Thursday, September 20, 2007

No Virtue in Hyperinflation

Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s was first published in 1934. This excerpt from the essay "Valuta" is taken from the 1995 Penguin edition, p. 81.

Exchange! It happened that old Europe, the continent of immemorial standards, had lost them all: it had only prices, which changed from country to country, from village to village, it seemed from hour to hour. Tuesday in Hamburg you might buy a banquet for eight cents (or was it five?); Thursday in Paris you might buy twenty cigarettes for the price of a week's lodging in Vienna. You might gamble in Munich for high stakes, win half the fortune of a Czechoslovakian profiteer, then, if you could not spend your winnings for champagne and Picasso, you might give them the day after tomorrow to a beggar and not be thanked. Once in Berlin a man was about to pay ten marks for a box of matches when he stopped to look at the banknote in his hand. On it was written, "For these ten marks I sold my virtue." He wrote a long and virtuous story about it, was paid ten million marks, and bought his mistress a pair of artificial silk stockings.

The Economist [UK]
23 Dec 1998

Millennium issue: German hyperinflation
Loads of money

"FOR these ten marks I sold my virtue," were the words a Berliner noticed written on a banknote in 1923. He was buying a box of matches, all the note was worth by then. [...]