By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
…[T]he Army had become the most popular, most admired, and most respected and most influential entity in the new German Empire. …To most Germans their Army – the Emperor’s Army – represented stability as well as honor and glory (Dupuy, 110).
The study of ancient coins is usually regarded as a quiet, scholarly pursuit. But one of the most eminent European classical numismatists of the early 20th century was a German general accused of atrocities in Belgium during the First World War.
Born in 1856 to an upper-middle-class family in Willmine, 45 miles (72 km) northeast of Berlin, Max Bahrfeldt entered a Prussian military academy in 1869. In 1871, the 15-year-old cadet purchased his first Roman coin, the beginning of a lifelong devotion to numismatics (Schaefer, 276). Bahrfeldt was commissioned as an infantry lieutenant in 1873, and his first published article appeared the following year. He was promoted to Colonel (Oberst in German) in 1904, Major General in 1908, and Lieutenant General in 1913. German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II elevated him to the Prussian hereditary nobility, which entitled him to add the honorific “von” to his family name.
In 1912, in recognition of his contributions to the study of Roman coins, the Royal Numismatic Society of Great Britain awarded its prestigious annual medal to von Bahrfeldt. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Giessen in 1911, and the University of Halle-Wittenberg made him an honorary professor of numismatics in 1921. Retired from the army after 44 years of service in 1913, he was recalled to active duty at the outbreak of the First World War.
In August 1914, von Bahrfeldt division was part of the German army that invaded neutral Belgium in a sweeping maneuver to outflank and defeat the defending French and British. He captured the town of Charleroi, about 28 miles (45 km) south of Brussels on August 22.
In his report, von Bahrfeldt expressed his aristocratic disdain for the inhabitants:
“My division’s goal was the city of Charleroi, the headquarters of Belgian industry. With its surroundings, it is similar to the large industrial towns in Westphalia, only Charleroi is much dirtier. The lower working-class population is a mixture of Walloons, Flemings, Germans and immigrants of foreign origin, influenced by the lower Catholic clergy, degenerated due to the lack of any social welfare, addicted to alcohol and as a result stunted, the Walloons easily excitable, insidious, a dangerous enemy at the back of the army.”
In violation of the laws of war, as they were understood at the time, troops under von Bahrfeldt’s command committed atrocities:
…the Germans did not expect such a resistance. This …behavior, received by the Germans through the image of the sniping “franc-tireur”, acted on a psychological level as a justification for the massacres of civilians that took place.
“Franc-tireurs” are guerrilla fighters who operate outside the customary laws of war.
The experiences of French guerrilla attacks and of the asymmetric warfare during the Franco-Prussian War had a profound effect on the German General Staff. During World War I, they carried out an unusually harsh and severe occupation of areas that they conquered. Hostages were regularly executed in response to reports of sniping in French and Belgian communities.
I asked Dr. Albert Nolfi, a noted military historian, about this. He replied: “After the war, German sympathizers worked hard to attribute the claims of atrocities to Allied propaganda, but while the Allies were inflating the tales they were not inventing them.”
In 1915, The Numismatist, the journal of record of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), reported that “Lieut. Gen. Dr. von Bahrfeldt of the 19th Reserve Division received the Iron Cross First Class before Rheims Sept. 9 for some really heroic deed.” This was two years before America’s entry into the war, and there was still a great deal of sympathy for Germany in the numismatic community.
After leading his division in the protracted Battle of Verdun (February 21, – December 18, 1916) von Bahrfeldt retired from the Army.
In 1923, the German Weimar Republic issued a silver medal to honor von Bahrfeldt’s 66th birthday. Designed by sculptor Josef Bernhart (1883-1967), the medal is 31 mm in diameter and weighs 8.76 grams. The obverse features his stern portrait in uniform, rendered in high relief. The German legend translates as “General of Infantry Professor Doctor Max von Bahrfeldt.” An abbreviated Latin inscription in the field AET SVAE LXVII means “67th year of his age.” On the reverse, within a wreath, the date, in Roman numerals appears above the General’s personal coat of arms beside an elaborate crested medieval helmet. The coat of arms includes a coin with the head of Janus, an obvious allusion to von Bahrfeldt’s interest in Roman coinage.
Bahrfeldt’s most influential work on ancient Roman coinage was a series of “Supplements and Corrections” in German to the two-volume catalog Monnaies de la Republique Romaine (“Coinage of the Roman Republic”, Paris, 1885) by the great French numismatist Ernest Babelon (1854-1924). This was published in three parts between 1897 and 1919. Bahrfeldt’s own extensive collection was sold to his friend, Otto Hager, a wealthy businessman, in 1919, and published in a catalog in 1922. This collection was eventually acquired by the Kestner Museum in Hannover, Germany, which published a well-illustrated catalog of its Roman Republican coins in 1989 (Schaefer, 277).
In 1923, Bahrfeldt published an important book on Roman gold coinage. Some of the most valuable Roman gold coins that appear on the market today are still referenced by their “Bahrfeldt numbers”.
In the Weimar Republic, von Bahrfeldt was active in right-wing politics, joining the veteran’s organization Der Stahlhelm (“The Steel Helmet”). When this group was dissolved by the Third Reich in 1935, he transferred to the reserve of Hitler’s paramilitary group, the Sturmabteilung.
In May 1936, The Numismatist briefly reported von Bahrfeldt’s death:
“General Max von Bahrfeldt, one of the commanders of the German Army in its march through Belgium in 1914, died in Halle, Germany, April 14. He was 80 years old. General von Bahrfeldt was sentenced to death in absentia by a Belgian court-martial for alleged atrocities in the Charleroi region. He was well known in numismatic circles throughout Europe.”
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 Personal communication, January 2021
 The Numismatist, vol. 28. 113. (1915)
 In the Imperial German Army, “General of Infantry” was roughly equivalent to Lieutenant General in the American or British armies.
Bahrfeldt, Max Ferdinand von. “Die gefütterten Münzen aus der Zeit der römischen Republik (Plated coins from the time of the Roman republic)”, Numismatische Zeitschrift 16. (1884)
—- “Contremarken Vespasian auf römischen Familien denaren (Vespasian countermarks on Roman family denarii)”, Zeitschrift für Numismatik (1876)
—- “Die Kupfermünzen der römischen Metelli (The copper coins of the Roman Metelli)”, Numismatische Zeitschrift 13 (1881)
—-“Überpragte Münzen aus der Zeit der romischen Republik (Overstruck coins from the time of the Roman republic)”, Zeitschrift für Numismatik 19 (1895)
—- “Die letzten Kupferprägungen unter der römischen Republik (The last copper issues under the Roman republic)”, Numismatische Zeitschrift 42 (1909)
—- Nachträge und Berichtigungen zur Münzkunde der römischen Republik : im Anschluss an Babelon’s Verzeichniss der Consular-Münzen. (Supplements and corrections to the coinage of the Roman Republic: following Babelon’s list of consular coins) [3 vols.]. Wien and Hildesheim. (1897, 1900, 1919)
— “Die Römisch-Sizilischen Münzen aus der Zeit der Republik (The Roman-Sicilian Coins from the time of the Republic)”, Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 12 (1904)
—- Sammlung Römischen Münzen der Republik und des West-kaiserreichs (A Collection of Roman Coins of the Republic and Western Empire). Halle. (1922)
—- Die römische Goldmünzprägung während der Republik und unter Augustus (Roman gold coinage during the Republic and under Augustus). Halle. (1923)
Clain-Stefanelli, Elvira. Numismatics – An Ancient Science. Washington (1965)
Dupuy, Trevor N. A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945. Fairfax, VA (1984)
Schaefer, Richard. “Review of Frank Berger, Die Münzen der Romischen Republik im Kestner-Museum, Hannover”, American Journal of Numismatics 7-8. (1996)
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for “Best Pre-WWII Wargame”. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.