We present you a postcard depicting one of Belgium’s former finance ministers: Camille Gutt (1884-1971). Many people still remember him on account of the post World War II currency reform with which his name is linked: the Gutt operation. But that was not the only remarkable achievement in his long and full career.
Camille Gutt, one of Belgium’s former finance ministers
A man of many parts
Camille Gutt was born in Brussels in November 1884. His father, Maximilien Guttenstein, was a journalist of Czech origin. Camille bore the same surname until, at the age of 37, he changed it to the shortened form, Gutt. After his intermediate studies at the Elsene atheneum, where he proved to be a brilliant pupil, Gutt completed his studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1906, obtaining a degree in political and social sciences and a doctorate in law. He began his professional career as a lawyer and journalist, but World War I brought that to an abrupt end. He joined up as a volunteer and became a non-commissioned officer in the Cyclists (cycling infantry).
During that period he came into contact with Georges Theunis, who was to become Prime Minister and Minister of Finance after the war. Gutt joined his staff and later became his principal private secretary, consequently being closely involved in drawing up the plans for the reparations imposed on Germany. Following his period of working for Theunis, he joined the staff of the Société Générale where he very soon became a director. In 1926 he was a close adviser of Minister Francqui, who at that time was in the process of conducting a successful currency reform.
In 1934 it was finally Gutt’s turn to become Minister of Finance in a government led by people whom he already knew well: Theunis and Francqui. Gutt held the same post in the new Pierlot administration in 1939. In 1940 he fled to London where he formed a government in exile with 4 other ministers. As well as being in charge of Finance, he temporarily took on responsibility for National Defence, Economic Affairs and Transport as well. Following the liberation of Brussels and Antwerp, the Pierlot administration returned to Brussels from its exile in London on 8 September 1944. One month later came the currency reform for which Gutt is best known.
The Gutt operation
During World War II the Belgian economy suffered from inflation. Between May 1940 and October 1944 the total money supply in Belgium increased threefold. Clearly, this would have an adverse effect on the peace-time economy. The disastrous example of World War I, evident from the purchasing power table in room 14 of the museum, was still fresh in people’s memory. There were also growing demands from the public for financial penalties to be imposed on those who had made illicit profits during the war, primarily on the black market.
long queues at the banks during the exchange
The vital currency reform which took place in October 1944 comprised a whole series of measures, but the most striking was the compulsory exchange of banknotes with a value of 100 francs or more. Some of the new banknotes had already been printed in London during the preparations for the operation. This exchange had to take place within a 5-day period, creating long queues at the banks.
The public were only permitted to exchange up to 2000 francs per household member. Many people did not have that much money in those days, but the ones who had more found that the rest of their money was frozen. Later they were able to use some of it to pay taxes, fines and legal expenses, but most of it was converted into a compulsory loan to the state. The many tales about “back doors” are legendary. People with banknotes sometimes declared and deposited only part of the total and left the remainder for other less well-off persons, or institutions such as the church which were exempt from these measures.
Via the currency reform, Gutt ensured that the total money supply was drastically reduced, and restored the wavering confidence in the currency. Yet not everyone was entirely pleased about the operation, as is evident from the postcard that we are featuring this month. If we look at the 100 franc note from the new series used for the exchange, we can see the model used for the postcard. The London banknotes repeated the design of the existing 1933 banknotes except that they were a different colour, and they were smaller in size.
The banknote was designed by the Antwerp artist Emile Vloors. Either side of the central design are depicted the heads of King Albert I and Queen Elizabeth facing one another. The rest of the space at the sides is taken up by the name of the issuer, the signatures, the face value and the words “payables à vue”. Between the royal portraits a young woman sits on a throne, personifying Belgium. The objects which she holds in her hands, a king’s crown wreathed in flowers and a garland of fruit, refer – as does the sacrificial vessel – to the kingdom and its abundant resources. In the background is a circle ringed with ivy surrounding the head of Leopold I as the watermark.
On the postcard we see that the central motif has been replaced by a caricature of Gutt himself. He rests his head on a sack full of banknotes instead of a king’s crown. At his feet lies a document case, and the baskets of fruit in his hands and at his side are not as generously filled as those in the original design; they also have price tickets on them. The royal portraits on either side are replaced by the word “Gutt”. In the top right-hand corner the wording “Do not exceed the stated dose” is a reference to the maximum limit of 2000 francs per household member. The card also bears the dates 9 and 12 October, the dates on which the operation was carried out. In the place where the name “National Bank of Belgium” originally appeared we now see “Gutt bank account”. This card portrays Gutt as a money-grubber, but in reality he was not very wealthy. And in contrast to what was suggested by his wife’s surname, Frick (fric = is the popular French word for cents), he did not marry into money either.
Life after his ministerial career
When he left his ministerial post after six years and four months, Gutt had still not reached the end of his career. He was closely involved in setting up the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.). In 1946 he was unanimously selected as the Fund’s first Managing Director, a post which he held for 5 years. This honour was in recognition of his work as a minister in Belgium. He instigated the greatest currency reform in Belgian economic history, thus saving the Belgian franc from inflation.