400 guldens – eternal debts

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by Björn Schöpe

August 9, 2012 – Berlin was cash-strapped. Probably not very different from today, however, the city was not to blame. Joachim II, the Hohenzoller monarch who went mad for building, demanded continuously increasing taxes from his residence city Berlin-Cölln in order to finance his projects like the Zitadelle Spandau. Hence on May 28, 1562 Berlin-Cölln was urged to take out a loan for 400 guldens from the nearby town of Mittenwalde with six percent interest. But today, 450 years later, the loan has not been repaid, yet. And this comprises interests and interests on interests. Someone calculated that now, in 2012, the sum totals in astronomical spheres. Thus, when in May 2012, exactly 450 years after having given the money to Berlin, Mittenwalde’s mayor Uwe Pfeiffer appealed to the media demanding the loan to be paid back, he received immediately attention from all over the world. Now, however, Mr Pfeiffer seems to feel bugged about it. Naturally he was very well aware of the fact that the debt-laden Berlin would never pay back debts amounting presumably to trillions to a small but debt-free town.

Berlin’s finance minister takes it calmly: ‘This case shows that debts always catch up with you … no matter how old they are,’ he stated during a meeting with Mittenwalde’s mayor in the Münzkabinett Berlin. The meeting place had been chosen with care. There they keep guldens like those once loaned to Berlin. On this occasion Mittenwalde received a unique specimen of 1539 as loan, market value 50,000 to 100,000 euros. Apparently Mr Pfeiffer did not appreciate the coin as one might have, since he judged it rather ‘puny’.
On the other hand, as it is known, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And the whole action refers to a 450 year old certificate of debt hung up since long time in the mayor’s office which is, however, disputed. Yet in 1820 Mittenwalde tried to get its money back, in the 1960s and the 1990s the old story was made a subject of discussion again. But what about the certificate’s authenticity? Historians dispute over this fact, as well as it is not clear whether a debt after 450 years must be juridically considered lapsed or not. Maybe in fifty years Berlin’s financial situation will have improved and Mittenwalde may have a better opportunity of settling this story – at least if Berlin accepts the certificate’s authenticity. Who knows, however, in what currency the loan will be repaid. Maybe again in guldens – anyhow they were made of precious metal.

You can find articles on the subject here and here.

To have an idea of Mittenwalde, visit its website.

You can see the 1539 gulden here.