The Free Market
Meaning of the Mises Papers, The
The Free Market 15, no. 4 (April 1997)
The personal, political, and scholarly papers of Ludwig von Mises have been discovered in a formerly secret archive in Moscow. So have the papers of many of Mises's colleagues and associates during his years in Vienna, including friends and foes in academia, politics, and business.
What does this startling news --which has Misesians the world over cheering--mean? It opens enormous possibilities for deepening our understanding of the life and times of Mises, and therefore much about the intellectual history of our century. Mises's career in the U.S., which began when he was sixty years old, is documented, but without his Vienna papers, there would always have been a void in our understanding of this extraordinary man.
The timing of the find is also notable. At the end of this bloody century, it appears that Mises is increasingly singled out as one of only a handful of true intellectual heroes. He fought every evil that came his way with brilliance and courage, and made lasting contributions to scientific theory. For this reason, and for the exemplary quality of his writings, Mises's reputation is experiencing a phenomenal worldwide resurgence, and along with it the Austrian Schools generally.
The papers recovered in Moscow include items from the years 1900 to 1938, a period in which Mises made enormous theoretical advances. He predicted, for example, the precise nature of socialism's eventual collapse. He explained the causes and cures of the business cycle. He showed that the intellectual link between liberty and capitalism is undeniable. He shored up the methodological basis of the social sciences, among many other contributions.
During the years of his private seminar, Mises tutored an entire generation of European intellectuals in economics and the social sciences. These men would later become the leaders in the postwar effort to restore freedom where it had been lost to national and Marxian socialism. In this, Mises served as the crucial counterweight to the ideas of Marx and Keynes.
Mises was also a close political adviser to the Austrian government, and to future statesmen and finance ministers. To gain an idea into the political importance of this period, consider this passage from Mises's Notes and Recollections: "My activity from 1918 to 1934 can be divided into four parts: Prevention of Bolshevist Takeover. Halting the Inflation. Avoidance of Banking Crisis. Struggle Against Takeover by Germany."
And Mises was being modest. His actual contributions to events of his time are more dramatic and sweeping than even this list would suggest. This was no ordinary life, but the dramatic story of the man whom Murray N. Rothbard called "scholar, creator, hero."
But when Mises fled a war-torn continent to come to the U.S. during this century's darkest hours, he was unsure whether there was hope for restoring the freedoms that were slipping away. "I set out to be a reformer," he writes in his memoirs, "but only became the historian of decline." Mises died thinking that his extensive papers had been lost or destroyed by the Nazis who stole them out of his apartment in 1938. How fortunate we are that this was not the case.
The discovery was made by two Austrian academics, to whom lovers of liberty will always owe a great debt. The first is Stefan Karner, an economic historian who teaches at the University of Graz. An experienced archivist, Karner has written widely on prison camps in the Soviet Union. He was the first Western academic to be granted complete access to the archive that holds Mises's papers and to chronicle its contents. In addition, Karner was also first to discover (also in Moscow) Goebbels diary and Hitler's guest book.
The second is Gerhard Jagschitz, a historian who teaches at the University of Vienna (where Mises also taught). In addition to his books on Austrian wartime history, Jagschitz wrote his doctoral dissertation on Engelbert Dollfuss, the Austrian Chancellor who tried to prevent the Nazis from taking over Austria. During this period Mises was chief economist for the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. Before Dollfuss was murdered for his politics, Mises was one of his closest advisers.
It is natural, then, that Jagschitz and Karner would take special interest in Mises's papers. They had first heard about the existence of the Soviet archive in 1990, when it was revealed by a Russian journalist. In 1991, the Soviet state collapsed, and a new law was passed opening all archives, except those of recent history, for the first time.
Karner rushed to the scene to discover huge caches of documents that had first been confiscated by the Nazis, stored in Berlin, and then taken to Moscow by the Communists at wars end. Jagschitz arrived in 1992, and together they worked for two years doing the hard work necessary to document all the files and make them available to researchers the world over.
The astounding result of their efforts circulated among archivists during 1995, and the final publication of their labors appeared last year, Confiscated Austrian Documents: Austrian Findings in the Russian Special Archive (Graz, Austria: The Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research into the Consequences of War). It is here that we find the detailed information about Mises's papers.
And what does the Mises "fund" contain? As many as 20,000 individual items. Included are Mises's correspondence with colleagues, publishers, journalists, and students (such as F.A. Hayek, Oskar Morgenstern, and Fritz Machlup); notes on lectures and seminars; and articles, reviews, monographs, and bibliographies. There are notes on organizations and professional associations to which Mises belonged, as well as personal correspondence.
There are also detailed minutes of the meetings of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, which was a hotbed of free-market thought during a period of rising socialism and inflationism. There are even documents related to Mises's service as an officer in the Austrian Army during the First World War. Experienced archivists know how important it is to have every scrap; the mere choice of what Mises chose to save provides insight into what he thought was important.
The papers will remain, unfortunately, in Moscow's Center for the Preservation of Historical-Documentary Collections. This is in keeping with a law passed in 1994, which says that "people, institutions, and organizations are entitled to make copies," which can be exported, but "the export of originals is not permitted." Thanks to modern technology, however, the entire Austrian collection will be available on CD-ROM. In addition, Richard Ebeling of Hillsdale College made xeroxes of many of the papers and brought them back to the U.S. (Mises's American papers are held by Grove City College.)
The discovery of these papers is an exciting event. But by themselves, they are only pieces of a much larger puzzle, not only of Mises's life but also of this century. What is more important than the appearance of these papers is what becomes of them in the hands of intellectual historians and biographers.
Thanks to the generous contributions of Mises Institute Members, the Institute has been able to appoint a biographer of Mises. He is Jörg Guido Hülsmann, 30, an extraordinarily gifted scholar who already has two books out in German on monetary and political theory and two articles in The Review of Austrian Economics, among many others. Fluent in German, French, and English, Hülsmann received his PhD in economics from the Technical University of Berlin, where he also studied philosophy, law, and European intellectual history.
A biography of this magnitude is a long-term endeavor, of course, as is the project of reconstructing the intellectual history of our century. It will tell the complete story of how Mises came to foretell most of the evils of our time, resisted them, and provided the intellectual foundation for a radical alternative.
Mises writes in his memoirs: "It is a matter of temperament how we shape our lives in the knowledge of an inescapable catastrophe. In high school I had chosen a verse by Virgil as my motto: Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito ('Do not yield to the bad, but always oppose it with courage). In the darkest hours of the war, I recalled this dictum. Again and again I faced situations from which rational deliberations could find no escape. But then something unexpected occurred that brought deliverance. I would not lose courage even now. I would do everything an economist could do. I would not tire in professing what I knew to be right."
The meaning of the newly discovered Mises papers is that Mises himself may at last begin to get the credit that is his due. The discovery reignites our hopes that his wisdom will again instruct a new generation of scholars and activists who value freedom and have the courage to defend it just as he did.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe teaches Economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Cite This Article
Rockwell, Llewellyn H. "The Meaning of the Mises Papers." The Free Market 15, no. 4 (April 1997).