The Political Importance of Printing Banknotes in Exile

Printing several tonnes of paper money in British exile, storing it there temporarily and shipping it back home after the end of the war – this may seem very bizarre at first. On closer inspection, however, this process offers an anecdotal insight into an area of responsibility of a finance minister in exile, sheds light on challenges of national and international cooperation and illustrates the political and psychological significance of supposedly incidental fields of work of economic and financial experts.

In his memoirs, Ladislav Feierabend, Czechoslovak Minister of Finance in exile, deals in detail with the reprinting of Czechoslovak banknotes and takes the reader into his world of tasks and thoughts surrounding this process. He himself noted that “The printing of banknotes in exile has not been written about anywhere, and therefore I think it right to record some of it for historiography.” [i] The purpose of this blog post is to pay tribute to his work and to illustrate the importance of banknotes through his detailed accounts.

For Feierabend, the implementation of a monetary reform after the end of the war was of great importance. As he explained at a conference of Allied finance ministers in 1942, four different currencies existed on the territory of occupied Czechoslovakia: “In the territory incorporated formally into the Reich, the Reichsmark is the exclusive currency. In the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia there are two currencies, the Reichsmark and the Czech Crown […]. In Slovakia there is a Slovak Crown, whereas in the parts attached to Hungary it is the pengue”.[ii] For Feierabend, it was essential to end this situation immediately after the war in order to avoid a state of chaos. This required above all the exchange of the “new” money introduced under the German occupation. The National Socialists had established the Bohemian and Moravian koruna (Crown) after the annexation of the Czech Republic in 1939. It was pegged to the German Reichsmark at a rate of 10:1 and circulated throughout the war years.[iii] The same was true of the Slovak koruna, which was introduced after Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia.

Thus, one measure in particular had to be prepared: printing new banknotes that could be brought directly to Czechoslovakia after the war’s end. For this purpose, a special department was set up in the Ministry of Finance to deal with this action’s logistical and political hurdles.[iv] Although Feierabend does not comment in his memoirs on his motivation for reprinting the banknotes, creating a new beginning after the end of the German occupation certainly seems very plausible. In this context, Greek Finance Minister Kyriakos Varvaressos, who also ordered the reprinting of the Greek banknotes in exile, stated that this step towards a stable currency after the war was “of high psychological value for the nation”.[v] In addition, the belief in the reunification of Czechoslovakia after the war can clearly be observed.

Other governments in exile also took up the possibility of reprinting banknotes in exile with the help of the Bank of England.[vi] In particular, the Eastern and South-Eastern European finance ministers were interested in this offer. In these countries, many currencies circulated in parallel and there was a fear – as in Czechoslovakia – of chaotic conditions after the end of the war. The formal discussions about the reprinting are well documented in the Foreign Office and the Treasury records.[vii] However, these files do not provide a detailed insight into the actual logistical process and all the (symbolic) decisions involved. This completion can be found in Feierabend’s memoirs and can thus be reconstructed in this blog article.

Slovak koruna, Bill signed by Ministry of Finances, Bratislava (Preßburg) – Own work Peter Zelizňák (photo) – cc-by-3.0 6. mája 2011.

Right at the beginning of the process it became clear that banknotes are not only currency but can also convey (political) messages in a subtle way. The design of the new banknotes was very sensitive and raised the question of which Czechoslovak personalities should be depicted on them. The war-time Slovak koruna mainly featured high-ranking personalities of the Slovak national movements, as well as rulers of the Great Moravian Empire as whose legitimate successor the national movements considered the new Slovak state. Among others, the 10 korún note showed Andrej Hlinka. He was the founder of the right-wing clero-fascist Slovak People’s Party, which participated in the Slovak holocaust after Hlinka’s death.[viii] The banknotes of the Bohemian and Moravian koruna depicted mainly the rulers of the former Bohemian monarchy as well as images of the city of Prague. Feierabend thus had the difficult task of designing the banknotes in a way that was as pacifying as possible for both sides after the war.

Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia 100 korun (1940) banknotes were issued during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. National Museum of American History.

The Czechoslovak government in exile agreed on two names primarily: The Czech Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and the Slovak Milan Rastislav Štefánik should appear on the new banknotes. These two men, along with Edvard Beneš (who, as the still-living president in exile, did not wish to be on the banknotes), were considered the founding fathers of a united Czechoslovakia.[ix] A symbolic decision for a united, independent Czechoslovak state after the war. At the same time, the Czech poet Karel Havlíček and the Slovak politician and poet Ján Kollár were to be depicted – Feierabend thus visibly strove for a balance between Czechs and Slovaks.[x]

The fact that banknotes can be highly political was also shown in another place: Czechoslovak President Beneš ordered over Feierabend’s head that only Czech and Slovak texts should be depicted on the banknotes – but no German or Polish. Feierabend concluded from this that the highly explosive question of the deportation of the Sudeten Germans after the end of the war had been decided here – it was to be carried out. Moreover, Feierabend deduced from Benes’ decision that “we would agree with the Poles that practically none would not stay with us”.[xi]

The question of the size of the new banknotes was also intensely debated in the Ministry of Finance. The discussion was about a new “American system” in which the colour defined the differences in denominations as opposed to the old system, which categorised the different banknotes according to their size. Feierabend, who did not want to overburden the Czechoslovakian population after the war with a novelty in an already chaotic state, ultimately prevailed here.[xii]

After further details, such as the graphic design of the motifs, the use of a watermark to protect the new banknotes against forgery and the paper issue for printing by the British Treasury had been clarified and negotiated, it finally still needed a storage location for the produced cash. This had to be designed to be safe from raids and bombings. Feierabend and the special department of his Finance Ministry found a solution to this problem as well. Together with other governments in exile – which unfortunately have not been identified yet – they used an old sandstone quarry near Bath. This had a function for “extracting humid air and a secure closure.”[xiii]  Feierabend seemed enthusiastic about this storage facility and romanticised his visits to the old mine as follows: “Twice I inspected the storage of the banknotes and always felt like I was in a fairy tale when, amidst the green meadow where cows grazed calmly, I descended to the steel doors of the pit where the paper money waited for the day of liberation like a fairy-tale princess.”[xiv] In this context, banknote printing not only proved to be a means of preparing for currency reform in the post-war period, moreover, it offered the possibility of cooperation with other governments in exile and thus the possibility of international networking in the exile space.

Despite the extensive preparation and printing of new banknotes in exile, the desired order did not prevail after the war. In 1945, four different types of Czechoslovak koruna were introduced, one of which had already been printed in the Soviet Union.

In summary, however, Feierabend’s descriptions show what a seemingly simple process can tell us about national and international relations, national identity and symbolically loaded tensions. But also, how an important financial expert in exile positioned himself in this difficult field. To conclude, Feierabend’s records show one thing above all: the political significance of printing new banknotes in exile.

[i] Kuhn, Heinrich (ed.): Ladislav Feierabend Prag – London vice – versa. Erinnerungen 1938-1950. Vol. II, 1941-1950. Bonn / Brüssel / New York 1971, p. 103.

[ii] National Archives, FO 371/31522. Memoranda of a Meeting of Allied Finance Ministers on Post-War Currency Requirements of the Allies, 24 July 1942.

[iii] Kilian, Jürgen: Krieg auf Kosten anderer. Das Reichsministerium und die wirtschaftliche Mobilisierung Europas für Hitlers Krieg. Oldenburg 2017. S. 130.

[iv] Kuhn, Heinrich (ed.): Ladislav Feierabend Prag – London vice – versa, p.102.

[v] FO 371/31522. Memoranda of a Meeting of Allied Finance Ministers on Post-War Currency Requirements of the Allies, 24 July 1942.

[vi] The Greek, Polish and Yugoslavian governments in exile also ordered the reprinting of banknotes.

[vii] National Archives, FO 371/31522.

[viii] For more details on Hlinka and his Slovak People’s Party, see: Lorman, Thomas: The Making of the Slovak People´s Party. Religion, Nationalism and the Culture War in Early 20th Century Europe. London 2019; Witt, Sabine: Nationalistische Intellektuelle in der Slowakei 1918-1945. Kulturelle Praxis zwischen Sakralisierung und Säkularisierung

[ix] On Masaryk see: Zeman, Zbyněk: The Masaryks: The Making of Czechoslovakia. Lexington 2019. On Štefánik see: Kšiňan, Michal: Milan Rastislav Štefánik. The Slovak National Hero and Co-Founder of Czechoslovakia. London 2021.

[x] Kuhn, Heinrich (ed.): Ladislav Feierabend Prag – London vice – versa, p.103.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid, p.105.

[xiv] Ibid, p.106.

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