Coins of Dark Days: World War II in Occupied Europe

By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek….
 

May 8, 1945 was VE Day, “Victory in Europe” Day, which marked the end of fighting on the continent in World War II. In our town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, most of the 1,200 residents of the town and neighboring countryside gathered at the Volunteer Fire House to celebrate the end of four years of fighting. War in the Pacific would continue for some months until U.S. President Harry S. Truman authorized the first use of the atomic bomb on Japan.

American coin collectors had much to occupy them through the war as the U.S. Treasury struggled to produce the vast amounts of coinage needed to service the booming wartime economy. “Silver” nickels, zinc-steel and “shell case” Lincoln cents stirred interest but America’s coinage disruptions were far less drastic than those faced by European nations overrun by the fast-moving Axis war machine.

Countries to the east, north and west of Hitler’s Third Reich saw cubic volumes of their prewar silver, nickel and bronze coins disappear from circulation into the maw of German war industries. There remained the need for replacement coinages, and here the Germans drew on their First World War experiences, when iron and zinc had been pressed into service.

These metals, from which such occupation coins were struck, were inherently ugly and vulnerable to rapid corrosion and decay. New zinc coins start out bright and attractive but passing hand-to-hand rapidly become mottled and corroded. Iron is also quick to rust. Therefore, from the collector perspective, occupation coins presented a fast-declining population. By the time Americans became aware of them, the collectible population had already been drastically reduced, and after 70 years or more most are at least scarce.

Few American collectors sought what were then called “foreign” coins, listed in two volumes of the late Wayte Raymond’s Coins of the World, Twentieth Century and Nineteenth Issues. Raymond, who died in 1955 after a long career, was inherently conservative and in his 1945 second edition of the 20th century guide wrote,

The issues of occupied Europe have presented somewhat of a problem. The legality of illustrating or dealing in such coins would seem to come within the scope of the `Trading with the Enemy Act,’ so we have grouped the coins we have seen in one section at the end of the catalogue without illustrations or values. After the war is over and the status of these issues is clarified they will be placed in their proper position.”

The actual effect of this exaggerated concern was the loss of much valuable information that was never recovered. Much of what did appear in print was erroneous and went without correction into catalogs of a later date. Young collectors finding a handful of war souvenirs in daddy’s effects had little information within reach and to a great degree the coins had to speak for themselves.

Eastern & Central Europe

German conquests in 1939-1940 were on a far larger scale than in the First World War and the legal status of occupied countries varied.

Prewar occupation had come to Czechoslovakia, which was divided between areas forthrightly annexed to Germany such as the Sudetenland, the quasi-colonial Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia, and an independent Slovak Republic.

Poland was the first to fall to German military conquest. Hitler planned to annihilate most traces of the country’s independence with the forthright extermination of much of its population planned for the future. Vast areas of eastern Poland were occupied by the Soviet Union as Hitler’s ally. In the west, Germany annexed the Polish Corridor–swathes of Posen, Silesia, and West Prussia–to create a new territory called the Warthegau. The remaining rump was proclaimed the Government-General of Poland.

50groszy

Zinc occupation coins inscribed RZECZPOSPOLITA POLSKA (“Polish Republic”) were struck in denominations of 1 Grosz, 5 Groszy, 10 Groszy and 20 Groszy. All bore the frozen date 1923 except for the 1939-dated 5 Groszy. A nickel-plated iron 1938-dated 50 Groszy combined the obverse of the prewar 1 Zloty and the reverse of the old 50 Groszy. All are scarce today in acceptable condition.

The initial absence of fighting in the west led short-sighted commentators to dub that part of the struggle the “Phony War,” a name literally blown away by the launching of the German Blitzkrieg or “Lightning War” in Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France early in 1940.

Scandinavia

The Kingdom of Denmark fell to the Wehrmacht without fighting, thanks to the pacifism of the inter-war period that left the country defenseless. King Christian X remained on the throne under close German guard and coinage continued, bearing the royal monogram or portrait but struck in zinc, aluminum and aluminum-bronze.

christianx19431krone

Zinc one Ore were struck dated 1941-1945 (all date runs listed here are inclusive); aluminum two Ore dated 1941 and zinc two Ore,1942-45; five Ore aluminum 1941 and zinc 1942-45. Holed zinc 10 Ore and 25 Ore are dated 1941-1945. Portrait type aluminum-bronze one Krone were dated 1942-1945.

All Danish coins bore established royal designs and it may be argued that they are coins issued during an occupation rather than occupation coins.

Across the straits in Norway the story was very different.

Here King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olav and the government escaped the rapid advance of the Germans under General Eduard Dietl despite help from Britain’s Royal Navy.

The Nazis publicized Dietl widely as the “Hero of Narvik,” after the British withdrew from that strategic northern port. Showing a rare sense of humor, Dietl himself said, “I’m the Hero of Narvik! Had the British stayed a few more hours, I’d have withdrawn!”

There was some initial confusion after the king withdrew to establish a government in exile in London. An attempt to seize power was made by Major Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), founder of the Norwegian fascist movement National Union (Nasjonal Samling, NS), but was stymied by German Reichskommisar Josef Terboven.

Ultimately Quisling did establish a puppet government and his name made him the very personification of wartime collaboration. A British cartoon of the era showed him visiting Hitler, who asks, “Who are YOU? I’m Quisling! I can SEE that but what’s your NAME?”

ngcnorway50oa

The Kongsberg Mint struck three iron and three zinc denominations with the NS version of the national Arms of crowned lion rampant holding an axe between two crosses of St. Olav. These included one Ore, 1941-1945; two Ore, 1943-1945; 5 Ore, 1941-1945. Special coating of the planchets made the coins remarkably rust-resistant and gave a prooflike surface to the coins when new.

Much less resistant to handling were the thick zinc 10 Ore dated 1941-1945; 25 Ore, 1943-1945 and 50 Ore, 1941-1945. The last dates of all denominations are the scarcest as the coins were painful reminders of a dark period and were withdrawn as soon as replacement coins of royal type were struck.

After liberation by Allied troops, Quisling was shot by firing squad in late 1945.

Western Europe

The invasion of the Low Countries proceeded with amazing speed. The Netherlands surrendered after four days’ fighting and Queen Wilhelmina (reigning since 1898) and the government fled to London on May 13, 1940.

The Germans were initially uncertain how to proceed.

There were two contending native Nazi groups claiming swastika and the imitative title Nationaal-Socialistische Nederlandsche Arbeiderpartij (“National Socialist Dutch Workers’ Party”), but neither enjoyed significant support.

More substantial was the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (“National Socialist Movement”) or NSB, led since 1930 by civil engineer Anton Adriaan Mussert, which soon headed a Dutch collaborationist government. NSB organized its own storm troops to pursue internal opposition and aid the Nazis in their persecution of the Netherlands’ Jewish population which gave the world the saga of Anne Frank.

To a drumbeat of Nordic brotherhood and solidarity, the Germans soon began recruiting Waffen SS units in the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, attracting local volunteers that would fight later on the Russian front. Nazi Reichskommisar Arthur Seyss-Inquart headed the German military administration, and the Dutch soon created a punning nickname for him, Seiss-en-quart, “Six and a Quarter.”

The Netherlands had been a wealthy country before the war, buttressed by its vast East Indian empire (now the independent country of Indonesia). The Nazis lost no time in sequestering the abundant silver, bronze and nickel coinage in circulation, including the square five-Cent pieces beloved of foreign tourists.

To replace the vanishing coins, the Utrecht Mint struck five zinc denominations that (unlike most hurried occupation coins) boasted real designs created by qualified Mint engraver Nico de Haas. The 17mm one-Cent piece of 1941-1944 bore a stylized cross and was originally intended to have a center hole with the simple name NEDERLAND, value as 1 ct with waves and wheat ear.

The 20mm 2½ Cents bore two stylized Frisian folk art swans with a space for center hole and a reverse reminiscent of the Cent. No holed pieces were ever issued. This design was struck only in 1941 and 1942, and only 30 pieces survive of the 200,000 struck in 1942. The square five Cents of 1941-1943 depicts folk art hobby horses under a radiant sun and all three dates are scarce today.

Three stylized tulips appear on the 10 Cents of 1941-1943. another generally scarce denomination offering few high-grade survivors. The 25-Cent coins struck 1941-1943 presented a rather elegant Viking-style longboat cresting stylized ocean waves with relief national name NEDERLAND and large value 25 CENTS on the reverse. In can be safely said that and Choice Uncirculated examples of the Dutch coins are significantly scarce in 2015.

NSB Leider Mussert was shot for collaboration after liberation. An aged Queen Wilhelmina returned to her country’s new bronze and pure nickel coinage only in 1948, and the zinc occupation coins were thus given three additional years to circulate and corrode.

The tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg issued no occupation coinage as it was swiftly annexed to Germany in May-June 1940. In neighboring Belgium the invading Germans exploited a linguistic and nationalistic witches’ brew dating back to the country’s independence in 1830.

Divided by French-speaking Walloons who had spearheaded the country’s independence from the Netherlands in 1830 and the Dutch-speaking Flemings, Belgium was declared perpetually neutral in 19th-century international treaties. Despite these agreements, Germany invaded in 1914 and occupied most of the country through 1918, dabbling in encouraging Flemish separatism at that time.

Belgium’s “Soldier King” Albert abandoned neutrality between the wars. His son Leopold III led initial resistance to the fast-moving German inrush of May 1940, but soon realized that further fighting was hopeless and notified his scattered government members of his intention to surrender and remain in his country with his army.

This action divided the political leadership, and joined a new “Royal Question” to the long-simmering “Language Question” that continues to bedevil Belgium in the 21st century. Leopold III had lost his first wife Queen Astrid in a car crash in 1935. His wartime marriage to Princess de Rethy now antagonized many Belgians though the couple and the royal children remained German captives until 1945.

The occupiers encouraged antagonism between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, led respectively by the Rexists of Léon Degrelle (died in exile 1994) and Flemish National Union (VNV) led by Staf De Clercq (died 1942). These rivals effectively divided Belgium into two states though a single bilingual zinc occupation coinage gave an appearance of unity.

belgium25

Holed zinc minor coins of 1938 design included the 1941-1943 25 Centimes; 1941-1943 10 Centimes and 1941-1942 five Centimes, each bearing the monogram L III and denomination with shields of three provinces. Each presents the country names in two different orders: BELGIQUE-BELGIË or BELGIË-BELGIQUE.

New designs distinguished the zinc one Franc with lion rampant shield and back to back “L’s” that is scarce today; 1947-dated pieces are downright rare. The king’s head faces right on 25mm zinc five Francs-Frank with titles ROI DES BELGES or KONING DER BELGEN.

There are other European coins of these eventful years that might be mentioned, such as French coins the French State of Marshal Philippe Pétain, but these were issues of a technically-independent government struggling to distance itself from the German juggernaut.

The ravages of war assured that some of the occupation coins would remain in circulation for years after fighting ceased. It can be safely said that assembling a comprehensive collection of all coin types mentioned in this review in Choice or higher Mint State grade today would be a slow and costly process. But studying such a collection would bring a deeper understanding of the sufferings of Europe’s peoples during that dark time.
 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the great article! I got tons of world coins and never thought about this theme. Can you or someone provide a link to a list of occupation coinage? Some forums have mentioned this is covered widely but I can’t find a convenient list of ww1 and/or ww2 occupation coins. I appreciate any help.

    • Did you ever find much more info. I have coins from my father who was at The battle of the bulge, Ramagen etc. any help you can give me would greatly appreciated.

  2. Another aspect of “occupied” coinage to consider: those places occupied by the Allies and the resultant coinage: such as Faroe Islands, Iceland, Belgian Congo (if memory servies their 2F was struck on the blanks used for the USA cents)

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