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Germany and its Rubble Women planting Hope: The Oak as Symbol of Growth on the 50 Pfennig Coins in Postwar Period

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When Germany laid in ashes, there was a need for new symbols indicating a fresh start. The mighty oak tree shrank to a little oak sprig held in her hands by a pregnant woman.

 

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in a Germany which had been destroyed by the Second World War. We are in the year 1950.

After the Allied victory of 1945, Germany was reduced to rubble.

 

The aerial bombardment by the enemy had almost completely destroyed all the larger German cities. Operation Gomorrah had claimed the lives of approximately 35,000 residents of Hamburg. In Pforzheim a third of the 65,000 residents died within 22 minutes.

Overall, there were about half a million civilian deaths. And many more people were injured or made homeless.

 

The bombing, defeat and subsequent occupation had completely changed the self-image of an entire people. Where the Nazis had propagated the image of the German Übermensch, the humiliated losers felt only hunger, cold, and fear.

 

Yet life went on. About 400 million cubic metres of rubble had to be removed. Women were especially employed for this task. They were called the “Trümmerfrauen”, the rubble women. They have become a symbol of reconstruction in German history.

Then came the currency reform. And with the currency reform came hope, the hope of a new beginning.

 

All the hope flourishing in Germany at that time was distilled in this small coin; the German 50 pfennig piece. Sculptor Richard Martin Werner provided the design. He used his then pregnant wife as a model. She is kneeling, and her clothing is reminiscent of the countless “Trümmerfrauen” who cleared Germany of rubble. However, the kneeling woman holds in her hand not a brick, but a small oak sapling with roots. A tiny little oak that she plants firmly in the earth, trusting in a new beginning.

 

The oak sapling was not chosen arbitrarily. The oak was considered the German tree par excellence.  Since the beginning of the 19th century, members of the German nationalist movement had linked the oak tree with their native country.

The mighty oak also appeared on coins as a symbol of Germany. This 5 Reichsmark coin was minted during the Weimar Republic. The obverse shows a huge oak, its roots reaching deep into the soil. Around it is the inscription “Unity and Justice and Freedom”. These words form the beginning of the third verse of the Deutschlandlied, which in 1922 would become the country’s official national anthem.

 

But the Nazis also abused this symbol, and thus almost completely discredited the oak. On this medal by Karl Goetz, its image is applied to Hitler. The artist compares him to a strong young tree shoot growing from the stump of an ancient oak. To the left of the tree, the year 936 represents the founding of the First Reich under Otto I; the year 1871 for the establishment of the Second Reich under Wilhelm I. The new shoot, stretching out to the swastika, symbolises the Third Reich, as the Nazi dictatorship liked to call itself.

 

The Third Reich was overthrown. Finally! Thus, the old oak tree was torn from the soil by its roots. To begin anew, a little sapling had to be planted. This little sapling was helpless and delicate; it had to rely on painstaking care, if at some point in the distant future it were to grow into a strong nation once again.

 

Responsible for the minting of the 50-pfennig coin was the Bank Deutscher Länder, the predecessor of the German Bundesbank which was supervised by the Allies. On the reverse of this first fifty-pfennig coin, the Bank Deutscher Länder is named as the responsible institution.

 

Incidentally, this coin shows a wrong inscription. Combined with the year 1950 the minting authority Bank Deutscher Länder should have been dropped and replaced with the name of the new state: Bundesrepublik Deutschland. However, the mint in Karlsruhe made a mistake. As it was the postwar period, resources were too limited to allow for the re-smelting and correct minting of the 30,000 coins. So a special announcement was made to allow the wrongly-minted coins to be brought into circulation.

 

The little oak sapling has been growing since 1949. But it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that Germany became a great nation again, a great nation because it has learnt from its own history.