Wilhelm Röpke: The Economist Who Stood Up To Hitler

Feb 29, 2016

Sometimes there are men of principle who live their values and not merely speak or write about them. People who stand up to political evil at their own risk, and then go on to say and do things that help to remake their country in the aftermath of war and destruction. One such individual was the German, free-market economist, Wilhelm Röpke.

Born on October 10, 1899, Wilhelm Röpke died half a century ago on February 12, 1966. It seems appropriate to mark the fifty-year passing of one of the great European economists and advocates of freedom during the last one hundreds years.

In the dark days immediately following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement in Germany in January 1933, Röpke refused to remain silent. He proceeded to deliver a public address in which warned his audience that Germany was in the grip of a "revolt against reason, freedom and humanity."

Nazism as the Destruction of Decent Society

Nazism was the culmination of Germany's sinking into "illiberal barbarism, Röpke said, the elements of which were based on: (l) "servilism," a "longing for state slavery," with the state becoming the "subject of unparalleled idolatry"; (2) "irrationalism," in which ''voices'' in the air called for the German people to be guided by "blood," "soil," and a "storm of destructive and unruly emotions"; and (3) "brutalism," in which "The beast of prey in man is extolled with unexampled cynicism, and with equal cynicism every immoral and brutal act is justified by the sanctity of the political end." Röpke warned that, "a nation that yields to brutalism thereby excludes itself from the community of Western civilization." He hoped Germany would step back from this abyss before its people had to learn their mistake in the fire of war.

Röpke also spoke out against the Nazi dismissal of Jewish professors and students from German universities, which began in April 1933. The Nazis denounced him as an "enemy of the people" and removed him from his professorship at the University of Marburg. After an angry exchange with two SS men sent to "reason" with him, Röpke decided to leave Germany with his family, and accept exile rather than live under National Socialism.

A Man of Courage and Principle

Wilhelm Röpke was a leading intellectual figure of twentieth-century Europe. He combined conservatism with classical liberalism to develop a political philosophy he called a market-oriented "middle way" between nineteenth-century capitalism and twentieth-century totalitarian collectivism. He also became a spiritual guide and political-economic architect of Germany's "social market economy" in the post-World War II era. As the famous Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, wrote when Röpke died in 1966 at the age of 66,

"For most of what is reasonable and beneficial in present-day Germany's monetary and commercial policy credit is to be attributed to Röpke's influence. He [is] rightly thought of as [one] the intellectual authors of Germany's economic resurrection . . . The future historians of our age will have to say that he was not only a great scholar, a successful teacher and a faithful friend, but first of all a fearless man who was never afraid to profess what he considered to be true and right. In the midst of moral and intellectual decay, he was an inflexible harbinger of the return to reason, honesty and sound political practice."

Röpke grew up in a rural community of independent farmers and cottage industry craftsmen. His father was a country doctor. That upbringing can be seen in his later belief that a healthy, balanced, small community is most fit for human life.

The event, however, that shaped his chosen purpose in life was his experience in the German army in the First World War. War was "the expression of a brutal and stupid national pride that fostered the craving for domination and set its approval on collective immorality," Röpke explained. The experience of war made him decide to become an economist and a sociologist when the cannons fell silent. He entered the University of Marburg, from which he earned his doctoral degree in 1921. In 1929 he was appointed professor of economics at the University of Marburg, a position he held until his expulsion by the Nazi regime in 1933.

After leaving Germany in 1933 he accepted a position at the University of Istanbul, Turkey, In 1937 he was invited to become a professor of international economic relations at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, a position he retained until his untimely death on February 12, 1966.

After the German occupation of France, Röpke was three times offered a teaching position at the New School for Social Research in New York (in 1940, 1941, and 1943) as a means of escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. But each time he turned down the invitation to leave neutral Switzerland, having decided to continue to be a voice for freedom and reason in a totalitarian-dominated Europe.

In the 1950s, after the war, he was an economic adviser to the government of West Germany. He also was one of the leading figures of a group of market-oriented German economists who in the postwar period became known as the Ordo-liberals; their purpose and goal was the construction of a "social market economy" that assured both an open, competitive order and minimal social guarantees.

Read the full story at epictimes.com.


Richard Ebeling

Dr. Richard Ebeling is currently the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of several best-selling books on politics, finance and government, and received the “Franz Cuhel Award for Excellence in Free Market Education”, as well as the “Liberty in Theory: Lifetime Award” for contributions advancing the case for classical Liberalism.

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