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Towards the end of World War II, the Nazi state had more and more trouble providing basic food and goods to the German population. To supplement the state-imposed ration, or to horde goods for after the war, some Germans traded on the black market. A risky business — punishment was harsh and could include death.

These limited black markets blossomed after the war into a national phenomenon. Everybody traded on the market, the only way for many people to survive, especially in the cities. The regular food ration set by the Allies was called the “Death Ration” by the Germans. It was too little to live on, and hit mainly old people, those who didn’t or couldn’t work, and — ironically — mothers (as if they didn’t need more calories caring for a household!). The black market supplied what the ration didn’t.

How did it work?

Germany functioned largely on barter. Let’s say a mother in Hamburg had 3 pairs of silk stockings to trade. She wants to supplement the fat ration for her family because fat equals calories that stick to your ribs. She finds a public square or certain street where it’s known people congregate to trade, one of the many black markets in the city. Since such trades are illegal in postwar Germany, people don’t usually shout what they need or write it on a sign. The mother could subtly show her stockings in her purse to the people around her. Or she might wander around, whispering what she wants over and over until someone agrees to a trade. Her silk stockings would buy her one bottle of cooking oil or a pound of butter.

The Reichsmark was all but useless after Nazi Germany’s collapse. The new currency was the cigarette, preferably American ones (called “Amis”). In certain times and places, one Ami cigarette cost between 6 and 20 Reichsmarks. In Frankfurt, the Americans set up a barter center where Germans could trade products legally. American soldiers and racketeers took advantage of the situation, and if they worked together, they could both make a killing. The racketeer has a starting capital of 1 Leica camera. He trades it with a soldier for 5,000 cigarettes. The soldier exports it to the States, and someone sells it for him for $600. That money, back in Germany, can buy 134,000 cigarettes or 27 Leicas.

Most people on the postwar black market weren’t in it to get rich. They were trying to survive in a world where everything — food, clothing, shoes, light bulbs, needle and thread, coal and most other things — were scarce.