Published in 1974, A Very Ordinary Life is the autobiographical account of an “ordinary” working-class woman born in 1901 in Berlin, who moved to Canada in 1929.
(For personal reasons, I can indirectly relate to this story. I became aware of this book somewhere along the line, probably while reading about the (first) Great German Inflation. It was out of print, and not online, so the used book store was the way to go.)
Phyllis talks about the 1920’s inflation briefly, over a couple pages:
Those were incredible times. The inflation began slowly around 1921 and climbed for a year or two. By the end of that period ten marks had become the value of one mark. But in 1923 it started to climb like wild fire. A hundred or a thousand marks bought you what you used to get for a mark, then into the millions. Finally it took hundreds of millions and billions of marks to buy a towel or something. There were ordinary postage stamps that were the value of one billion marks. One billion marks to post a letter.
During the inflation the wage rates changed every day, and then, at the height of the inflation, twice a day. At the end of the day you got your day’s pay. You had to spend it right away because the next day your cash would be worth a half or less of what it was the day before. The stores stayed open late just for that. They were trundling truck loads of cash back and forth from the banks to the factories every day. Whatever money anyone had managed to save was completely lost.
At the beginning of the inflation I had saved up a hundred marks towards a sewing machine. When I saw what was happening to the value of the money I decided I'd better buy something quick, but I had waited too long. Because all I got for that hundred marks, which was quite a few months’ saving, was a skimpy blouse — made of paper. Money was literally not worth the paper it was printed on. But that was nothing, many people who had their savings in bank accounts or government bonds lost everything they had managed to scrape together during their entire lives for their retirement.
Once the inflation really started it was a runaway. The banks just took the bills in and printed over them. Ten marks would have a thousand mark printed over it and later it would be printed with 100,000 mark. You could see how things were starting to break down. Some towns began to issue their own scrip tied to local values and exchange. Naturally, that didn’t work either.
Finally, there was a revaluation and each person could turn in so much of the previous money, if they hadn’t spent it for nothing already, and get a small amount of new currency. It was very little, 200 marks or so. And the rest was all lost. I’m not sure how they did manage to stabilize the currency, but once the government decided to take action they did it.
Of course all the little people who had small savings were wiped out. But the big factories and banking houses and multi-millionaires 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 the people but the big capitalists can come through the whole thing unscathed?” We who lived through it never got an answer that meant anything. But after that, even those - people who used to save didn’t trust money anymore, or the government. We decided to have a high-ho time whenever we had any spare money, which wasn’t often.
I’m reminded of this ominous warning from Thomas Mann in 1942:
A SEVERE INFLATION is the worst kind of revolution. The stern measures—currency restrictions, curtailed production, draconic taxes —that a government can and sometimes must take systematically are nothing by comparison. For there is neither system nor justice in the expropriation and redistribution of property resulting from inflation.
A cynical "each man for himself" becomes the rule of life. But only the most powerful, the most resourceful and unscrupulous, the hyenas of economic life, can come through unscathed. The great mass of those who put their trust in the traditional order, the innocent and unworldly, all those who do productive and useful work, but don't know how to manipulate money, the elderly who hoped to live on what they earned in the past—all these are doomed to suffer.
An experience of this kind poisons the morale of a nation. A straight line runs from the madness of the German Inflation to the madness of the Third Reich. Just as the Germans saw their marks inflated into millions and billions and in the end bursting, so they were later to see their state inflated into "the Reich of all the Germans", "the German Living Space" "the New Europe", and "the New World Order", and so too they will see it burst.
In those days the market woman who without batting an eyelash demanded a hundred million for an egg, lost the capacity for surprise. And nothing that has happened since has been insane or cruel enough to surprise her.
It was during the Inflation that the Germans forgot how to rely on themselves as individuals and learned to expect everything from "politics", from the "state", from "destiny." They learned to look on life as a wild adventure, the outcome of which depended not on their own effort but on sinister, mysterious forces. The millions who were then robbed of their wages and savings became the "masses" with whom Dr. Goebbels was to operate. Inflation is a tragedy that makes a whole people cynical, hardhearted and indifferent. Having been robbed, the Germans became a nation of robbers.
I have collected many books and quotes over the years on this topic, and been struck by how similar the descriptions of the German inflation are among contemporaries - those who actually lived through it. One recurring theme is that the little guy got screwed, while the rich made out OK:
Pearl S. Buck with Erna Von Pustau, How It Happens: Talk About The German People, 1914-1933
The winners in our inflation were big-business men in the cities...the great losers were the working class and above all the middle class, who had the most to lose.
Another very common theme is the influence that the inflation had on the destruction of morality among the German people. This is also from the above book:
Inflation finished the process of moral decay which the war had started. It was a slow process over a decade or more...when inflation was over, the psychological preparation for fascism was complete, the minds of the people were prepared for the Nazis.
Bridenthal, Grossmann, and Kaplan, When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany
Inflation turned the moral universe upside down, so that the traditional values of thrift, saving, and delayed gratification suddenly became meaningless, even counterproductive.
Gordon Craig, The Germans
…the bulk of the lower middle class looked to Adolf Hitler as a savior was due less to the great depression of the thirties, although that to be sure was not insignificant, than to the memory of the great inflation of 1923.
Some people get upset at my emphasis on the 1920's, but the 1920's provided the fertile soil for the 1930's:
Bernd Widdig, Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany
…there is hardly any disagreement among historians regarding the indirect, subterranean effects of the inflation on the demise of democracy and civil society in Germany.
Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny
Whatever the cause of this phenomenon - and there were sections of the community, among them the big industrialists and landowners, who profited by it and sought to perpetuate its progress in their own interests - the result of the inflation was to undermine the foundations of German society in a way which neither the war, nor the revolution of November 1918, nor the Treaty of Versailles had ever done. The real revolution in Germany was the inflation, for it destroyed not only property and money, but faith in property and the meaning of money.
Lilo Linke, Restless days: A German girl's autobiography
The middle class was hurt more than any other, the savings of a lifetime and their small fortunes melted into few coppers. They had to sell their most precious belongings for ten milliard inflated marks to buy a bit of food or an absolutely necessary coat, and their pride and dignity were bleeding out of many wounds. Bitterness remained for ever in their hearts. Full of hatred, they accused the international financiers, the Jews and Socialists - their old enemies - of having exploited their distress. They never forgot and never forgave and were the first to lend a willing ear to Hitler's fervent preaching.
As Bernd Widdig wrote:
…next to language, money is the most important medium through which a modern society communicates. What happens when this medium does not function properly anymore, when it loses its trustworthiness and ultimately wreaks havoc?
Some People should be careful what they wish for.
On buying a house Canada in 1942:
"The house itself was just a shack, a very run down shack, worse than many of those squatters’ houses. There were two and a half tiny rooms with no toilet and no basement. It was made from waste lumber and was leaning a bit to one side. The full price was seven hundred and fifty dollars — lot, house and all. That was the total amount — one hundred and fifty down, and two years to pay the balance, with no interest."
In the footnotes, the author reflects (ca.1974) on the above passage:
"The fact that working class families could purchase a house with the savings of a few years’ work raises the question of, to what extent living standards have advanced for working people in the last two generations? Impressionistically, those who were regularly employed enjoyed standards of housing, food, open space and freedom from interest payments better than available to many working people today."
Rudy, alas, I never had the chance to follow you on the blue bird. You were disappeared and then Grant Williams said go to your substack. I did. Love your work here. Thank you for it. Really like the longer form. Rock on!