West Germany’s Economic Miracle -Wirtschaftswunder

Cover image- Wirtschaftswunder Deutschland nach dem Krieg -Josef Heinrich Darchinger

After spending a few semesters in mandatory Economics class at University I am certain of three things:
1. It’s virtually impossible to get more than two economists to agree on anything.
2. Guns and Butter are almost impossible to balance.
3. Taking a 7am Economics class might be the worst thing I ever did.
However, when you study history, you must have a basic understanding of economics. Or so they told me. (Honestly, I can’t think of a better cure for insomnia than listening to someone lecture for hours about interest rates, global markets, guns and butter…..zzzzzzz….) Still, now and then, money and history wrap together into an impenetrable mass, making it impossible to separate one from the other. For example, the post-War Wirtschaftswunder, or German Economic Miracle.

I can hear those of you who managed to get past 1945 in your history classes now shouting “It was the Marshall Plan”! Well… yes and no. The Marshall Plan did help the German economic recovery, but the contribution wasn’t the stuff of miracles. The heroes of our story come from unlikely (or unexpected) places. Two economists, Walter Eucker and Ludwig Erhard proposed a plan so radical, it would be the stuff of legend and Blockbuster film, if it weren’t about economics. And honestly, none of it… not the money from the United States, nor the work of the economists would make a bit of difference if not for the most essential component. The hard work and determination of the German people.

A few years ago I found discovered a book loaded with photos by Frank Darchinger called The Wirtschaftswunder that inspired me to dig deeper. The Wirtschaftswunder took Germany, a country devasted by War and pre-war inflation, and flipped the script.  The country went from Agrarian to Technological. It put a car in (almost) every garage, and a refrigerator in every kitchen,  and it built Germany into a powerhouse on the world stage.

So, pour yourself a cup of coffee (maybe make a pot), it’s time for an economics/history lesson about the Wirtschaftswunder…West Germany’s Economic Miracle!

Treaty of Versailles, Crippling Inflation, and War

To put everything into proper perspective, let’s begin with a short history lesson. World War I ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Somehow, Germany got the rawest of raw deals. The country found itself responsible for reparations payments to the tune of 132 BILLION Gold Marks. Not only this, Germany lost over 10% of its land. So, high payments, and loss of property that could generate income. What’s a country to do? Well… if you need more money, and you are in charge of printing more money… you print more. But here’s the thing. As a society, we all agree to give value to the slips of paper we call money. When a country bases their currency on the Gold Standard, it’s basically worth a fixed amount. For example if a country agrees that gold is worth $1000 for an ounce, this means every dollar is worth 1/1000 of an ounce. (And they usually have the actual gold stored somewhere to back up the paper). But Germany took itself off the Gold Standard before the war… and the people printing the money on slips of paper went nuts and printed more money without restriction. Then the money lost value. And when money loses value, people lose confidence in the money and it loses more value, so more gets printed to compensate… and the downward spiral comes fast. (For a great explanation about money, read Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein)

Suddenly, you needed wagonloads of Reichsmarks to buy a loaf of bread. People were demanding to be paid twice a day, because their wage was worth LESS at the end of the day than at the start. Like the fabled Little Dutch Boy, German leaders were plugging the dike as fast as they could, but the water was coming over the top. The US stepped in with a plan to help pay reparations (It was a strange cycle…they sent money to Germany, Germany used the money to pay reparation bills, and the countries getting reparations paid off their debts to the US). It didn’t really help. Then the US insisted the debt be reduced. But it was still too much. Germany’s economy tanked, and it dragged other nations down with it.

When the National Socialist party came to power, Hitler stopped all reparations payments. The party then enacted economic policies that put price restrictions on goods and wages.  All this to keep prices stable, and artificially reduce the cost of materials to build up the military. Then, as we all know, Germany went to war.

Sadly, war seems like the quickest way kick-start your economy. In the Middle Ages, war gave employment to all of those extra sons (plus, they bring back treasure from pillaged lands), and in modern times, war ramps up industry. Building tanks and guns creates jobs, allowing people earn money to buy things, BUT (and here is where the Guns and Butter balance is so crucial), if you are putting all of your efforts into guns, you don’t have enough efforts in butter or other food stuffs.  So the economy was still a lopsided mess. (And just like that,  I’ve saved you a semester of college Economics)

And then when World War II ended, Germany found itself occupied by four countries.

Post War

In 1948, 20% of Germany’s housing lay in ruins, industry down by over 1/3, and food production 50% of its pre-war levels.  50% of all purchases happened on the Black Market (cigarettes were the preferred currency). Rations and shortages meant people only ate 10.00-1500 calories per day. Most of the country’s remaining workforce was unemployed, underemployed, or physically damaged by the war. The Allied nations knew they needed a plan to rebuild the German economy so the cycle didn’t start over.

But where to start? At first, the Allies left all of Hitler’s price controls in place, but this ended up causing problems. While there was a LOT of cash floating around, it was just too much cash, and the Reichsmark was essentially worthless. So, even if there were goods to buy, no one wanted to take your money. The controlled prices meant that you would get a few worthless Reichsmarks for your carrots. These price and wage controls destroyed incentives. It just wasn’t worth the time or effort to produce goods.  The German economy essentially turned into a Barter Economy. People took trains from the cities to get food directly from the Farmers; trading clothes, furniture, jewelry, and other personal effects for potatoes, bread, and vegetables. A new job as “Compensation Specialist” was created to assess proper trade values.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1974-152-14, Berlin, Flüchtlinge aus Ostzone

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1974-152-14 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons 

A New Economic Plan- Social Market Economy

Let’s go back a few years. During the war, at  the University of Freiburg, the Soziale Marktwirtschaft  (social free market group), led by Professor Walter Eucken set up an intellectual resistance movement to Hitler’s totalitarian policies. The brave members of the group, including Ludwig Erhard and Wilhelm Röpke, believed in Free Markets, along with some government oversight, in the form of taxes and to insure that monopolies don’t form. (For you economics junkies, it’s very similar to the Chicago School under Milton Freedman) In 1944, Ludwig Erhard, a member of the Soziale Markwirtschaft, put himself on the American radar when he wrote an essay explaining how to set up the German economy should be set up when the Nazis lost. (A brave and bold move for an economist!) At the end of the war, Americans gave Erhard the job of Bavarian Finance Minister, and in 1947, he received a promotion to director of the bizonal Office of Economic Opportunity, where he advised the governor of the US Zone. There, along with Röpke, and armed with the crazy ideas developed in Freiburg, they and  came up with a plan to rebuild Germany’s economy.

The plan closely followed the beliefs of the Freiburg school. A Social Market Economy, including a Free Market, some government redistribution with taxes, and antitrust to prevent monopolies. BUT, they also added in a social welfare system to act as a safety net for the people. Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic insisted it was too radical to work.

New Money- The Introduction of the Deutschmark

But before they could fix the economy, they needed to fix the money. William Röpke was put in charge of currency reform. The value of Reichsmarks was less than the cost of the paper it was printed on. There was just too much of it around. He proposed a new currency, the Deutschmark, then advocated for a “contracting” of the amount of currency in circulation. What does this mean? (Hold on to your hats) The equivalent of 93% of the currency would disappear. To keep things under control, the new currency would now be tied to the amount of available goods to prevent inflation, so it would have actual value.

It worked like this-

On June 21, 1948, the Reichsmark (and any other German currency in circulation including notes used by the Allied Military) would be invalidated. Just POOF! Worthless. (Well, except for some small change… in order to keep shortages from causing even more problems. Lucky you if you had a jar of coins under the bed)
Every inhabitant of the Western Zone, man, woman, and child would get 60 DM (Deutschmarks) for their old money… 40DM right away, another 20 a month later.
Money in bank accounts would be converted at a later date.
Credit and debt would be converted at a rate of 1o to 1 (10 Reichsmarks = 1 Deutschmark)

And it all happened overnight. You can read the details of Currency Reform here.

(One immediate effect of the reform was the Berlin Blockade by the Soviet Union. But that’s another story….First let’s get to the second part of the plan)


National Numismatic CollectionNational Museum of American History. One Deutsche Mark (1948), post WWII Allied occupied Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
Circulated by the United States Army Command, this was the first of three 1948 issues of West German currency.

The Second Part of the Plan

The VERY same day the new currency was introduced, the old price controls were removed, and rationing cancelled. Everyone braced for disaster. But an interesting thing happened.

On June 21,shop owners pulled out merchandise from back rooms and cellars. Without rationing and price control, sellers knew they would get real value for their goods. Getting more money for goods was the incentive they needed to supply more.

But it was more than that. With the availability of goods, the barter economy became unnecessary for everyday items. And, since people didn’t need to spend all day on a train to the countryside or searching for food… they could stay at their job, and productivity increased. (Compensation Specialists presumably lost their jobs, but so it goes)

And about those jobs… The new Free Market economy came with new stipulations. Employees were to participate in key company decisions like wages, benefits, and working conditions. And the government provided a social safety net. Enthusiastic employees, and a new stable currency encouraged businesses to invest in modernizing their company. By December, 1948, production of food and goods in Germany jumped 50%!

But… The Marshall Plan

Marshall Plan poster

In order to help Europe rebuild after the war… and to prevent the spread of Communism… US Secretary of State George C. Marshall came up with the European Recovery Production, aka. the Marshall Plan. The United States sent $15 Billion dollars to 16  European nations over the course of 4 years, beginning in 1948. (The Soviet Union and its satellite countries refused to participate). The $15 Billion ($173 Billion in 2020 dollars), around 5% of the USA’s gross national product at the time, was NOT distributed equally. Great Britain received a  full 1/4 of all funds, while France got only 1/5th.

Germany got a larger share than Italy, but it still amounted to only $2 Billion total, and it didn’t come in one lump sum. At its peak, the amount of money ended up being less than 5% of Germany’s national income. PLUS Germany was still paying off reparations… AND…. the nations occupying Germany were charging to be stationed there, a total of $2.4 Billion. Basically, the Marshall plan paid for the Allied Nations’ rent and upkeep within Germany.

The Marshall Plan helped, but it wasn’t the source of the miracle. How can we see that? Germany’s economy outpaced that of Great Britain and France, despite being given less money. Great Britain kept rationing until 1954! And Belgium’s recovery, based on Free Market reforms, happened BEFORE they got any Marshall Plan money.

German Industriousness- The Real Miracle

The productivity and industriousness of the German people created the TRUE miracle. 

You hear it over and over, German people are known for their hard work and industriousness. (If you want something done, give it to a German.)  So, as the government issued directive after directive to remove old policies and fix the money problems,  the German people pushed up their sleeves and got to work. And their hard work was rewarded.

Because of the occupation, and the influx of German Nationals expelled from the East, there were many new mouths to feed. Reforms started with food production. Farms modernized to keep up with new demands, a horse and plow wouldn’t be enough!  These new workers from the East contributed to the labor force, so Germany quickly began rebuilding the broken infrastructure to transport goods. Companies built new modern factories to sell goods to workers who suddenly had real cash in their pockets. By 1950, industrial production was up 25%! Between 1950 and 1959, the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the value of goods and services produced by a country rose 8% per year! Wages increased 80% between 1949 and 1955. Germany’s pre-war agrarian leapfrogged to industrial and technological in just a few years. By 1960, Germany was the third greatest economic power on the planet!

But it’s more than just numbers and percentages.

The spirit of the country changed overnight. The gray, hungry, dead-looking figures wandering about the streets in their everlasting search for food came to life
(pg. 71 Wallich, Henry C. Mainsprings of the German Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955)


The people of Germany found JOY again. 

People could work hard, and be rewarded for their efforts. And in the new economy, rewards were more than just food on the table. Across Germany store windows caught the eye with colorful modern goods. For the first time in years there was disposable income, and products like cars, ovens, and washing machines to spend it on. This new consumerism created demands for more products and services, leading to new innovations… and advertising (fun fact, the first TV commercial was for Persil laundry detergent). By 1959, 3 million new housing units had been built.

By the 1960s the pace of the economic growth slowed… mainly because it just couldn’t KEEP growing so fast! Today, Germany still holds steady as the 4th largest economy in the world.

The memories of that miracle, the time when West Germany went from grey to Technicolor still remain.

Wirtschaftswunder by Klaus Honnef, photos by Frank Darchinger

A few years ago I found the book Wirtschaftswunder in a Bamberg bookshop (the one by the Rathaus bridge). The cover image of kids at a gum/cigarette machine on the wall grabbed me. Flipping through the pages and pages of Darchinger’s photos feels a bit like looking through old family photo albums. There are images of people working, children in Kindergarten, families enjoying a meal… or a family trip. Cars, new inventions, factories, and even old Imbiß’s. The book is a time machine. And a bit like the Wirtschaftswunder itself… the photos go from black and white to color.

All text, written by Honnef, is in German AND in English. You can order a copy here



Wirtschaftswunder – Josef Heinrich Darchinger, Klaus Honnef, Frank Darchinger 2019 Taschen Books

German Economic Miracle- EconLib By David R. Henderson

German Economic Miracle Investopedia By GREGORY GETHARD Updated June 29, 2021

First Law of Currency Reform United States-Department of State. Documents on Germany 1944-1985

Treaty of Versailles- Britannica

Origins of the Economic Miracle- Robert Peterson

8 thoughts on “West Germany’s Economic Miracle -Wirtschaftswunder

  1. Fascinating! Thank you Karen! Book ordered!

  2. I enjoyed the economic lesson very much. Thank you for that. I had the opportunity to visit West Germany in 1984, with my husband and children. We had a lovely time and even met distant relations while visiting the town my ancestor came from. We drove around for over two weeks, ate wonderful food and drank amazing beer and wine.

  3. Yes, very interesting indeed and I love reading about my beloved Dad’s life in Deutschland, he was 13 in 1945. Looking forward to sending to my 32 year old son who majored in Economics and minored in (and speaks fluent) German. So glad the 6 of use got to go in 2019 just before the pandemic! Thank you tor this!

    1. Your son must be super smart! I need all of my brain cells clicking to make sense of Economics. Glad you all got to go together!

  4. Thank you for another concise history lesson! Love your explanations.

    1. Thank you. I’ve always loved history, and enjoy explaining things in a way people can relate to.

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