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Test Drive of the Euro in Germany Becomes a Coin Collectors' Race


An experiment intended to give Germans a sense of what it will be like to exchange their trusted deutsche marks for the new "euro" currency may turn out to be the victim of its own success.

This quiet little spa town in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany ran a test from Oct. 1 to 13 that has great significance for the whole European Union (EU), and world currency markets as well: Specially minted, locally designed euro coins were sold by the local savings bank, and several dozen local merchants agreed to accept them as "payment" for goods and services.

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The stores were ready

At Reich's clothing store on the market square, for instance, a sign on the front door proclaimed, "Euro Waldkirch - We're Part of It." And prices were marked in both deutsche marks and euros.

But how did it go? How did townspeople feel about using these new coins to pay for clothing? Well, therein lies the problem. "I can't really say," says Beate Kern, one of the store's staff. "It hasn't happened yet."

The coins proved popular with the townspeople and sold out quickly - as collector's items.

In Herr's Bakery, a few doors down from Reich's, Ruth Herr can claim to be one of the few merchants who actually accepted euros in a transaction, when the director of the local bank dropped by to make a "purchase" before four or five assembled television cameras. "Oh, I made up a price list with marks and euros all right, but nobody has thought of them as real money," she says.

Indeed, that was another part of the problem: The Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, the ever-vigilant guardian of the money supply, agreed to approve the test only if the coins were called coins, not "medallions," and only if they were used for barter. The Waldkirch euros were not allowed as legal tender and thus it has been illegal to give change.

Many observers see this reluctance as a bad sign for the introduction of the "real" euro, now set to begin in 1999 and be complete by July 1, 2002. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been a staunch advocate of currency union as the way to cement political union within Europe.

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France's euro test

Waldkirch got the idea for its euros from the Alsatian city of Slestat, France, with which it has had a 30-year city partnership that includes cultural and economic exchanges.

There, Edouard Jehl, a restaurateur and coin collector, had the idea of marking the 30th anniversary of the partnership, to be celebrated in May, by having euro coins minted - 4,000 three-euro pieces, plus 500 coins worth 25 euros each.

His fellow collectors eagerly supported the idea. And so did the authorities in Paris: His request for permission to introduce his euros as legal tender was granted within days. The two-week experiment was a "complete success," Richarde Kamm, another collector in Slestat, pronounced afterward. While collectors held on to a certain share of the euro coins, many in the city used the coins to make purchases.

By contrast, it took six months to get approval from German authorities to circulate the Waldkirch euro. "We had to a run marathon of permit applications," says Dieter Grupp, town administrator.

Germany stands to benefit from currency union, since the strength of the deutsche mark hurts its exports. But many Germans - especially those who remember the hyperinflation of the 1920s and World War II - are reluctant to give up such a tangible sign of their postwar success. "The older generation is somewhat skeptical," says Mr. Grupp.

Waldkirch minted more of its euros than Slestat and Grupp sees the fact that Waldkirch's euros sold out so quickly as "a positive sign - the people voting with their feet, so to speak, in favor of currency union."

But when asked if the coins were used to shop with, he catches his breath, and says, "The circulation has held itself within limits. It could be greater."

Money to keep, not spend

"Demand for the euros has been very strong," says Michael Pislcaijt, a stamp and coin dealer in Waldkirch, "but in the wrong direction - everyone who bought them just wanted to hang onto them."

He was able to buy a few, and resell them, but would have been glad to have more. "I've had calls from all over Germany."

Around town one hears a lament that there weren't more of the coins - but that it was a good sign that they sold out quickly.

"A lot of people [in Germany] are afraid of the new currency," Walter Weiss, an employee of the Waldkircher Verlag bookstore, says in his lilting southern German accent.

And so he finds it "quite a positive thing" to have this euro experiment, even if the coins themselves have been hard to come by.

Helmut Disch, owner of the Felsenkeller Hotel in Waldkirch, is a euro-skeptic - though not a Euro-skeptic.

"I'm a little hesitant ... [the euro] is a mixture - you get some [Italian] lire, you get some [Dutch] florins."

This doesn't mean he's not "open to Europe," he insists.

"We have people from all over Europe at the hotel. We even take [British] pounds!"

"A lot of people have the euros at home," says a woman in Reich's clothing store.

"They want to give them to their children or grandchildren, to be able to show them, 'This is what the first euro looked like.' "

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