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Conversion to the Euro:

A Loss of Collective Memory?

John F. Kihlstrom


euro_nyt010302 copy.jpg (83901 bytes)On January 1, 2002, 12 European nations, all members of the European Union, traded their national currencies for a single common currency, known as the "euro".  Several states that are not part of the "eurozone", including the Vatican, Monaco, and San Marino, have also adopted the euro.  Three members of the EU, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Denmark, have opted out of the euro system, and will retain their national currencies -- as will Norway and Switzerland, which are not members of the EU (Link to more information on euro conversion, from the European Central Bank).

The economist Robert Mundell, winner of the 1999 Nobel prize, has remarked that "The introduction of the euro will be one of those epochal events that can only be understood in the context of long periods in history" (see "Happy New Euro", editorial in the Wall Street Journal, 12/31/01).

euro_advert.jpg (82767 bytes)Viewed strictly in economic terms, conversion of individual national currencies to the euro has many advantages.  The common currency will reduce or eliminate fluctuations in national currencies, encourage trade across national borders, and foster economic discipline in national economies.  It will eliminate the need for businessmen and tourists to deal with currency exchanges (and the  commissions they charge!).  

Moreover, as T.R. Reid has noted, in many ways Europe already has a common culture ("One Nation From Many?", Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 01/07-13/02):  

It is easy to cross borders from one state to another.

All the countries of Europe are covered by a common cell-phone service, the Global Standard for Mobiles.

Europe is linked with Great Britain by the Channel Tunnel (or "Chunnel"), and with the Scandinavian Peninsula by the Oresund Fixed Link (the latter consisting of a bridge, a tunnel, and an artificial island).

Europeans have a common sport in soccer.

They also share a preference for left-of-center democratic politics, as exemplified by the welfare state.

Most European governments have legalized, or at least tolerate, the smoking of marijuana.

Despite the persistence of national foods, a common European diet is emerging: a "Continental" breakfast, baguette sandwich for lunch, and beer (not wine).

Despite the persistence of national languages, which the European Union takes care to preserve, English is emerging as a common European lingua franca.

European universities are also evolving a common curricular structure, to compete with the United States in an increasingly globalized market for higher education ("The New E.U." by Alan Riding, New York Times Education Life, 01/12/03).

Why, then, shouldn't Europe have a common currency?

Already an economic success (a "virtual euro" has been used for certain governmental and business purposes since January 1, 1999), it foreshadows a political unity to come in the future.  

The euro itself is designed to serve as a powerful symbol of European unity (see "Etching the Notes of a New European Identity" by John Schmid, International Herald Tribune, August 3, 2001).  The currency has been designed to transcend national identities, and foster a sense of European unity and identity, by eliminating all references to individual EU countries.  As Schmid notes:

The name of the new currency, the euro, was adopted in 1995 at an EU summit meeting.  In contrast to other proposals, such as the florin nd the ducat, it was the one word that everyone could pronounce.  

euro_pontneuf_nyt010102 copy.jpg (103477 bytes)The symbol of the euro resembles the Greek letter epsilon, except for two horizontal parallel lines representing stability.

The Euro currency, designed by Robert Kalina, a Viennese graphic artist who works as an engraver at the Austrian National Bank, includes 12 stars representing the original members of the European Union, as well as a map of Europe. No national monuments, historical figures, or any euro_wsj123101 copy.jpg (16105 bytes) other representations are permitted on euro bills.  As Kalina noted, "The idea was to create a feeling of commonality, or belonging".  (Kalina is presently working on a common currency for Bosnia-Herzegovina to replace rival dinars now being circulated by Muslims, Croats, and Serbs.)

One side of each bill depicts open windows and portals, as symbols of access and transparency.

The other side depicts composite bridges reflecting various architectural periods, each bridge reflected in tranquil water:

E5,     Classical;

E10,   Romanesque;

E20,   Gothic;

E50,   Renaissance;

E100, Baroque and Rococo;

E200, Age of Iron;

E500, Modern.

The only representations of individual EU members will be on the reverse sides of euro coinage, which will portray their national symbols.  Whatever their appearance, all euro coins will be legal tender in all member countries.  The Vatican will show the pope; Monaco, Prince Ranier; San Marino, the fortress of Rocca di San Leo (see "The Euro Unites 12 Countries" by Edmund L. Andrews, New York Times, 12/30/01).

Economically and politically, there is much to be said for the euro -- although, in the wake of the world financial crisis that began in 2007, some countries in the Eurozone, like Ireland and Spain, began to regret that they could no longer manage their own currency; and other countries, like Great Britain, felt justified in their unwillingness to enter into a common currency.  

But there is at least one cultural drawback: the new currency deprives citizens in the eurozone of an important source of collective national memory.

One aspect of collective memory involves the names of the national currencies themselves:

drachma_nyt123101 copy.jpg (12531 bytes)The Greek drachma, Europe's oldest functioning currency, has a history going back to the 6th century B.C. (see "Reluctance in Greece to Let Go of the Coin of History" by Melinda Henneberger, New York Times, 12/31/01.)  Originally a silver coin, the drachma (the word means "handful" in Greek) spread from the island of Aegina to the city-states of Athens and Corinth, and then, through the conquests of Alexander the Great, as far as modern Afghanistan.  The drachma, which is mentioned in the Bible, disappeared during the period of the Roman empire, but was revived in 1832 when Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire.  

The drachma has survived difficult economic times: in 1922, the government required every bill to be cut in half, with half given to the central bank as part of a forced loan that has never been repaid; in 1942, inflation forced the government to issue a bill for 100 billion drachmas, the largest denomination in European history.  And in 1953, Greeks were required to strike three zeroes off every bill.  At the current rate of exchange, there are more than 340 drachmas to 1 euro, the lowest in the eurozone.  Through it all, however, the drachma has been an important symbol of Greek identity.  Some Greeks, at least, are feeling the loss.

Nota Phillipides, an elementary school teacher quoted by Henneberger said, "Why must we give up the drachma within Greece?  She means more to us than just money.  she is a mirror of who we are.  She's in our math books, our history books, our folk tales, our daily parlance.  She's everywhere." 

And Maria Zafiraki, an agriculture student also quoted by Henneberger, said, "If anything, I know feel less of a Greek.  It's a terrible feeling.  A loss of identity.  And the fact that they added a couple of Greek depictions on one side of the coin -- well, that's all crumbs!"


mark_nyt010102 copy.jpg (15509 bytes)The German mark was first issued in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian war, when Otto Von Bismarck unified the various German principalities under his rule (see "Germans Say Goodbye to the Mark, a Symbol of Strength and Unity" by Admund L. Andrews, New York Times, 01/01/02).  Like some other European currencies, the mark has seen its share of bad times.  During World War I, the reichsmark (as it was then known) lost its relation to tangible wealth when the Government took it off the gold standard.  The mark also went through the same postwar hyperinflation that the Greek drachma suffered: in 1914, 1 American dollar bought 4.2 reichsmarks; in 1923, it bought 4.2 trilion. Another bout of inflation, coupled with product shortages and a black market, occurred after World War II.  The modern mark was introduced in 1948 to break this second spiral of inflation, and people were forced to covert reichmarks to marks at a 10:1 rate.  For more than half a century, the German mark was Europe's most powerful and stable currency. In fact, the euro itself was originally pegged to the mark at a 1:2 exchange rate, and the banking laws that control the euro are largely inspired by postwar German monetary policies.  Even before the introduction euro, Austria, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands tied their currencies to the mark.  So, in a sense, the mark continues its role in Europe's economy -- just under another name.  

The mark has not been just a symbol of the "economic miracle" of Germany's recovery from World War II.  As it was in Bismarck's time, it has also been a powerful symbol of that country's unity.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the reunification of West and East Germany in 1990, nearly worthless East German ostmarks were exchanged for marks at rate of 1:1.  The result was an economic windfall for East Germans at the expense of West Germans, but the symbolism was important: Germans were Germans, so marks were marks.  But marks aren't marks anymore.  Now they're euros.


The French franc was dates to December 5, 1360 (see "A Farewell to the Franc: Little Sorrow in France" by Alan Riding, New York Times, 12/ 27/01).  The coin, known as the franc d'or (or "gold franc") was created to celebrate the release of the Frankish King Jean II from imprisonment by the English King Edward III during the Hundred Years War.  According to Riding, the word franc itself was derived from the phrase franc des Anglais, meaning "free of the English".  This version of the franc was eventually replaced by such coins as the ecu, the louis, and the livre, but after the French Revolution the franc was revived by the Bank of France created by Napoleon. Franc coins of the post-revolutionary period depicted Hercules, Liberty, and Equality.

The revived franc lasted longer than Napoleon, remaining the official French currency through the February Revolution of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, and even Vichy France of World War II.  On D-Day, American and British troops landed with their own versions of the franc, which were intended to replace those of the Vichy government.  According to Riding, General Charles de Gaulle, exiled leader of the Free French and provisional leader of the post-liberation French government, quickly denounced the currency as "fake money" and within a few months the old franc was restored as official currency.  Not to play on words, but in some in some important cultural sense the franc is France.


Alan Cowell has traced the history of the German mark (see "More Germans Look Back at the Mark with Fondness" by Alan Cowell, New York Times, 12/24/2010):

Currencies, of course, are not just about money and, far more than in many lands, a chunk of recent German history has been inscribed on its bank notes.

In 1948, currency reform replaced the reichsmark, or imperial mark, with new marks, not once, but twice over — one for the Allied-occupied West and one for the Soviet-dominated East.

As the two Germanies grew ever more estranged, their bank notes mirrored their distinctions, reflecting what was called the abgrenzungspolitik, whereby East Germans laid claim to all that was good in Germany’s tortured history and ascribed the bad to the capitalist West.

Though technically worthless in the West as the inconvertible currency of a state-controlled economy, so-called Ost-marks proudly bore the portraits of Goethe and Schiller along with those of Marx and Engels. (In the 1960s, early Western bills displayed images reflecting values like civic pride and openness to the world.)

Across Europe, indeed, bank notes offered microcosms of national self-image. Symbols of inventiveness and élan, French banknotes portrayed the Curies, even though Marie Curie was Polish by birth, and the aviator Antoine de St. Exupéry. (In France, by law, most receipts still offer a conversion from euros to French francs, so nostalgia may not be an exclusively German characteristic.) Printed in fine shadings of blue, green and brown, Portuguese escudo bills celebrated the navigators who plied the oceans in their wooden ships, making landfall in Africa, India and the Americas.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East Germans confronted a new shift when their currency was replaced by the Deutsche mark as part of the reunification of Germany. Just over a decade later, the euro was introduced, first in electronic trading, then, on Jan. 1, 2002, in the cash economy of an initial 12 European countries. That number has now grown to 16 countries, and is soon to be 17. All of them claimed to have signed up to standards of fiscal discipline, but some of those pledges now seem illusory.

In symbolic terms, the new euro bills with their bland, architectural neutrality almost seemed to represent the end of national pride and history: gone were the great navigators, poets, playwrights, inventors, ideologues. In came — bridges.

The loss of collective memory entailed in the conversion to the euro goes beyond the mere names of the national currencies.  The various notes and coins depict various monuments, scenes, and people, and those who use them are thereby constantly reminded of them.  


Consider, for example, what is depicted on various French franc notes (see "A Fond Adieu to the French Franc" by Sparkle Hayter, New York Times, 12/12/01).

The 50-franc note pictures Antoine de St.-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, a beloved children's book, as well as a depiction of The Little Prince himself, a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant (from a scene in the book) -- and, as part of an anti-counterfeit hologram, one of The Little Prince's sheep. 

The 100-franc note pictures the impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, and reproduces his painting "Apples and Biscuits".

The 500-franc note depicts Marie Curie, the physicist and chemist (she won Nobel prizes in both fields!), as well as a mobile X-ray unit.

Other franc notes have commemorated -- Hayter's term, so apt in this context -- authors such as Victor Hugo, and Jean Baptiste Moliere, scientists such as Pierre Curie (husband of Marie), Louis Pasteur, and Blaise Pascal; the architect and engineer Gustave Eiffel; and composers such as Claude Debussy.

Hayter notes that "Only a child, or someone with a sense of childlike love, would design money like this.  It's not only beautiful; it makes a statement: We French know what is really valuable.  It's a message that deserves to be spread, but that will be a little harder to do after it loses its most subversive vehicle, the French franc.


escudonyt123001 copy.jpg (20412 bytes)In Portugal, the sense of lost history is even more palpable (see 'Portugal is Losing a History Told in Bank Notes" by Alan Cowell, New York Times, 12/30/01).  Although the Portuguese escudo replaced the reis only in 1911, the name itself is derived from a coin depicting a shield (hence the name) that was produced in the 15th century, when Portugal was coming to the height of its powers as a maritime and colonial power.

The 1,000-escudo note depicts Pedro Alvares Cabral, who sailed to Brazil in 1500.

The 2,000-escudo note depicts Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

The 5,000-excudo note depicts Vasco Da Gama, the first European who reach India by sea.

The 10,000-escudo note depicts Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), who initiated the exploration of the African coast (and who also initiated the European slave trade).

For the Portuguese, people who live in a small and poor nation, the euro opens the door to better economic relations with the rest of Europe, and the prosperity of wider prosperity.  'But", Cowell asks, "will the passing of the escudo... not provoke some of Portugal's characteristic nostalgia...?"  In response, he quotes Alvaro Lajas, a restaurateur: "Of course people will be very nostalgic.  The escudo is a symbol of the Portuguese people".  Cowell notes that the escudo bills "are not just money but history and myth... [evoking] the far grander days of 500 years ago when Portuguese navigators challenged the oceans in their wooden boats, exploring the distant realms of Africa, India, and the Americas.  That collective memory, supported by Portugal's national currency, will be impaired once that currency has been replaced by the euro.

A nation's collective historical memory is not represented simply by a schedule of national holidays and a set of imposing memorials.  It is also etched in its currency and coinage.  With the introduction of the euro, and the demise of individual national currencies and coinage, a little bit of this collective memory is lost. 

January 1, 2012, was the 10-year anniversary of the introduction of the Euro, and saw a number of retrospective reviews -- most focusing on the European soverign debt crisis that began in 2009 (think Greece, Spain, Italy, and Ireland), which was partly a result of their adoption of the Euro in the first place.  Among those that talked about the common currency's thereat to national memory was an article in the New York Times by Nicholas Kulish ("Euro, Introduced with Flourish, Gets Little Celebration at Its 10-Year Mark", 01/01/2012).  Some excerpts:

[T]he euro has conjured little of the affection or patriotism thta the dollar evokes in America, no nickname comparable to the greenback.  The fondest memories are reserved for the old national currencies.

For Ivan Grossi, a sales representative who works in Rome, the advent of the new currency was never much to celebrate.  "I grew up with the lira, it was like one of the family, and I felt an enormous sadness when the euro was introduced,", he said.


Michel Prieur, a numismatist in Paris and a member of the collectors group The Friends of the Euro, said that if policy makers were trying to create warm feelings toward their currency, hey had gone about it all wrong, with sterile architectural designs on the bills.  Coins usually have national designs on the back, but the bills have "bridges that come from nowhere and that lead nowhere" and "windows that open onto nothing," he said.


"These imbeciles replaced national identity with nothing," Mr. Prieur said.  "What they should have done was choose some European geniuses," he said, suggestion Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart -- both of whom lived before the founding of what would be considered their modern European nations of origin, Italy and Austria.

"You're not going to be able to make a currency that will enter into people's hearts and spirits if you don't make it about an identity," Mr. Prieur said.  "The history of the franc is one million times more interesting."

Some questions to ponder:

How is a nation's collective memory represented by its currency (and, for that matter, by its stamps)?

How does collective memory change when new currency is issued?

How can collective memory be manipulated by changes in currency?

How is collective memory lost when a national currency disappears?


Illustrations from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.  

For comprehensive depictions of world currency and coinage, see:

Standard Catalog of World Coins, 29th ed., by Chester R. Krause et al.(2001).

Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, 9th ed., by Colin R. Bruce et al. (2000).

See also the Currency Museum at Banknotes.com.  Link to the Currency Museum webpage.

See also the Year of the Euro: The Cultural, Social and Political Import of Europe's Common Currency (2006) by Robert M. Fishman.


This page last revised: 01/03/12 10:10:58 AM.