A Moral History of the Inflation

$46.50 USD

Hardcover (casebound)
350 pages, 6.14 x 9.21 inches
113 black and white illustrations
Includes an index
Pub date: 21 March 2023
ISBN 9781777499532

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Journalist Hans Ostwald (1873–1940) describes life in Germany during the early 1920s, a period when money lost its value so quickly that people used eggs rather than cash as units of exchange.

Rich in anecdotes and contemporary reports, the book discusses both the social and psychological effects of the hyperinflation: grinding poverty, an increase in crime, a decline in moral standards, and a frenzied desire to make the most of the present, since no one could be certain of what the future might hold.

“It was a time of significant revaluation — in material as well as in spiritual things. He who had been rich and able to indulge in every worldly pleasure soon counted himself lucky if some well-meaning people offered him a bowl of warm soup. Lowly clerks became bank directors overnight, with seemingly inexhaustible funds at their command. In those days, foreigners who lived on small pensions at home could come to Germany and live like kings. Everything seemed to have been turned upside down.”

Although Ostwald’s moral history has often been cited in works dealing with the Weimar Republic, this is the first complete English translation. It contains more than a hundred photographs and illustrations.

about the author

Hans Ostwald was born to a working-class family in Berlin in 1873. After a four-year apprenticeship to a goldsmith that he described as a period of “dreadful tyranny,” he took to the road as a journeyman in 1894. He endured long periods of unemployment and fell in with tramps and hobos. While other itinerant tradesmen avoided these impoverished vagrants, Ostwald befriended them, shared their meals and accommodations, and even picked up their slang.

Ostwald was a voracious reader and had literary ambitions; he wrote up some of his experiences among the working poor and homeless and sent them off to newspapers in Berlin. In 1896 he sold his first article to Felix Hollaender at the Welt am Montag, and he was soon able to give up his trade and write full time. He went on to distill his early travelling experiences into Vagabunden (1900), a semi-autobiographical work about life as a tramp, and Rinnsteinsprache (1906), “a lexicon of crooks, harlots and vagabonds” that documented the vocabulary of those on the fringe of society.

Ostwald worked as a reporter throughout the early 1900s, and it was during this time he conceived of, contributed to, and edited what would be his magnum opus: the Großstadt-Dokumente, a series of 51 volumes that documented life in large German cities. These texts remain an important primary source for social historians today.

Ostwald continued to write for periodicals and served as a propagandist during the First World War, covering subjects as diverse as social assistance for war widows, the use of rutabagas as a replacement for potatoes, and the state of the handicrafts in wartime Germany. After 1919 he returned to writing books — about the culture and history of Berlin, monographs of the artists Heinrich Zille and Max Liebermann, as well as popular histories of German explorers and farming. Although Ostwald had been a long time member of the Social Democratic Party, he resigned in 1932 out of frustration with their inability to deal with the unemployment crisis. When the National Socialists gained power in 1933, he had high hopes for their job creation plan; he changed political stripes and distanced himself from much of his previous work (i.e., anything that documented prostitution, homosexuality, and crime), preferring to be thought of as an agrarian writer and folk historian. Thanks in part to letters of support from fellow writers like Johannes Schlaf and Heinrich Sohnrey, Ostwald was admitted to the Reichsschrifttumskammer (Reich Chamber of Literature) in 1935.

In the late 1930s, Ostwald, who had lost all of his savings in an attempt to establish an agricultural settlement for the unemployed on a country estate north of Stettin (today known as Szczecin, Poland), was planning a re-edition of his works and an autobiography, but he died of a heart attack in 1940 before either these could be completed.

As Ralf Thies notes in his book about the Großstadt-Dokumente, Ostwald was largely forgotten after 1945 because he tried to erase some of his most interesting books from his biography, namely anything that would point to his past as an urban writer, a bohemian, or a socialist.1

1 Ralf Thies, Ethnograph des dunklen Berlin: Hans Ostwald und die Großstadt-Dokumente (Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2006), p. 294. This book is the source for most of the information in this biographical sketch.