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Wära

Introduction

The Wära was a stamp scrip currency used in Germany in 1926-1931 applying the concept of demurrage. It gained impetus in 1929 when a mine owner used Wära to restart a bankrupt lignite mine in Bavaria. The local economy got such a boost that many firms in Germany adopted the currency. In 1931 the German state prohibited Wära because it had become a threat to the state-issued Mark.

Purpose

Wära was introduced as a free economy experiment in various places around Germany. It was introduced by Hans Timm and Helmut Rödiger, followers of Silvio Gesell, in 1926. The idea of this measure was to place the currency under compulsory circulation 1 and to reduce, instead of enlarge, the gap between the poorest and richest layers of society. This was especially apt considering that the economy was in a severe recession and legal tender was scarce. In addition, demurrage encourages spending instead of hoarding, which can further deepen a recession.

Community Overview

Wära was used in interwar, recession-struck Germany, where high rates of inflation, unemployment and poverty frustrated the economy and people alike. At its height in 1931, about 2.5 million people were earning and spending Wära in villages all over Germany. Numerous communities were reported to be lifted out of stagnation and poverty shortly after adopting Wära 2.

History

Timm and Rödiger founded the “Wära circulation agency” in Erfurt in October 1929 – almost coinciding with the Black Friday in New York City, United States and the start of the Great Depression. Three years earlier, a Wära test had been conducted in the free economic Physiocratic League, to which Rödinger and Timm belonged 3.

In 1929, Max Hebecker, former employee and new owner of a bankrupt coalmine, offered to the miners that they accept their wages largely payed in Wära, a scrip currency he knew through his membership of a free economic circle 4 5. After securing local merchants to accept Wära, the demurrage fee made sure the currency reached a high velocity, boosting the extremely stagnant economy of that time.

Stamp scrip brought to small mining village

Eisleben-born mining engineer Max Hebecker learned of the ideas of the monetary reformist Silvio Gesell, as a member of the youth group Wandervogel and eventually joined the Physiocratic League. In 1925 he took a job at the lignite mine at Schwanenkirchen (a village of five hundred inhabitants) that had originally been in the possession of the city of Deggendorf, but was then purchased by the Lower Bavarian lignite mining corporation AG. In 1927 the mine was forced to declare bankruptcy. Along with Hebecker, many locals lost their job. At a foreclosure sale in the winter of 1929, Hebecker acquired the mine for his entire fortune of 8000 Reichsmark 6.

After the regional banks refused to finance the reconstruction of the coal mine, Hebecker turned to the Wära circulation agency in Erfurt, whose founders he knew through membership of the Physiocratic League. Shortly thereafter, a Wära financing consortium was founded in Erfurt, which gave Hebecker the needed credit of 50 thousand Reichsmark. This credit consisted mostly of Wära, and only a little part of it was in Reichsmark 7.
The coal mine could be restarted, first with 45 and later with 60 workers. Two thirds of their salary was paid in Wära and one third was in Reichsmark 8. Local merchants first felt a little hesitant about Wära, but had no choice, as no one had any other kind of money 9.

Success and wider adoption

Wära then became so successful that by 1931 the Freiwirtschaft (free economy) movement had spread through all of Germany. It involved more than 2,000 corporations, and a few banks actually created accounts denominated in it 10. “Wära accepted here!” was an advertisement found on numerous shop display windows 11.

The business life of Schwanenkirchen was significantly improved, and this also affected the entire surrounding area. At the same time, Hebecker was cultivating new business ideas. For example, whoever bought coals in Wära received a 5% discount.

The success received widespread attention. Even in the United States numerous newspaper and magazine articles reported on Wära, including one by Hans R. L. Cohrssen that appeared in The New Republic in August 1932. It read:

“When, after two years of complete stagnation, the workers for the first time brought home their pay envelopes, no one was interested in hoarding a cent of it, all the money went to the stores to pay off debts or for the purchase of necessities. (…) The shopkeepers then forced it on the wholesalers; the wholesalers forced it on the manufacturers, who in turn tried to pass it on to those who carried their notes, or they exchanged it at Herr Hebecker’s mine for coal. (…)

No one who received Wara wished to hold it, the workers, storekeepers, wholesalers and manufacturers all strove to get rid of it as quickly as possible, for any person who held it was obliged to pay the tax. So Wara kept on circulating, a large part of it returning to the coal mine, where it provided work, profits and better conditions for the entire community.

“Indeed, one could not have recognized Schwanenkirchen a few months after work had been resumed at the mine. The village was [prosperous], workers and merchants were free from debts and a new spirit of freedom and life pervaded the town…. Had Herr Hebecker used his 40,000 Reichmarks instead of Wära, his efforts would have inevitably resulted in failure; the money would have circulated through only one or two hands, each person retaining as much as possible and hoarding it because of the hard times.” 12

Demise

The success of the Wära experiment was widely noticed. Even the Reichsbank took notice of Hebecker. It ordered an investigation, which resulted in Hebecker being charged for “unauthorised issue of banknotes”. The court of Deggendorf refused to process the case, saying that “it could not find a punishable act”. Wära was not a forbidden form of Notgeld (emergency money) and not a form of money defined by law 13. After they failed to achieve this end through the courts, the state introduced an emergency law to stop the issue of Wära on 30 October 1931 14. Economist Irving Fischer wrote (1933), “With war inflation still fresh in memory, the government was apparently unable to see the difference between [the hyperinflated Reichsmark] and the modest Wara (…). Under a misconception, therefore (…) the German government imagined that it could detect in Wara the threat of evil – evil to come out of good; and at last the government succeeded in stopping the good.”

Hebecker had to lay off most of its workers back into unemployment. With a few colleagues, he still tried for a time to maintain the mining operation, but failed quickly 15.

Impact

The economic success of the Wära was unequivocal and spurred similar initiatives in Austria and the U.S. (see Stamp scrip). After the 1930s and the Second World War, economic prosperity inhibited the creation of new demurrage-based currencies, but more recently negative-interest currencies like the Chiemgauer are again cited as example in the context of the global economic recession.

Currency Details

a.    The system in numbers

At Wära’s height in 1930-31, over 2000 firms in Germany accepted the scrip. During 1930-31, over two million people handled it. Not more than 20,000 Wära circulated at any one time, though, because of the circulation incentive 16.

b.      Function and Unit of Account

The Scrip was issued in denominations of 1/2, 1, 2 and 5 Wara, and to be purchasable of the association for 1/2, 1, 2, and 5 Reichsmark respectively. It was not seen as a form of money defined by law 17 and hence was exempt from taxation.

The word Wära, invented by Timm and Rödiger, comes from the words Währung (currency) and währen (“to last”), in the sense of “lasting”, “stable” 18. According to Irving Fischer’s 1933 book Stamp Scrip, the word is compounded from “Ware” and “Währung,” which mean respectively “Goods” and “Currency”.

c.       Issuance – Backing

Wära was issued by the Wära circulation agency in Erfurt. They could be obtained by exchange or as loans. Wära was backed by Reichsmark. However, as Fischer 19 notes, “the word Reichsmark nowhere appeared, and the scrip, though a private enterprise, was intended to be permanent. Only in case of some untoward emergency was it to be redeemed; and in view of that possibility, the purchase money was kept on hand as a provisional redemption fund.”

Specific Attributes

To avoid losing value, owners of Wära currency had to spend their currency by its due date, or buy a stamp. The bill was only valid if a stamp for the current month, that was to be bought for 1% of the note’s value, was applied to the note. On the back of the Wära banknote was a series of printed fields, where the demurrage stamps could be glued onto 20. These stamps (sold for Marks by the Wära circulation agency) were intended to speed the circulation, but the proceeds, instead of redeeming the scrip, were to be used in the propagation of the scrip idea 21.

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