• Banking and Finance in Historical Perspective
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41. Jahrgang | Jahr 2015 | Heft 1

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Anna Grodecka / Marcin Markowski
Banknotes as a Symbol of Economic and National Power
A Case Study of German, French and Italian Banknotes in the 19th and First Half of the 20th Century
Banknotes and their design play an important role in creating a nation’s identity. This paper analyzes the design of German, French and Italian banknotes in the period after the formation of national states in the 19th century until the outbreak of World War II. We take into account the economic development of these countries and relate it to banknote issuance. Our analysis reveals that the banknote design in German states mirrored the economic conditions of the country, whereas such a relation is not observed in France or Italy.

Banknote issuance has been rarely discussed from an economic perspective in research literature. The artistic design of banknotes has been studied through various perspectives depending on the discipline. It is a subject of specialist books on art history, while technical literature focuses on anti-counterfeiting measures, political geography focuses on the ideological and nation-forming aspects of currencies, and sociology and psychology sometimes focus on the hidden meanings behind the national images (Billig coined the famous term “banal nationalism”). However, the relation between the economic conditions of a country and the design of its banknotes has never been discussed before. As de Heij states, “a banknote is the ambassador of the country and the culture it represents. The banknote is the front or show piece of a nation, often referred to as the calling card or business card function”. Thus, we might expect some positive correlation between the design of banknotes and the state of a country’s economy. On the other hand, as Boulding claims, the national image can be considered as a “lie, or at least perspective distortion of the truth”, which may refer to the propaganda functions of banknotes, especially in states facing difficult economic conditions or the change of political elites. Thus, one has to be cautious when interpreting the images appearing on national currencies and deriving conclusions from them.[…]

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