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Wilhelm Röpke: The Economist Who Stood Up to Hitler


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.

Monetary mismanagement and the Great Depression

In the 1920s and for part of the 1930s, a primary focus of Röpke’s writings was business-cycle theory and policy. His most significant work in this field was his 1936 volume Crises and Cycles. Röpke argued that a complex division of labor with a developed structure of roundabout methods of production, held together by the delicate network of market prices for finished goods and the factors of production, had the potential to occasionally suffer from the cyclical waves of booms and depressions.

The cause of such cycles was periodic imbalances between savings and investment in the economy. While not completely following the “Austrian” theory of the business cycle, Röpke’s approach moved along similar lines, arguing that a monetary expansion that kept the market rate of interest below the level that could maintain a balance between savings and investment would feed investment projects and cause misdirections of labor and resources into production processes in excess of the savings available to sustain them in the long run.

Röpke’s particular contribution to the analysis of the business cycle was his theory of what he called the “secondary depression.” When the boom ended, an economic downturn was inevitable, with the investment excesses of the upturn having to contract and be readjusted to the realities of available savings and the market-based patterns of supply and demand. But while serving on the German National Commission on Unemployment in 1930–1931, he came to the conclusion that there were negative forces at work at that time far beyond any normal type of post-boom adjustment.

The failure of cost prices to promptly adjust downward with the decline of finished-goods prices was causing a dramatic collapse of production and employment. Rising unemployment resulted in declining incomes that then created a new round of falling demands for goods in the economy, which in turn brought about another decrease in production and employment. At the same time, growing unprofitability of industry made businessmen reluctant to undertake new investments, resulting in the accumulation of idle savings in the financial markets. Such a sequence of events generated a cumulative contraction in the economy that kept feeding on itself.

Röpke concluded that this secondary depression served no healthy purpose, and the downward spiral of a cumulative contraction in production and employment could only be broken by government-induced credit expansion and public works projects. Once the government introduced a spending floor below which the economy would no longer go, the market would naturally begin a normal and healthy upturn that would bring the economy back toward a proper balance.

In 1933, when Röpke published in English an article explaining the findings of the German Commission on Unemployment, John Maynard Keynes expressed to Röpke his “great satisfaction” that German economists were reaching the same conclusions as he had, namely, that government needed to take an active role in steering the economy.

But Röpke had no sympathy for Keynes’s belief that the market was inherently unstable and permanently in need of government management of “aggregate demand.” In Röpke’s view the Great Depression represented a “rare occurrence” of an “exceptional combination of circumstances” that required “a deliberate policy of additional ‘effective demand’ into the economic system.”

But, Röpke continued, Keynes’s construction of a “general theory of employment” based on the exceptional circumstances of the early 1930s was a “counsel of despair” and an extremely dangerous one, because it created a rationale for continuous government tinkering and a strong inflationary bias harmful to the stability of the market economy in the long run. Indeed, Röpke became a leading critic of Keynesian economics after World War II.

The crisis of Western civilization

But the central issue that absorbed almost all of Röpke’s intellectual and literary efforts in the 1930s and 1940s was what he considered the crisis of Western civilization, the most stark and terrible symptom of which was the rise of totalitarian collectivism as represented by Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German National Socialism.

But the heart of Röpke’s critique of the decay of Western civilization and the path for its renewal was in a trilogy published during the war: The Social Crisis of Our Time (1942), Civitas Humana (1944), and International Order (1945). This was followed at the end of the war by The Solution of the German Problem (1945). And a further reformulation of his conception of a properly ordered and balanced society was offered in A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (1958).

The achievements of the eighteenth century, in Röpke’s view, were the use of reason for a balanced understanding of both the natural and social world; the awakening of an insight into the possibilities of a free, spontaneous order of market relationships; a conception of man that looked at him in proportionate human terms; and a sense of humanity in appreciating and wanting to improve the human condition. One of these insights was that a free-market order that both liberated man from the status and caste society of the past and dramatically improved his standard of living; and the liberal, democratic ideal in which the individual possessed rights to life, liberty, and property, and in which peace and tolerant political pluralism replaced imperial violence and political absolutism.

But as Röpke saw it, many of these achievements and successes had been twisted in the nineteenth century. The use of reason had become “unreasonable,” as there emerged a hyper-rationalism that claimed to have the power to discover the secrets for social engineering. The triumphs of the natural sciences in mastering the physical world had fostered a “cult of the colossal,” in which there was a worship of the things of the material world and the desire for the creation of objects bigger than human life. This cut man loose from all the societal moorings of family, community, and the harmonies of local life, and the ideal of democratic pluralism had been undermined and reduced, increasingly, into an arena of special-interest political plunder.

Collectivism and the termite state

The loss of traditional human connections, the dehumanization of man in mass society, and the corruption of the political and economic marketplaces, Röpke argued, had created the sociological and psychological conditions for the emergence of and receptivity to the collectivist idea and its promise of a new community of man, a transformation of the human condition, and a better society designed according to a central plan. All these were false promises and hopes. Collectivism, whether of the fascist or communist sort, meant the end of a rational economic order, threatened the loss of freedom and the end to human dignity, and required the reduction of man to the status of an insect in what Röpke often referred to as the socialist “termite state.”

Röpke was uncompromising in his insistence that only the market economy was consistent with both freedom and prosperity. Only the market, with its system of private property rights, provided the framework to harness individual incentives and creativeness for the benefit of society. Only the market could generate the competitive process necessary for the formation of prices that could successfully coordinate supply and demand. Only the market gave each individual the freedom to be an end in himself while also serving as a voluntary means to the ends of others through the mechanism of exchange.

Yet in Röpke’s view the market by itself was not enough. The humane society required going “beyond supply and demand,” to the construction of an institutional order that incorporated the market in a wider social setting. The market economy needed strong ethical moorings to give a sound moral foundation to market order. Röpke held views concerning the role of government in a free society that were wider than many free market advocates today might consider necessary and appropriate.

But beginning in the 1950s, Röpke argued that the growing politicization of economic and social life through an expanding interventionist-welfare state undermined the possibility for a successful international order based on peace, mutual prosperity, and a rational allocation and use of the resources of the world. International order required countries to practice sound policies at home: respect for private property, enforcement of contracts, protection for foreign investments, limited government intervention, and non-inflationary monetary policies.

Networks of international trade and investment would then naturally and spontaneously connect the world through private market relationships. For this reason, Röpke was doubtful that European economic and monetary integration could be successfully imposed as long as the member states were unwilling to follow the necessary domestic policies of limited government and open, competitive market capitalism. Tensions and conflicts were inevitable in an age dominated by collectivist and interventionist ideas.

A voice of reason in an unreasonable world

Wilhelm Röpke was more than just an economist. During some of the darkest decades of the twentieth century, he sounded more like an Old Testament prophet warning of the dangers from a loss of our moral compass. Collectivism had few opponents in our century with as much of a sense of ethical purpose.

Precisely because he was an economist by training, Röpke understood the indivisibility of personal, political, and economic freedom in a way that many other critics of socialism in its various forms could never articulate. The appreciation of history and the historical context in his analyses only enriched the persuasiveness of his message. The rebirth of the market economy in Germany and in other parts of Europe after 1945 owes a great deal to his intellectual efforts and legacy.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).