To pay for the large costs of the ongoing First World War, Germany suspended the gold standard (the convertibility of its currency to gold) when the war broke out. Unlike France, which imposed its first income tax to pay for the war, German Emperor Wilhelm II and the Reichstag decided unanimously to fund the war entirely by borrowing.
The government believed that it would be able to pay off the debt by winning the war and imposing war reparations on the defeated Allies. This was to be done by annexing resource-rich industrial territory in the west and east and imposing cash payments to Germany, similar to the French indemnity that followed German victory over France in 1870. Thus, the exchange rate of the mark against the US dollar steadily devalued from 4.2 to 7.9 marks per dollar, a preliminary warning to the extreme postwar inflation.
This strategy failed as Germany lost the war, which left the new Weimar Republic saddled with massive war debts that it could not afford, totaling 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion), later revised under the Young Plan to 112 billion marks (US$26.3 billion). The debt problem was exacerbated by printing money without any economic resources to back it. The demand in the Treaty of Versailles for reparations further accelerated the decline in the value of the mark, with 48 paper marks required to buy a US dollar by late 1919. Afterwards, German currency was relatively stable at about 90 marks per dollar during the first half of 1921. Because the Western Front of the war had been mostly fought in France and Belgium, Germany came out of the war with most of its industrial infrastructure intact, leaving it in a better position to become the dominant economic force on the European continent after an Allied ultimatum to impose economic sanctions that would force Germany to meet payments.
The first payment was made when it came due in June 1921, and marked the beginning of an increasingly rapid devaluation of the mark, which fell in value to approximately 330 marks per dollar. The total reparations demanded were 132 billion gold marks, but Germany had to pay only 50 billion marks at the time, as the reparations were required to be repaid in hard currency, not the rapidly depreciating Papiermark. From August 1921, Germany began to buy foreign currency with marks at any price, but that only increased the speed of the collapse in value of the mark, meaning more and more marks were required to buy the foreign currency that was demanded by the Reparations Commission.
In the first half of 1922, the mark stabilized at about 320 marks per dollar. International reparations conferences were being held. One, in June 1922, was organized by US investment banker J. P. Morgan, Jr. The meetings produced no workable solution, and inflation erupted into hyperinflation, the mark falling to 7,400 marks per US dollar by December 1922. The cost-of-living index was 41 in June 1922 and 685 in December, a nearly 17-fold increase. By fall of 1922, Germany found itself unable to make reparations payments.
The strategy that Germany had been using to pay war reparations was the mass printing of bank notes to buy foreign currency, which was then used to pay reparations, but this strategy greatly exacerbated the inflation of the paper mark. Since the mark was, by fall of 1922, practically worthless, it was impossible for Germany to buy foreign exchange or gold using paper marks. After Germany failed to pay France an installment of reparations on time in late 1922, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr valley, Germany's main industrial region, in January 1923. Reparations were to be paid in goods, such as coal, and the occupation was supposed to ensure reparations payments.
The cause of the immense acceleration of prices seemed unclear and unpredictable to those who lived through it, but in retrospect, it was relatively simple. The Treaty of Versailles imposed a huge debt on Germany that could be paid only in gold or foreign currency. With its gold depleted, the German government attempted to buy foreign currency with German currency, equivalent to selling German currency in exchange for payment in foreign currency, but the resulting increase in the supply of German marks on the market caused the German mark to fall rapidly in value, which greatly increased the number of marks needed to buy more foreign currency.
That caused German prices of goods to rise rapidly, increasing the cost of operating the German government, which could not be financed by raising taxes because those taxes would be payable in the ever-falling German currency. The resulting deficit was financed by some combination of issuing bonds and simply creating more money, both increasing the supply of German mark-denominated financial assets on the market and so further reducing the currency's price. When the German people realized that their money was rapidly losing value, they tried to spend it quickly. That increased monetary velocity caused an ever-faster increase in prices, creating a vicious cycle.
The government and the banks had two unacceptable alternatives. If they stopped inflation, there would be immediate bankruptcies, unemployment, strikes, hunger, violence, collapse of civil order, insurrection and possibly even revolution. If they continued the inflation, they would default on their foreign debt.
However, attempting to avoid both unemployment and insolvency ultimately failed when Germany had both.
The hyperinflated, worthless marks became widely collected abroad. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 1924 that more of the decommissioned notes were spread about the US than existed in Germany.
Postage stamps, similarly so, the face values increased dramatically into the thousands, then millions and then billions! Unused examples are very abundant in the collecting world and change hands for a few cents as curiosities. Genuine postally used and particularly those on covers can comand decent prices.