Betty Scholem on life under hyperinflation (1923)

Gerhard Scholem was a Jewish-German historian and philosopher who emigrated to Palestine in 1923. Scholem’s parents, Arthur and Betty, remained in Berlin. Arthur Scholem was a printer who accepted government contracts to print banknotes. In October 1923, Betty Scholem wrote her son these letters, describing how life and economic activity had deterioriated due to hyperinflation:

October 9th 1923

“So you had a lovely and interesting trip… Just be glad to be where you are. Here it has become simply terrible. I can imagine that outside Germany, people must have the strangest notions about this place. The reality is even stranger. When you left, the brand of sausage I gave you cost 12 million marks; today it’s up to 240 million. All prices have risen at this pace, often even faster. The collapse of the economy is complete. No one can buy a thing and the unemployment rate has thus been on the rise.”

October 15th 1923

“We have not yet received your second letter. Hopefully, it’ll arrive this week. Conditions have taken a catastrophic turn here. Notice that this letter cost 15 million cash. It will be 30 million beginning the day after tomorrow – and this price will most likely last a mere two days at most. Now you can get things done only with billions.

To ensure that next week’s payroll will keep its value, the boys bought [United States] dollars on Friday at the ridiculous exchange rate of 1.5 billion [marks per dollar]. They will re-sell them on Thursday in order to pay people. For the time being, this week’s pay will be eight billion, though we’ve had negotiations today because the workers are demanding twice that much.

The bread ration card has been done away with, and a normal loaf of bread now costs 540 million; tomorrow, surely twice as much. The streetcar fare is 20 million; tomorrow it’ll be 50 million! My God, you probably don’t have the faintest notion of this millionfold Witches’ Sabbath. You must know that we send women’s magazines to Frau Jacques Meyer. A few days ago her husband sent us a bank check for over five million [marks]. When we went to the bank here in Berlin to pick it up, it cost 40 million [marks] in transfer fees!

I ask myself if the neighbouring Swiss are indeed so ignorant of our circumstances or if they just act that way. This small anecdote can illuminate everything. If throughout the world there is such little understanding of our plight, how can we expect that anyone will come to our aid? It seems inevitable that we will lose the Rhine and the Ruhr, that Bavaria will break away and that Germany will once again fall apart into minuscule petty states.”

hyperinflation germany 1923
A German storekeeper counting his day’s takings: a tea chest full of banknotes