hidden europe 37

Capital affairs

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Photo © Ronfromyork


Just over one hundred years ago, Greece was expelled from a currency union that once extended from Latin America to the Balkans. We take a look a currency unions of yesteryear, wading along the way through a medley of soldi and quattrini, blutzger and kreutzer.

One senses it was with a certain measure of relief that the illustrious Baedeker was able to record, in a new edition of his guide to Switzerland, that “the Swiss monetary system was assimilated into that of France in 1851.” More than a half-century after this novel fiscal arrangement first came into effect, Baedeker editors were still giving thanks for the blessings it brought to travellers — although by that stage the wider Latin Monetary Union (LMU) meant that an eclectic mix of coins minted in various countries were accepted at face value in Switzerland. In the 1905 edition of the Swiss Baedeker, readers were reminded that they could utterly trust five franc silver coins, provided they were minted by the Swiss, Italian, French, Belgian or Greek authorities. “All others should be refused,” advised the omniscient but anonymous editor. (Baedeker himself had died in 1859, but the company that carried his name used their late founder’s name to communicate his authority from beyond the grave.)

Ah! You have a sense of where this article is going, n’est-ce pas? Money matters. Yes, there once was a time when travellers across Europe knew that Greek money was well worth having.

Currency unions have come and gone. Several small states in southern Germany agreed a currency union from 1837 that was superseded by German unification. Britain and Ireland had a currency union (though each with their own banknotes and coinage) until 1979. Belgium and Luxembourg shared a common franc for over half a century until the two countries simultaneously shifted to the euro in 2002. The monetary legacy of the former Soviet Union was more complicated. In early 1992, fifteen ex-Soviet republics were still using the Soviet rouble (although the Soviet Union had ceased to exist). Within three years, all had adopted their own currencies.

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