A Question of Context: the Billion Mark Stamp

The poor state of history education in our primary and secondary schools has left many of my college students seeing history as nothing but distinct facts to be memorized, often in list form. I know I had to repeatedly memorize the major battles of the Revolutionary War and their dates. How does that help me understand the war overall? It doesn’t. Not in the least. Also, I don’t remember a damn one of them besides Lexington and Concord precisely because the information was presented in such an irrelevant format.

At least I didn’t have to memorize all the Presidents.  I did have to memorize all from 1920 forward including their middle names.  You know what that taught me?

  • Richard Nixon’s middle name is Milhous
  • Harry S. Truman’s middle name is S.  He inserted it to sound more presidential.
  • High schools’ concept of history sucks

From day one, I try to get my students to understand that history is about context, cause and effect. Things don’t just randomly happen. Other things led to that point, and that point will further influence future things. For example, Hitler didn’t just show up one day and convince a country to hate Jews. He built upon centuries of stereotypes and persecution as well as a suffering country’s need for scapegoats.

Which brings us to this:

One Million Mark Stamp

The German One Million Mark Stamp

Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil would be so happy with this one MILLION mark stamp. What the hell do you mail with a stamp this big? A battleship?

Nowhere close.

This is exactly where historical context makes this very odd object make sense.

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The Folly of the Treaty of Versailles

World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles where the winning side pretty much dictated what the losers would suffer. Much of the blame was put on Germany. It lost territory and the people living in that territory, shrinking the workforce. It had to limit its military to 100,000 soldiers, and it had to remove all military presence from the territory bordering France. It was also required to pay huge amounts of reparations to Britain and France.

Germany’s infrastructure had been annihilated in the war. Huge numbers of people were starving, yet the government continued to send reparation money out of the country, further disrupting its ability to rebuild.

The solution was to just keep printing more money. The result in 1923 was spectacular inflation. People were going to grocery stores with wheelbarrows full of money.

Woman burning German money

I can’t make this stuff up.  This woman has rightly concluded fueling her furnace with currency is cheaper than using it to buy proper fuel.

Chilren using German money as building blocks

At least some good use came of the worthless money.