral account of the Weimar hyper-inflation will one day be told.
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