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Finding My Way

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Tags EducationHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

10/19/2004Hans F. Sennholz

I must have been in my third or fourth semester of political science and law at Marburg University in 1947 when I first heard about Professor Ludwig von Mises. I did not hear about him in my lectures but was made aware of him in my conversations with fellow students. They highly recommended his book Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel (The Theory of Money and Credit) for presenting the only rational, theoretical discussion of money. As the only Mises book in the university library it commanded a long waiting list of several weeks before it finally reached me. I had to return it a few days later to be passed on to other students on the list. The same fellow students also were reading and discussing articles written by Professor Wilhelm Roepke and published in the Frankfurter Allgerneine newspaper. For them, the Mises book and the Roepke articles were the only bright light in the intellectual confusion which characterized the postwar period. Nazi-socialism had failed and was outlawed but several related versions held sway at the university.

Professor Roepke was just one of a handful of intellectual supporters of Professor Ludwig Erhard who, as the newly appointed Minister of Economy in the Adenauer Administration, in 1948, suddenly repealed all price and wage controls and thereby launched the miracle of economic revival and reconstruction. Many Germans vehemently opposed the reforms but most applauded Erhard although they were unaware of the significance of his reforms; they admired him because he abolished the controls against the advice and directive of the Allied powers.

Having earned a doctor’s degree (Dr. rer. pol.) at Cologne University (1949), I decided to continue my education in the United States which enjoyed the highest prestige as the primary power that had overwhelmed Nazi Germany. Both degrees, I was convinced, would open all doors in Germany. I had my eyes on politics which I planned to enter after a brief career in journalism. I left Germany in December 1949 as a frequent contributor to the Cologne Rundschau, the biggest daily in West Germany. During my first year in New York (1950) German newspapers continued to publish my lengthy reports about American political and economic life, and the Staatszeitung in New York published my reports about economic and political conditions in Germany. I may have been the first German reporter in the United States after World War II.

Soon after my arrival in New York I searched for a graduate school that offered a Ph.D. degree in economics. I visited Columbia University, Fordham University, The New School for Social Research, and New York University, exploring location and transportation and collecting school catalogues. Perusing the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration catalogue, I discovered to my surprise that Professor Ludwig von Mises was “visiting professor” offering a course and conducting a seminar. I had found the university of my choice. It took me five years to earn the degree, supporting myself and paying my way as full-time accountant in Wall Street (White and Weld which later merged with Merrill Lynch).

Professor Mises had come to the United States in 1940 and joined the faculty of the Graduate School in 1945. At that time he had already published his Bureaucracy (1944) and Omnipotent Government (1944) and undoubtedly was laboring on his magnum opus Human Action (1949) which built on its 1940 German-language predecessor National okonomie. He was 65 years old when he gave his first lecture at NYU; he gave his last in 1969, at the age of 88.

When I first attended his seminar beginning in the fall of 1950 I was surprised to meet several eminent attendees who were seeking his knowledge and wisdom but were not working toward a NYU degree. There were Henry Hazlitt, Percy Greaves, George Koether, Murray Rothbard, and occasionally senior staff members of The Foundation for Economic Education, such as Bettina Bien and Mary Homan. In time, Bettina Bien was to become Mrs. Greaves and Mary Homan Mrs. Sennholz; the only other degree candidate was Louis Spadaro who was to receive his Ph.D. a few months after I received mine in June of 1955. Israel Kirzner and George Reisman were to follow a few years later.

In his twenty-four years at New York University Professor Mises sponsored only four candidates who wrote their dissertations under his tutelage (Sennholz, Spadaro, Kirzner, Reisman). When I first broached my plan to study with him and earn the degree he bluntly rejected me: "Many would like me to sponsor them but only very few are qualified."I was stunned and hurt but understood his reaction when I learned that the school conferred very few terminal degrees in a year. Professor Mises was not about to sponsor a potential failure. In fact, the four he actually accepted may have been his full share of successful candidates. When I repeated my request six weeks later he reacted quite differently; he readily and courteously accepted me as his candidate and even suggested a number of topics for my dissertation. He probably changed his opinion about me when he learned that I was a German doctor with a degree from Cologne University, which I had earned at the age of 27 after nearly seven years in the armed services (November 15, 1939 — September 14, 1946).

Professor Mises’ classes were rather popular with some 80 to 100 students in attendance twice a week. He was known and liked as a friendly easy-going lecturer from Vienna whose classes counted in fulfillment of degree requirements. The school readily granted some 600 Master’s degrees every year; many candidates chose Professor Mises’ classes. In my conversations with a few I was surprised that they either did not understand the gist and message of the Professor’s lecture or readily brushed them aside as a reflection of the personal experience of a refugee professor from abroad.

During my five years at the Graduate School I first registered for three courses per semester, and attended classes two or three evenings a week. I began to accelerate in the fall of 1953, taking five classes and thereafter becoming a full-time student taking nine classes during the 1954 spring semester. I sat for my comprehensive oral examination in April 1955 facing an examination committee of six professors; Professor Mises was one of them. The examination probably was the most difficult I ever faced. It was rumored that most of the successful candidates for the doctor’s degree had to repeat some parts of the examination before they finally succeeded. When I managed to pass the examination without repetition one professor featured me in his classes as a living example that the examination could actually be passed, rumors to the contrary.

I can think of three conditions that worked in my favor. First, it is absolutely essential that the candidate make a se lf­confident, self assured impression. He must not for a moment be hesitant, doubtful, surprised, or even harassed. The fact that I already had a doctor’s degree, just like the examiners sitting in judgment, gave me the assurance I needed. Moreover, it is even more important to psych out the members of the examination committee consisting of liberals, conservatives, the old and the young, the famous and the unknown. In their private lives they ignore each other but now, being forced to sit and work together, are rather nervous, apprehensive, and irritated. The candidate who is the focal point of the meeting must do everything in his power to make every examiner look wise and knowledgeable no matter how nervous, empty, or superficial his questions may be. An ornery examiner may even pose ideological questions that call for ideological answers that are bound to irritate the other examiners. The candidate must not allow himself to be led on this slippery path to certain failure. My answers often were ambiguous, remote, and aloof and thus avoided an ideological battle and failure.

A most unusual factor that undoubtedly worked in my favor was the presence of my wife throughout the examination. A senior examiner had invited her to join us in the conference room and witness the proceedings. Dressed in an elegant black dress and wearing a spring hat she lent her charm to the meeting and undoubtedly calmed the tense atmosphere.

Having passed the comprehensive oral examination I then faced the defense of my thesis by another committee. By that time the work was already in print under the awkward and unfortunate title How Can Europe Survive? The title of my thesis was An Inquiry into the Problems of International Cooperation and European Unification. When I submitted it to D. Van Nostrand for publication I called it Divided Europe. But the Van Nostrand editor with sales in mind insisted on changing the title to How Can Europe Survive? Unfortunately, this novice author lacked the courage and conviction to stand fast with his title.

I don’t know whether Professor Mises’ lectures and seminar discourses would have made me an Austrian scholar. At that time my eyes were on Wall Street and the fortune I intended to earn there. I was confident that, in the long run, thorough knowledge of money and credit, of the trade cycle, and the effects of government intervention would yield fame and fortune. Toward that end, knowledge of Austrian and especially Misesian theory would be useful and profitable. But I never intended to make such knowledge and teaching my life’s work. Two distinct causes pointed and guided me in this new direction.

Professor von Mises himself provided the first and strongest impetus. Soon after I appeared in his classes and he had accepted me as a candidate he introduced me to a friend and admirer, an eminent industrialist, Frederick Nymeyer of South Holland, Illinois, who was eager to publish great Austrian books not yet available in English. Professor Mises had pointed him toward the scholarly writings of his own great teacher Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk (1857-1914) whose three-volume magnum opus, Capital and Interest, was accessible only to German readers. It needed a translator and publisher who would introduce it to the wide English-speaking world. Frederick Nymeyer was the eager publisher and I was elected to be the translator. As I had never been a translator I had serious doubts about my linguistic ability to translate some 1200 pages of scholarly text from my mother tongue into a foreign language. Surely, I had had three years of English in high school and had learned more since then, but I surely was no translator of scholarly sentences, half a page long, written by a former Secretary of Finance of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. But Professor Mises persisted in his advice, which I began to understand only several years later. I conquered the tome, translating two pages a day, earning a $10 fee per page. It made me a lucid English writer and, above all, an Austrian economist — which may have been Professor Mises’s intent all along.

The other force that changed my direction from Wall Street to the world of academe was my wife. Her older sister being happily married to a professor at Penn State University had introduced her to the free and serene lifestyle of a college professor. When she met me in the Mises's seminar she soon saw in me a potential professor and encouraged me to move in her direction. I have never regretted our joint path.

Entering the world of academe I soon landed at a small Presbyterian college in western Pennsylvania, at Grove City College, with some 1200 students and a faculty of 60 instructors. I arrived there in a roundabout way. After my first appointment at Iona College, I negotiated with Fordham University which offered me a newly endowed chair. From there I moved to Grove City College whose chairman of the board, J. Howard Pew, also was chairman of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), where Professor von Mises was serving as advisor. J. Howard Pew managed to redirect me from Fordham University to his college, that is Grove City College. I taught there for 36 years, instructed some 10,000 students and retired at age 70 to assume the presidency of FEE.

Throughout these early years of my teaching I remained in close touch with Professor and Mrs. von Mises. In fact, in 1955 Mrs. Margit Mises became the godmother of our son, Robert. At one of the receptions which the Professor used to give in his apartment at the end of an academic year, Mrs. von Mises had introduced me to a female seminarian who, in time, was to become my wife. Taking full credit for our union she willingly offered to become our son’s godmother. She carried the baby throughout the baptism ceremony and only later released him into my arms. All along, Dr. Mises sat patiently in the last row of the Lutheran church. He vetoed my suggestion to attend a reception after the ceremony. We returned home instead and had dinner in our apartment.

Throughout her long life Mrs. Mises always was a loving and attentive godmother. She never missed her godson’s birthday and other important events in his life. When Robert was a teenager attending a summer language school in Germany he would call on the Miseses vacationing in Austria or Switzerland. In July 1973 in Luzern, Switzerland, he may have been the last American visitor who saw Dr. Mises alive in apparent good health. The professor made merry with his stepdaughter Gita Sereny, his stepgranddaughter Mandi, and his wife’s godson Robert. After his death on October 10, 1973, Mrs. Mises occasionally visited us and spent several weeks with us in Grove City and in our summer home in Spring Mills, Pa.

My wife and I always tried to be grateful students of the master and his gracious wife. Barely one year after my NYU graduation my wife published the first Mises festschrift commemorating the 50th anniversary of his doctorate. In a formal dinner meeting with Professor Friedrich von Hayek as the festive speaker, she presented to Dr. Mises On Freedom and Free Enterprise (D. Van Nostrand, Princeton, New Jersey). One year later, in 1957, when I had become professor of economics and chairman of the department at Grove City College, I managed to persuade the college president who in turn persuaded J. Howard Pew, the chairman of the College and of FEE, to confer an honorary doctorate on Professor Mises. In the graduation exercises I had the privilege of presenting him for the public investiture. In the years thereafter I managed to secure honorary doctor’s degrees also for Leonard Read, the president of FEE, for Howard Kershner, the president of Christian Economics, for Henry Hazlitt, the famous columnist of Newsweek, and for Paul Poirot, the great editor of The Freeman. Soon thereafter I fell from favor at Grove City College as a statist counterattack changed the balance of power for a while.

In my 36 years at Grove City College the economics department consisting of just two kindred souls and myself had to endure three furious and often vicious offensives by radical statist departments offering courses which all students were required to take. History professors led the first charge. When it failed, the English department consisting of twelve or thirteen instructors waged a lengthy ugly war against the three economists. And when it finally drew to a close, the Dean of the Chapel resumed the attack with great vigor and fervor. In the end he left to assume the deanship of the Presbyterian cathedral in Pittsburgh.

Professor von Mises had warned me at the very outset and urged me to remain in Grove City. He repeatedly assured me that “There is only one teaching position where we are wanted — and you’ve got it.” He would have been disappointed if I had surrendered it. The first attack by the history department was most direct and nearly violent. In several evenings some 100 students would demonstrate in front my house, shouting: “Fascist go home! Fascist go home!” In their eyes, I had to be a Fascist since I did not espouse the common ideology of the 1950s; libertarianism had not yet come into view. When they failed to drive this professor out of town, six or seven radical instructors left the College in disgust. Thereafter, the war waged by the English department dragged on for several years until a new president reorganized the curriculum which gave students more freedom to choose their courses. As student enrollment in English courses declined, it reduced the size of the department and weakened its ideological position on the campus. The last war against the economics department was waged by a new Dean of the Chapel. His influence was felt throughout the student body of more than 2000 students as they were required to attend his services regularly. His major theme which he repeated frequently and literally was: “All industrial wealth invariably springs from vice and crime.” He minced no words about the great wealth of the College founders who had built a beautiful campus and provided the capital foundation of the College. When I called the president’s attention to these chapel sermons, my report was made light of as a minor disagreement between Hans and Bruce. When I informed our new Chairman of the Board, he ignored my letter. When I sent my report to a dozen trustees, the Chairman promptly made an appearance and investigated. Soon thereafter the Dean chose to move to Pittsburgh and assume the stewardship of the Presbyterian cathedral.

This experience of frightful ideological opposition that meant to drive Austrian economic thought off the campus made me appreciate the extraordinary protection I enjoyed by the Chairman of the Board. If I needed the protection of a chairman of the board, how could I survive at any other college or university without such protection? My experience confirmed Professor Mises’ admonition about my position. I remained with Grove City College until my retirement in 1992. Dr. Jeffrey Herbener is now holding forth as I had for thirty-six years before him.

Throughout the 1960’s we remained in close touch with Professor and Mrs. von Mises. Whenever we went to New York we would be invited for tea in their apartment at 777 West End Avenue. I would have to report about my academic activity and especially about my current research and writing. Mrs. Mises always wanted to know about the growth of her godson. Several times the Professor, accompanied by his wife, would come to Grove City to address my students. When he was 88 or 89 years old I invited him upon the urging of my students who were most eager to see the famous professor. Unfortunately, the octogenarian failed to impress and persuade many twenty-year olds. He was more vigorous and persuasive on a few earlier speaking tours on which I was fortunate to accompany him. When no other young economist could be found to travel with the master and his spouse, I together with my spouse was chosen to join them and add my lectures. The Miseses and Sennholzes toured Guatemala and Mexico together, giving lectures and seminars at several universities. I always knew my place and deportment in the presence of the teacher and his spouse.

Throughout the decades I frequently went on speaking tours traveling from coast to coast and lecturing to various educational and social groups. A professor, after all, has some 24 weeks of vacation in a year which he likes to fill with his favorite activity. Two national speakers’ bureaus would prepare my summer itinerary well in advance and guide me from coast to coast, charging 40 percent of my speaking honoraria. I would lecture on simple topics of the college curriculum, such as inflation, taxation, prices and price controls, fringe benefits and costs, wages, labor unions, interest rates, etc. Diverse audiences counting from a few dozen to three thousand in the Pasadena Arena received me rather well.

I always addressed Austrian economic thought in the garb of "common-sense economics." During the 1960’s and 70’s I frequently rented a small plane and flew from one engagement to another from Grove City to San Diego, to Seattle, and back, which afforded me great travel efficiency. During the 1980’s and 90’s I flew the family plane, a 4-seater Grununan Tiger, giving some 100 public speeches a year and, together with my wife at my side, admiring the beauty of the country from the air. Our flying added some adventures to the experience of meeting friends and kindred souls. It is ironic that the great skill which the German Luftwaffe taught me was to enhance my productivity many years later in the service of Austrian economic teaching.

I did not overlook my obligation to write and publish which, after all, generated the very demand for speaking and lecturing. I had begun to publish short articles in the Cologne Rundschau before I had come to this country (1949) and continued to write for the German press for a while thereafter. It took a few years for me to muster the courage to write and publish in English, my acquired language. I started in 1954 with the help of my wife and never stopped. With my eyes on Harvard, Princeton, and Yale I began to publish book reviews in the Harvard Quarterly. The ideological battles for survival at Grove City College taught me that my place was with friendly opinion journals such as The Freeman, Private Practice, Christian Economics, American Opinion, and even National Review. Ignoring fraternal disagreements and disputes, I would publish my pieces wherever they were accepted. I served American Opinion for seven years as Economics Editor, publishing one or two pieces in every issue, and The Freeman for five years as monthly columnist. Altogether the number of published essays and articles may exceed one thousand. Since the growth of the Internet my pieces have gone out free of charge to all corners of the world and are reprinted in many places, with my consent. Fifty-four of my Freeman pieces written during my presidency of FEE were collected in the volume Reflection and Remembrance (1997) . Forty-two recent pieces published on the Internet have been collected in my most recent book Sowing the Wind. Hopefully this volume will not be my last.

At the age of 70 I retired from college teaching because of the ever-widening age difference between that of the instructor and his students. It is still bearable to instruct college students who are the children of former students, but it is awkward to be reminded by students that their grandparents once sat in his classes. I decided to leave and write my immortal tomes, but another opportunity more to my liking soon pointed me in yet another direction. The Foundation for Economic Education needed me; it was losing one million dollars a year and its end was clearly in sight. In fact, the accountants no longer withheld income taxes "because they would be refunded anyway after the closure and liquidation."

I had never managed a business although I had long held forth on the principles of enterprise. Here was an opportunity to practice what I was preaching. I found the FEE staff discouraged and depressed, the plant neglected and run down, the equipment old and in ill-repair, and the clerical staff poorly trained to handle computer equipment. The last two men capable of running modern computers had just left. Above all, the labor morale resembled that of an old union shop with numerous secretaries without a senior staff, with labor limitations and privileges, and costly fringe benefits for present and former employees. FEE accountants even revealed a liability of $104,000 for staff vacations not taken! Surely, its days were numbered, which may have been the very reason for FEE’s ready delivery to me.

Aware of the urgent need for reform, I began by cutting my presidential salary in half, and then in half again, which lowered my pay below that of a secretary. My wife worked at my side, twelve hours a day, without pay. I began to eliminate unproductive costs wherever I found them. In just one year FEE’s finances were back in the black with several new highly skilled employees and modern computer equipment. I could slash labor expenses legally because stringent New York State labor laws applied only to companies with 15 and more employees; FEE had only 14.

I redirected the efforts of FEE from traveling and speaking all over the country to the publication of books and their sales through commercial channels. A national distributor soon placed FEE titles in bookstores from coast to coast allowing the friends of FEE to order books through Barnes & Noble and other such stores. In our five years at FEE we published 45 books most of which were anthologies of Freeman articles. In 1993 we finally published Mary’s volume titled “Leonard Read: Philosopher of Freedom”, which she had penned much earlier. And in 1997 she enjoyed creating a great anthology on the Faith of Our Fathers, which comprises 27 great Freeman essays about the religious and moral foundation of the American order. My collection of Freeman articles under the title Reflection and Remembrance appeared soon thereafter. The publication and marketing of books succeeded in raising the share of FEE’s “earned income” to some 40 percent of total income, which was rather extraordinary for an eleemosynary educational institution like FEE.

We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of FEE and half a century of fruitful activity in the vineyard of freedom in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City with Margaret Thatcher as the jubilee speaker. We celebrated in a style which Leonard Read, our founder, would have approved. As Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979 - 1990), she had created the “Thatcher Revolution” which dismantled Britain’s postwar welfare state, restored market prices and wages, and privatized several industries and utilities. In foreign affairs, she was a close ally of President Ronald Reagan and a vocal critic of world communism. Some 800 supporters and friends of FEE joined us at the Waldorf jubilee which, despite its extraordinary expenses, netted some $200,000 and thus helped to keep FEE in the black.

After five years of faithful FEE service, at age 75, it was time to withdraw. The new FEE no longer needed us; the young Sennholz family now living in Grove City and managing Libertarian Press and the Center for Futures Education might be able to use the old couple. It also was time to remember and enjoy our past lives, which is to live twice. We had a full measure of fruitful life, labor, love, and adventure. In fact, I had more than my fair share in nearly every respect. The “new world” which I chose to join at the age of 27 had opened all the doors I wished to enter. It had accepted me and honored me for my labors which I joyfully rendered, New York University had bestowed on me its 125th Founders Day Award (1956); the Governor of New Mexico had promoted me to Honorary Colonel (1979); Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala City had conferred on me an honorary Doctor en Ciencias Sociales (1989) and Culver-Stockton College in Canton, MO, an honorary Doctor of Laws (1991); the Pennsylvania Academy for the Profession of Teaching had bestowed on me an Outstanding Teacher Award (1990). On my 70th birthday (1992) 36 authors had honored me with a festschrift. At my departure from FEE the Board of Trustees had favored me with the title "President emeritus," the only one it ever granted. Such honors may be sweet to a man’s heart, but they ever stand close to the condemnations, denunciations, and attacks suffered.

In my new retirement (1997), I soon made a pleasant discovery. While my essays and articles that were published in various magazines and periodicals may have had several thousand readers, my publications on the Internet soon enjoyed several million. Whenever I would post a new piece on my website and mail it to a few hundred interested parties on my mailing list it would soon be reprinted in many parts of the world, perhaps under a different title. I would receive instant replies and reviews from readers in all corners of the world. Surely, the Internet publications would generate no revenue for the author, but few octogenarians still are searching for additional income.

To my surprise, a German journal as well as my hometown newspaper were made aware of my 80th birthday and featured it in their issues. I am their native son whom beneficial fate had sent to America and who had not forgotten them. My 81st birthday was to become even more memorable as I was chosen to be the inaugural lecturer in a new Grove City College Hall of Arts and Letters.

Addressing an assembly of 200 students, instructors, and friends, I chose to lecture on "Competition on the Campus" after several friends and colleagues had made some complimentary remarks. Drs. Jeffrey Herbener, Llewellyn Rockwell, Joseph Salerno, Bruce Ketler, Alejandro Chafuen, and Lawrence Reed (the latter three had been my students) waxed eloquent about my past deeds and misdeeds and rejoiced with me about my birthday.

Now, barely 22 years old, the Ludwig von Mises Institute has made me the keynote speaker and recipient of the 2004 Schlarbaum Award which crowns all my previous honors. I am grateful to both the Mises Institute and to Gary G. Schlarbaum for the generous honorarium. The honor of receiving this award may help me to keep my thoughts alive, my pen sharp, and my heart humble, hopeful, kind, and cheerful — and thus help me triumph over old age.


See also A tribute to Professor Sennholz by Joseph Salerno, Book: The Underground Economy (1984),  Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Vol. 5, No. 4, dedicated to Hans Sennholz, Daily Article archive of articles by Sennholz, Austrian Economics Newsletter interview with Hans Sennholz, and Lew Rockwell's essay on Sennholz.

[Hans Sennholz is the 2004 Schlarbaum Laureate. He delivered this speech at the award ceremony, October 16, 2004, San Mateo, California.]


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