The Devil’s Metal; Nickel Coins of the Third Reich
By: Marc Bink
The other day I was listening to a German radio station on the internet, and they had a phone-in trivia contest running. They asked five questions, and the caller had to get at least three right. Then they asked the zinger, which had to be answered correctly. I could have won this one, but I wasn’t prepared to rack up a long distance bill and the prize didn’t justify the airfare. The question was, “What was the weight of a 1 pfennig coin?” The answer of course (2 grams, in case anyone wanted to know) wasn’t correctly guessed, and contestant after contestant lost their chance at a free dinner at a “Weiner Wald” restaurant. One exasperated caller said; “How the devil would anyone know that? Which one and which metal composition are you referring to?” – Hearing the term “devil” and metallic composition in German gave me an idea for an article concentrating on Nickel coins of the Third Reich.
Nickel is a great metal for striking coins. It is harder than copper or silver, yet soft enough to strike; it wears well and does not tarnish. It can be alloyed with copper to form “cupro-nickel”, thereby keeping the intrinsic costs of the coinage down, while maintaining a silvery colour and hindering the progression of discolouring or oxidation. The element was isolated in 1751, by Swedish chemist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, given the name “nickel”, and it was being used in coinage starting around 1840. Apparently raw nickel ore and copper ore were pretty close in appearance; so when the medieval Germans failed to extract copper out of what they thought was a copper ore body, they gave the resulting mess the name “Alte Nickel”, thereby blaming their misfortune on the Devil. No one can accuse the Germans of not having a sense of humor, the word for the bread “pumpernickel” translates into something akin to demonic flatulence, – but I digress.
Cupro-nickel coins had been minted in Germany since the 1870s. The 50 Reichspfennig coin of 1937 was the first pure nickel issue (left). This coin is listed in Krause as KM-49 and probably ranks up there as one of the prettiest coin issues ever made. It is very art-deco, with an incuse denomination set in rays, surrounded by an oak leaf wreath. The reverse side features the German state Eagle surrounded by another wreath. Legends are in block letters, with “Reichspfennig” appearing on the obverse, and “Deutsches Reich, 1927” appearing on the reverse. This series ran from 1927 to 1938, with no changes. It was designed by Tobias Schwab, with the dies prepared by Reinhard Kullrich, both working out of the Berlin mint. Six mints were involved with the manufacture of these charming little coins, (20mm, weight 3.5 grams, close to a Canadian nickel) and the mintage figures are huge. Rarities in this set include the 1930 E, F, G, J mintmarks; as well as the 1931J, 1932E, G, and finally 1933G mintmarks. This series is one of the most popular of the Weimar issues, and it was extensively collected in Germany at the time.
The next nickel coin struck in the Nazi period was the 1 Reichsmark coin. Krause has this one listed as KM-78 (Right). It was designed by Oskar Gloeckner and is 23mm and weighs in at 4.8 grams (about the same size as a Canadian quarter). This coin replaced the silver Weimar issue (last struck in 1927) in 1933. It was smaller than the previous silver coin, and featured a gothic “1” with “Reichsmark” underneath it, surrounded by an oak wreath; and the reverse featured a German Eagle surrounded by the legend “Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz”, which loosely translated means “community before individuality”. This was one of the Nazi’s more popular slogans. It was also used on the edges of the 2 and 5 Reichsmark coins starting in 1934. It replaced the former Weimar Republic slogan of “Unity, Righteousness, and Freedom”, which by 1933 was pretty much a forgotten concept. The lettering font is in old German Gothic, which was supposed to give the coin a more “Nationalist” appeal, separating it further from the “decadent” Weimar period. This series was made by the same 6 mints from 1933 to 1939, and was the only general circulating German coin issue that never received a swastika. There were plans to replace it with a swastika issue in 1940, but the war intervened. The mintage figures for these coins are also large, and as with any German issue, there are a few mintmarks that are harder to find than others. Prices for these coins are significantly higher in Germany than elsewhere in the world;- they are all believed to be rare, for reasons which are described below. Krause has the average BU price listed at around $40.00, whereas the German Michel catalog lists the same at 70 Euros.
The last coin in this series was the elusive 50 Reichspfennig issue in Nickel from 1938-39. Krause has these listed as KM-95. This was the “Nazified” successor to the previous Weimar issue, (KM-49). The design elements are similar, with the denomination and the lettering font being changed to gothic script, and the eagle was burdened with a swastika. These coins were probably the prettiest of the whole Nazi series. Physically it is the same size as the previous Weimar issue, (which was still being minted alongside this issue in 1938) and it was designed by Franz Krischker, who was responsible for the dies to all of the Nazi small change, except for the zinc coinage. Mintage fi gures for these coins are also large, but it was well known at the time that the 1939 issue was never fully released.
Which brings up another interesting, important point. These coins are surprisingly rare, and are seldom seen offered for sale. The 50 pfennig coins were avidly collected in the day, and the 1 Mark coins were widely circulated. The Reichsmark was never easily convertible to a hard currency, like the US dollar, so most of the coinage remained in Germany. However, one rarely sees them in poor condition.
There are a couple of reasons for this; – the first was that these coins were “demonetized” and recalled on the 8th of August, 1940. After that date they were no longer considered circulating legal tender, and had to be turned into the Reichsbank where the bearer would receive a replacement coin. The reason these coins were recalled was because they were an easy source of pure nickel; and nickel was a strategic material, – crucial in the manufacture of stainless steel and other alloys. The German economy had no indigenous sources of nickel left, (except for the coins and personal pots and pans that were also subject to this recall order) and was fully reliant on supplies of ore from Sweden, – so they needed every bit they could find in order to keep building Messerschmitts and tanks. The nickel 50 Reichspfennig coins were replaced by an aluminum issue (KM-96). The 1 Reichsmark coin was not replaced at all. Another reason is that most of the “survivors” come from private collections, – meaning that these coins were deliberately hoarded during the war, and were not submitted after the recall was ordered.
So here was the classic old saying applied in reverse. Instead of “beating swords into plowshares” it was “plowshares being beaten into swords”. So the next time you come across an old photograph of a German World War II gun, truck, airplane or tank, – you can be pretty sure that some pretty little coin had been part of it, proving that Nickel truly is the “Devil’s Metal”.
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Vol-56 Issue-03