Ernest Hemingway on the low value of the mark (1922)

The famous author Ernest Hemingway worked as the European correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star after World War II. While visiting south-west Germany in September 1922, Hemingway observed French students he described as “exchange pirates” crossing the German border to take advantage of the low value of the mark:

“There were no marks to be had in Strasbourg – the mounting exchange had cleaned the bankers out days ago, so we changed some French money in the railway station at Kehl.

For 10 francs, I received 670 marks. 10 francs amounted to about 90 cents in Canadian money. That 90 cents lasted Mrs Hemingway and me for a day of heavy spending and at the end of the day we had 120 marks left!

Our first purchase was from a fruit stand… We picked out five very good looking apples and gave the old woman a 50-mark note. She gave us back 38 marks in change. A very nice looking, white-bearded old gentleman saw us buy the apples and raised his hat.

“Pardon me, sir, he said, rather timidly, in German, “How much were the apples?” I counted the change and told him 12 marks. He smiled and shook his head. “I can’t pay it. It is too much.”

He went up the street walking very much as white-bearded old gentlemen of the old regime walk in all countries, but he had looked very longingly at the apples. I wish I had offered him some.

Twelve marks, on that day, amounted to a little under two cents. The old man, whose life savings were probably, as most of the non-profiteer classes are, invested in German pre-war and war bonds, could not afford a 12-mark expenditure. He is the type of the people whose incomes do not increase with the falling purchasing value of the mark…

The French cannot come over to buy up all the cheap goods they would like to, but they can come over and eat… This miracle of exchange makes a swinish spectacle where the youth of the town of Strasbourg crowd into the German pastry shop to eat themselves sick and gorge on fluffy, cream-filled slices of German cake at five marks a slice. The contents of a pastry shop are swept clear in half an hour…

The proprietor and his helper were surly and didn’t seem particularly happy when all the cakes were sold. The mark was falling faster than they could bake.

Meanwhile, out in the street, a funny little train jolted by, carrying the workmen with their dinner pails home to the outskirts of the town, profiteers’ motorcars tore by raising a cloud of dust that settled over the trees and the fronts of all the buildings, and inside the pastry shop young French hoodlums swallowed their last sticky cakes and French mothers wiped the sticky mouths of their children. It gave you a new aspect on exchange.”