What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.” Elias Canetti Crowds and Power

On September 21, 1923 German government – the leaders of the Weimar Republic – issued first one-billion banknotes in Berlin. Overnight people turned billionaires and yet at the same time, just like in Canetti’s quote, they lost everything.

With German hyperinflation already in full swing, the number of noughts following the actual price became almost immaterial. All of a sudden a tram ticket in Berlin cost three million Marks – a small slip of paper allowing you to take public transport on a one-way trip was worth as much as complete life-savings of some of Berlin’s pensioners.

Headline in the “Neue Berliner 12 Uhr Blatt” in July 1923. Photo by Georg Pahl via Bundesarchiv.

Not surprisingly, exorbitant (and completely unpredictable) food prices were the most acute problem. They had the most direct impact upon people’s lives and occasionally even decided about life or death as such. The number of suicides – including what is known as “extended suicides”, where parents took their children with them to spare them suffering – exploded as well.

The despair is hard to conceive of – the despair and blank horror which were quite vividly described by Leonhard Frank in his 1963 book Links wo das Herz ist (“Left Where The Heart Is”):

Back then every day the Mark tumbled deeper and deeper into the abyss (…) The savings books of millions of little people, who for years saved penny to penny to live on in their old days – these savings books became nothing but paper. The devastating misery pushed thousands of these robbed, hopeless, old people into suicide.

And still the tidal wave of price-hikes seemed to take no end. By June 1923 one egg cost 800 Marks (a year earlier it was 0.22 Mark so the price went up by a mind-boggling number of percent!) but come November it further skyrocketed to 320,000,000,000 Marks per piece.

Notebook made of disused one-million Mark banknotes. (Photo by Georg Pahl, 1923; Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00193 / CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Just to give you a perspective: before the First World War people spent 2.6 Marks on one kilo of butter (the average price in Berlin). More or less a decade later, in November 1923, you were confronted with numbers which required a firm grasp of maths to deal with in the first place: the price of the same kilo of butter reached 5.6 trillion Marks.

November of 1923 was the month when German currency effectively hit the rock bottom – according to experts the old Mark lost 99% of its purchasing power. Since the Weimar Republic had no gold reserves to speak of (the Kaiser and the First World War literally bled Germany of most of its assets), the government of Gustav Stresemann – who took over from his predecessor, Wilhelm Cuno, in August the same year – chose to bind the new currency they planned to introduce as the saving measure to the value of real goods. To land property to be exact. Hence the new currency’s name: Rentenmark means as much as “Mortgage Mark” (Rente being a German term for “mortgage/rent” and the reason why a person living off property leasing is sometimes still referred to as a Rentier).

One-Rentenmark Banknote issued in November 1923. The banknotes, although replaced by the Reichsmark in 1924, were still in circulation until the late 1940s (the 1948 Soviet Occupation Zone used them as their currency having added new value stamps).

On November 15, 1923 this new currency, Rentenmark, made its debut. The exchange rate between it and the old Mark was 1:1,000,000,000,000 (1012) – one to a trillion. But by the next morning Berliners and the rest of Germany woke up to the Weimar Republic whose currency was suddenly worth something again: within 24 hours the price of one dollar went down from 4,210,500,000,000 Mark to 4.20 Rentenmark.

Covering the wall with disused (worthless) banknotes, Berlin in July 1923. (Photo by Georg Pahl, Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-00104)

The charade saved not only German economy but also the state as well as – dramatic as it might sound – people’s lives. When a year later the new legal tender (Rentenmark was introduced as a currency but not the legal tender of the Republic) and the Reichsmark, replaced the stand-in money, all seemed to have slowly calmed down. However, although unlike upon its arrival, the misery did not vanish overnight, life began to become more bearable.

Until only several years later, on October 29, 1929 the New York Stock Exchange came crashing down, pulling the rest of the world with it into an ever bigger abyss.

A newspaper ad from a Berlin daily in the 1920s.

“Whole Berlin Drives a Horch“, a 1920s advertisement for a Horch 8, a beautiful automobile produced by a car-manufacturer company established in 1899 in Köln-Ehrenfeld.

In 1904, its founder and namesake, August Horch, moved the factory to the Saxonian city of Zwickau (now probably better known as the cradle of the car of the DDR, the unforgettable Trabant). Horch, however, left the company only five years later, in April 1909 (due to a conflict with the board of supervisors). Not even half a year later he started a new enterprise in Zwickau: another car factory.

August Horch in his Horch Torpedo 11/22 PS during the 1908 race Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt from Berlin to Frankfurt am Main (via Stettin, Kiel, Hamburg, Hannover, Köln and Trier).

Unable to use his own surname for the brand – Horch lost a court case against the old company he established – he and his partners came up with a very clever idea. They translated the old name into Latin and so horch (hear!) became Latin Audi.

Spittelmarkt seen from Leipziger Straße in 1904.

Spittelmarkt, once a central Berlin plaza in the borough of Mitte and today one of the most non-descript places in the city centre.

A 1900 traffic census carried out there rendered following results: between 6 AM and 10 PM the plaza was crossed by 144,223 pedestrians and 21,237 vehicles. At the time, Berlin had 1,888,848 registered residents.

By the end of nineteenth century Spittelmarkt, named after a small hospital (Sankt Gertrauden Hospital) and a chapel built there in early fifteenth century, became one of Berlin’s busiest traffic knots. This was only possible after the 17th-century Gertraudenkirche – built after the old chapel and the “Spittal” burnt down in 1641- was demolished in 1881 and the area underwent a significant re-design.

Gertraudenkirche in 1880, a year before its demolition (photo by Hermann Rückwardt).

In the 1920s another refurbishment followed and approximately a quarter of the century later, after May 1945, Spittelmarkt lay in ruins. Built anew by the East Berlin authorities in the 1970s, it reflected the then “modern” approach to architecture and urban planning. It virtually vanished again, overridden by the expanded traffic lanes as well as overwhelmed by the monstrous concrete high-rises erected around and partly on it.

Spittelmarkt in the 1920s (photographer unknown, PD).

The two map images – sections of a 1910 and a current Google-Map – featured below strongly reflect that change. The western entrance to the 1908 U-Bhf “Spittelmarkt” marked on both of them will help you locate the former within the latter.