Order, Disorder and Notgeld
26 April 2010
New Yorkers love to jaywalk. What the green traffic light is to an out-of-towner, what a matador's red cape is to a bull, the yellow light is to a New Yorker. That yellow light is a challenge, a dare-and what dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker would ever turn down a dare? So when the traffic light turns yellow, off goes your New Yorker, sprinting to beat the cars and dodge the herd running from the opposite side.
This might have something to do with the edgy nature of city life, or maybe with the competitive American ethic, or maybe even a simple geologic fact: Manhattan is built on magnetic rock, and all its citizens are electrified. I had this insight when New York experienced its first blackout in the early 1960s. That night I fell into the deepest sleep I could recall. (For several nights afterwards I turned off all the lights a few hours before retiring, but the day's charge of electricity had done its work. I had to wait for the next blackout to experience that profound baby-in-the-cradle sleep).
To this New Yorker (well, ex-New Yorker... I moved from the city seven years ago, but you know the old saw, "Once a New Yorker..."), a recent visit to Germany came as a shock. Germans obey their traffic lights. Order, it seems, is as ingrained to the German psyche as disorder is to a New Yorker. And if you doubt this last statement, just visit Times Square. A visual babble, a place of neon anarchy.
Recently I came across a chilling instance of the German love affair with order. I saw a photograph taken in the closing days of World War II. The Russians had just broken through the defenses around Berlin and were entering the city, district by district. A Russian photographer had come across a family of Berliners and-click!-captured them, dressed in their Sunday best, neatly slumped across park benches. Father, mother, daughter and son, each had a thin red line trailing from a tidy hole in their foreheads. According to a German passerby who had witnessed the shootings, the father had first killed his wife, then his son, then his fleeing daughter, then himself. Better the order of death than the presumed disorder to come. Better dead (neat) than red (sloppy).
I admit, this may be a far-fetched instance of the German obsession with order (and I must confess that a visit to a well-ordered city like Munich is balm to this Manhattanite's jangled nerves). But one can cite the Holocaust where internal combustion engines, jerry-rigged to sheds, were replaced by more efficient killing procedures. Compare that to Abu Ghraib, very much an American ad hoc, sometime-thing affair.
Coming across the photograph of that Berlin family in the final days of their Gotterdemerung put me in mind of an earlier period in German life where things had collapsed into anarchy. In the early 1920s, armed citizens took to the streets, marching and counter-marching to install a new order or restore the old one. Spartacists, Nationalists, Communists, Freikorps volunteers... banners rippled, rifles crackled, regimes rose and fell. The anarchy of the street found its counterpart in the marketplace. An American dollar-worth 330 marks in 1921-skyrocketed in 1923 to 4,200,000,000,000 marks (in writing this, I almost left off a trio of zeros). At its zenith, an American dollar was worth 99,000,000,000,000 marks.
"Rice yesterday," a German observer wrote, "cost 80,000 marks a pound, now it costs 160,000 marks; tomorrow it will perhaps double again, the day after tomorrow the man behind the counter is likely to shrug his shoulders. 'We're out.' And noodles? "Out of them, too.' ...Hate, despair, need, grow with the value of the dollar." The German middle class-those with fixed incomes, the moral and social backbone of the nation-were annihilated. "In front of every café, hotel, bar," George Grosz reminisced, "dozens of people were standing as before the castle gates in medieval days... hands extended." Inside the gates, dancers Charlestoned and champagne flowed. "Raus," shooed the gatekeeper, his gloved hand raised to strike the outstretched hands of the new beggar class. "Raus!"
My father visited Germany in the early 1920s. In Mainz, he stayed in the same hotel that I was later to visit as a G.I. in the early 1950s (I stayed on one half of the hotel, the other half was rubble). Every morning my father would hear a polite rapping on the door. It was the hotel manager's daily visit. "Herr Blechman," he would ask, "I trust that you are enjoying your stay at our hotel? Yes? Sehr gut." And, he would continue, "for how long do you plan to stay? Oh? Another few days, you think? Very well-sigh-please enjoy our beautiful city, yes?"
I only wish-now that my father is long dead-that I had asked him why he visited Germany-and on a motorcycle. But maybe his answer would have been evasive. Germany's night life might have been the attraction, offering "the best comics, naked girls, imaginative costumes, naked girls, naked girls, naked girls..." My father had visited Cuba in the wide-open 1940s, having taken along my adolescent brother who, in a letter to my mother, had snitched on him: "I saw Daddy with a woman, Mom." Nice son. So maybe my father was a sex tourist in Germany, but maybe he was just a voyeur... and maybe he merely wanted to perfect his high-school German, right?
In an attempt to replace or supplement the increasingly valueless currency, municipalities took to printing their own money-notgeld, or emergency money (literally "necessity money"). Usable only in the municipality where it was issued, notgeld was printed as paper banknotes, although occasionally they were printed on such exotic surfaces as leather (by towns manufacturing leather goods), silk (by towns engaged in the silk trade), linen and, in some cases, even coal and porcelain (whatever, I assume, would increase its value, and advertise the area's wares). Notgeld soon attracted a wide coterie of collectors, and no wonder! They are invariably items of exceptional beauty, not to mention documents of great social and historical value-peeks into the mind and soul of a nation in collapse.
Notgeld rarely dealt with the trauma of the recent war. It was too painful to relive, and Germans preferred to either recall a golden past or anticipate a better future (hope, Leonard Bernstein once proclaimed, was nothing less than an instinct).
Here are some samples from my small notgeld collection:
The City of Leipzig celebrated its zoo. "Look here," a zoo in Halle proclaimed, which also pictured an elephant. "I'm an expensive animal, so help us out with this note."
The town of Braunschweig honored its favorite son, the composer Louis Spohr.
Bentheim advertised its baked goods (and what a stunning graphic this is!). In case anybody questioned what the illustration pictured, the reverse of the notgeld spelled things out:
There are three things Bentheim is known for worldwide.
Bernheim is a thousand years old.
Bentheim has a forest of beautiful trees.
Bentheim's cookies are special and sought after.
And that is that.
Otto Seidel, a wine merchant, issued his own notgeld. "For a hundred of these notes-you can get the finest wine." The banknote was for 50 marks, so the real value of this note was 50,000 marks (50 times 100). But that's no guarantee that the price would not have gone up a thousand times in a day-or that, by the time a customer arrived at Otto Seidel's with his valise full of notes, the wine would still be in stock.
The town of Itzehoe in Holstein made a veiled political statement with this elegant, if scatological, graphic. The tiny bird, perched on the numeral one, is suitably shocked. "Need knows no limits," the text reads.
Itzohoe also issued this remarkable design. "What has to be, has to be. This isn't gold, but it's still money." Have you ever seen such a splendid looking chicken?
"Keep Kahla's fragments," the porcelain manufacturing town of Kahla proclaims. "Good luck is hidden in shards."A reference perhaps to a broken Germany, bereft of all its colonies, its resource-rich industrial Saar region (occupied by the French in 1923 for Germany's "failure" to repay its crippling war debt) and much of East Prussia.
Dancing around a bag of gold, one of the frolickers (lower right) is stereotypically "semitic." He is joined, in the upper left, by a black. Issued by the region of Saxony, the inscription reads: "Nothing is holy anymore. Anything goes."
Most notgeld celebrated a happier past, promised a happier future, or promoted a community's resources-a spa, a business or a cultural event. Not the city of Hamburg. Below the corpse of a soldier, the scarlet band is inscribed: "They rest as seeds in the womb of the earth. They shall ripen as sheaves of wheat." The wheat bends as if to embrace the soldier. Red poppies dot the outcropping.
From the same Hamburg series, a crucified soldier hangs on a sword of iron. His bowed head is surrounded by a halo of dagger-like points. "He gave his life," the text reads, "so that we may live."
A more generic-if beautifully stylized-crucifix adorns this notgeld from Bentheim. A more secular note is struck on the reverse side. It boasts of the town's commercial renown-its spa, its fashion industry, its baked goods.
The inscription has faded from this Leipzig notgeld, but there is nothing faded about this young man. He is out to conquer the world, and with that seven-league stride he just might do it. The super "M" probably stands for messe (fair), for which Leipzig is still celebrated.
The artist for this notgeld, M. Eschle, has deservedly signed the banknote. What a powerful graphic-a poster in miniature! "Nothing good comes from bloody hatred," the text reads.
The town of Kahlo pictures money falling to the ground like leaves in autumn. And what comes next but winter!
And here winter has arrived. The reverse of this notgeld pictures a sweeper brushing aside the illusions of the past: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do right and fear no man.
Notgeld lifts the curtain on an historical past and on a craftsmanship that to a great extent has disappeared. The care and love that went into these little masterworks should be a salve to our sensitivities bruised by the visual chaos and disorder of present day America-increasingly a third-world culture, artistically speaking.
Why do our postage stamps no longer honor George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but Donald Duck and Batman, Bob Hope and Howdy Doody? And why are they no longer engraved, which formerly signified and honored their status as official government documents, no less official than our paper currency? (Well, in 2005 there was an engraved stamp honoring Greta Garbo. But that was engraved in Sweden, reissued by us.)
Whatever happened to the classic bottle of Bayer aspirin? It was once a model of sobriety and simplicity. Now it's a grab bag of jarring colors, intended to jump right off the Duane Reade shelf into your shopping cart. Happily, they left the pills alone. But why not? The stuff has already been bought.
Why are most electrical outlets installed crooked?
Why are hand-lettered signs rendered as if it was enough to merely convey a message with no regard for it appearance? The other day I saw a sign announcing a "Moveing [sic] Sale," its verbal illiteracy matched only by the visual illiteracy of letter forms indifferently sized and spaced. Regarding verbal illiteracy, what can one expect when only one out of six Americans even reads books, and most Americans don't even pick one up (telephone directories and Maltin's guide to video movies excepted). If the sign "Open for Business" is crudely lettered, what does that say about the business? Or us? The poet Antonio Machado pleaded, "Slowly now, nice neat letters / the point is to do things well / not just to do them."
For those of us who mourn the loss of craftsmanship-or for those of us who simply admire beautiful graphics-notgeld is a wonderful and surprisingly inexpensive source of pleasure and instruction. Most notgeld sells for less than a few dollars, rarely more. And their condition is remarkable considering their age and what must have been a shortage of acid-proof paper during those war-ravaged years. Google "notgeld" and contact one of the several suppliers of this generally neglected area of ephemera. A supplier I use is located in Las Vegas-of all places-Hans and Beata Rauch. Their selection is large, their quality good, and their prices reasonable. Happy hunting!