Friday, August 12, 2011

A Nazi Fighter Paves a Path for Our Budget Crisis

Economic ideas are in the news; they are hot topic issues. With the budget crisis, a volitile stock market, continuing unemployment of millions of able bodied men and women willing to work, and a growing national debt, sometimes it is hard to sort it all out. It is good in these times to look at history and learn. Here's one of those looks back that can illumine our present path. The source is Kairos Journal.

Wilhelm Röpke: An Economist against the Tide (1899 – 1966)

Scholars are eager to burnish their resumes with the names of learned societies, but Wilhelm Röpke placed little value on peer approval. So when the International Political Science Association invited him to join their ranks, he declined, refusing to connect his name with a body which accepted academic “stooges” from Communist countries. He explained:

For more than a quarter of a century I have devoted all my strength to the struggle against the plague of our time which is totalitarianism in all its forms and colours, brown or red, and you know that in this struggle I have not hesitated to expose myself to the greatest dangers and to prefer exile and the abandonment of my career to submission.1

At age 24, Röpke was appointed the youngest university professor in the German-speaking world. He became an economic advisor to the Weimar Republic during the 1920s and early ’30s and was also a well-known and prolific writer and lecturer. With his Nordic good looks, Röpke could have exploited the opportunities afforded by the rise of Nazism, but he chose, instead, the path of opposition and resistance, denouncing the totalitarian currents of his age and affirming the need to rediscover the vanishing liberal heritage of Western civilization.

After publicly attacking the Nazi regime in a lecture at Frankfurt in 1933, Röpke became the first academic to leave Germany in protest against Hitler. Subsequently, at the invitation of Kemal Ataturk, the ruler of Turkey, he became an economics professor at the University of Istanbul until 1937, after which he joined the distinguished Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, where he continued to teach until his early death in 1966.

Röpke’s outspoken and courageous opposition to all forms of collectivism was honoured (in their own way) by his foes as well as his friends. The Nazis put him on their blacklist and banned his book, The Social Crisis of Our Time2 but not, fortunately, before several hundred copies had been distributed in Germany. To the Communists, Röpke was an equally dangerous enemy. An East German encyclopaedia described him as “an especially shrewd and therefore especially dangerous representative of the modern bourgeois point of view.”3

As well as being an enemy of totalitarian socialism, Röpke was also a trenchant critic of the New Deal and the welfare-state planned economy championed by John Maynard Keynes and other contemporary British and American economists. His unfashionable belief that post-war economic recovery required personal independence, deregulation, greater reliance on markets and free enterprise, and a non-inflationary monetary policy, was triumphantly vindicated in West Germany by the successful adoption of his policies by his friend, Ludwig Erhard, economics minister under Chancellor Adenauer. As Erhard put it, he devoured Röpke’s books “like the desert the life-giving water,”4 a tribute echoed by other leading post-war European public figures.

What can 21st century Christians learn from Röpke’s life and work? The answer is encapsulated in his last and greatest book, A Humane Economy.5 It not only reveals a life passionately dedicated to the pursuit of truth; it also sets out a comprehensive social philosophy which insists on the need to resist materialism and cultural degradation by anchoring freedom in the pursuit of goodness and excellence, without which freedom has no value or purpose.


Wilhelm Röpke, Against the Tide (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1969), xi.


Wilhelm Röpke, The Social Crisis of Our Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950).


Röpke, Against the Tide, xi.


Ibid., ix.


A Humane Economy (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960).

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