Wilhelm Roepke, RIPTags BiographiesHistory of the Austrian School of Economics
[From the papers donated to the Mises Institute by Bettina Bien Greaves. Appeared in National Review XVIII, no. 10 (March 8, 1966): 200.]
Wilhelm Roepke belonged to the generation of Germans that grew up in the time of the First World War and the fantastic inflation of the years following it. He studied at the universities of the German Reich, most of whose teachers of the social sciences and of the humanities in those days eagerly propagandized the ideas that a few years later Hitler popularized in Mein Kampf. It was the great old man of German university economics, Werner Sombart, professor at the University of Berlin, who in his last book proclaimed that the Führer gets his orders directly from God, the Führer of the Universe, and that Führertum means a permanent revelation.
In such an environment the young Wilhelm Roepke preserved his critical acumen. He noticed the fallaciousness of his teachers' doctrines and carefully perused the books they condemned. And he had the courage to promulgate his own ideas, although he knew very well what consequences he would have to face. He was one of the first professors the Nazis fired. With his congenial wife and his children he went into exile. For a few years he taught at the University of Istanbul. Then Rappard and Mantoux selected him as professor of international economic relations at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Here he remained until his premature death. Hundreds of former disciples from all parts of the world, many of them today eminent statesmen or scholars, mourn his untimely demise.
In a series of brilliantly written books, all of them also available in American editions, Roepke expounded his economic and political theories. These publications developed the principles that guided Ludwig Erhard and his collaborators, among them Alfred Müller-Armack, in their endeavors to build a new German economy out of the wreckage left by the Nazis. For most of what is reasonable and beneficial in present-day Germany's monetary and commercial policy credit is to be attributed to Roepke's influence. He — and the late Walter Eucken — are rightly thought of as the intellectual authors of Germany's economic resurrection.
This issue of National Review publishes a contribution by Roepke ["Keynes Revisited"], probably the last article he wrote. It deals with the most urgent of present-day economic and political problems — the international currency chaos. One may disagree with some of the arguments advanced in it and with some of its minor conclusions. But the main content of Roepke's analysis and of his critique of the policies of the governments, especially of the American Government, is safe against any attempt at refutation.
While almost all of those whom the governments and the ruling political cliques think of as experts try to divert attention from the real source of the evil, Roepke here clearly points out that it is inflation, i.e., inflation intentionally engineered by the governments and bashfully styled either deficit spending or expansionism. The present cry for more "international liquidity" and the various suggestions for the creation of some new "reserve currencies" amount to nothing else than plans for an accelerated continuation of these vicious methods of public finance. What the present American administration is doing under the misleading label of the "fight against inflation" is in fact a replica of what was called not so long ago in Europe "repressed inflation," a hopeless attempt to fight not inflation, but its inevitable effects, the rise in all prices and wage rates. It was this policy that the Nazis adopted and that resulted in their system of all-round government control of business and consequently of people's lives.
Thus, at the end of his life and his scientific career, Roepke again seized an opportunity to state forthrightly the principles of sound economic policy which he had championed consistently for more than four decades.
Students of the evolution of economic thought will one day give a detailed account of Professor Roepke's contribution to scientific knowledge. Those who had the privilege of studying under him will always remember what they owe to this eminent teacher. His friends and colleagues will never forget what his friendship has given to them. But 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.