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Answers for America in Röpke’s Bismarck

Revisiting Wilhelm Röpke’s The German Question 75 years on.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Wilhelm Röpke’s The German Question’s English publication. Though oft-described as the German-language analogue to F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and a blueprint of West Germany’s successful postwar reconstruction, it has received far less attention than the Austrian’s entry into the conservative canon. With comparisons between 2020s America and Weimar Germany approaching cliché status, however, Röpke’s analysis of the conditions behind the rise of National Socialism merits reconsideration.

The star of Röpke’s story is not Hitler—“There are Hitlers everywhere … at all times”—but the sometimes-seductive Mephistopheles the economist saw sowing the seed bearing the Nazis’ bitter fruits: Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck’s great sin began with political centralization, but transforming Germany into “Greater Prussia” also wrought politically destabilizing “monopoly-and-proletariat capitalism” and corrupted Germany’s national character with a technocratic nihilism that left it morally unarmed against Nazism’s false promise.

Röpke found hope in this analysis, and we can, too. There was an “earlier and nobler Germany,” which could be recovered through a threefold moral, political, and socioeconomic revolution that recalled Edmund Burke’s 1688 far closer than 1789. Röpke’s call to restore political decentralization applies to Americans today concerned with unaccountable Washington administrators and resulting feelings of disenfranchisement. Meanwhile, his socioeconomic prescription bears upon ongoing debates about corporate power. Finally, his call for a moral revolution recovering the liberal humanism of pre-1848 Germany from technocratic nihilism carries lessons for contemporary debates on Covid responses and for those hoping to reform America’s political morality.

Röpke began The German Question’s English edition with a preface justifying his authority. As an expatriate, he claimed the German’s firsthand knowledge and the foreigner’s objectivity. While his preface didn’t mention it, his exile reflected another form of authority. Röpke was an early critic of Nazism and paid a price for it. Having been Germany’s youngest professor in 1924 and attained a full professorship by 1929, in April 1933 he became one of the first professors purged when the Nazis assumed power. He had sealed the deal with a public speech denouncing Hitler’s new regime nine days after President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him chancellor.

Röpke entered a lifelong exile in November 1933 after rejecting overtures from S.S. “bruisers” to express penitence and join the party. He could have played ball. Blond and blue-eyed with a rugged look, he could have been sent from central casting if Leni Riefenstahl had any trouble finding a Nordic type. And the Lutheran economist was a decorated veteran untainted with any Marxist associations. Yet, following an interlude in Istanbul, Röpke spent the war in Switzerland writing what wartime censors would allow against fascism and the conditions behind its rise. He would draw heavily upon the resulting trilogy in The German Question.

Nevertheless, Röpke had a reason—beyond Allied policymakers’ understandable impatience with German-accented voices—to defend his authority to speak about postwar reconstruction plans. His book began with two unpopular arguments about guilt for the war and Nazi atrocities. Most Germans bore the “guilt of the seduced, not the seducers.” And this was “a responsibility the world must share in full” involving more than sins of omission; Nazism was “no dragon found only in the primeval forests of Germania” but part of a global totalitarian tide. Rather than ostracizing Germany as it passed from the Enabling Act to the Nuremberg Laws, Anschluss, and Sudetenland, Western powers had rehabilitated it on the world stage. They allowed it to host the Olympics and legitimized its illegal rearmament—helping it gain an “intellectual Foreign Legion” who spoke of the Autobahn much as Western fans of China’s ability “to get things done” now speak of it building high-speed rail or welding Covid carriers into their apartments. They thus embodied the most important reason Röpke saw the Nazi’s rise occurring: “weakening…moral reflexes.”

Though Röpke highlighted the world’s complicity, it was still Germany that had turned “a Breughel vision of Hell into appalling reality.” The Bismarckian revolution that Röpke believed set the stage for Naziism had deep roots. Medieval and early modern Germany, without political unity, achieved equilibrium neither between political part and whole nor between social classes. After the Peasants’ War and Thirty Years War, this disequilibrium matured into a system of “feudal, absolutist hierarchy” in which the subject “had to give blind obedience to his ‘superior.’”

Though himself a practicing Lutheran, Röpke lamented that Luther’s vision of man’s total depravity reinforced this blind obedience—mandating man cleave closely to St. Paul’s command to obey authorities. This political theology, Röpke contended, combined with the on-the-ground situation with fateful effect—bifurcating Germans’ personal and political morality, so the state escaped moral strictures applying within the individual sphere. “Without any tradition of democratic self-government, they took dangerous refuge…in the world of abstract ideas” where Germany’s longstanding romanticism would yield organicist models of collective morality laying the groundwork for fascism.

Nevertheless, Röpke saw Germany entering the 19th century with a vibrant liberal-humanist tradition embodied by Goethe and von Humboldt. It was only through Bismarck’s Blood and Iron that “the old Black-Red-Gold standard of liberal humanitarianism was supplanted by the Black-White-Red of Greater Prussian realism and nationalism.” This transformation included political and socioeconomic centralization as well as this moral-intellectual revolution. Each would need to be reversed to restore Germany to a decentralized, liberal-humanist path.

Bismarck had transformed a “nation of nations” into a unitary state. By midcentury, the ground had been prepared for unification under the era’s “more attractive Prussia not only of the Humboldts, of the Biedermeier style, and of Berlin romanticism, but also of the Zollverein, the Delbrücks, and the railways.” Nevertheless, Bismarck’s project had to be “carried out by force and trickery.” Thus, Röpke saw the regime stoking paranoiac, jingoistic nationalism “to make good the lack of any natural German patriotism that could be taken for granted.”

A federated Germany founded upon traditional regional identities would have no such need—and thus pose less threat to its neighbors. Röpke’s prescription was Tocquevillian. The allies should exploit inevitable spontaneous postwar decentralization to make local politics “an invaluable school of democracy and citizenship” undoing Germans’ transformation into mass men susceptible to “the constant invention of new occasions for whipping up … excitement.”

But Germany could only attain this federated vision by breaking Prussia’s outsized influence. After leading Germany’s unification, Prussia included not just its traditional eastern provinces but over three-fifths of the Reich’s land and population. This meant an imbalance in its federative structure, allowing little regional or local counterweight to Berlin and creating “a state only a genius could manage.” Its scientistic bureaucracy eluded democratic oversight—an increasingly familiar picture with General Milley apparently bucking civilian control, the CDC inserting itself between renters and landlords, and President Biden using OSHA to enact vaccine mandates he had promised to avoid. American authorities’ collapsing credibility today may present a similar opportunity for decentralization.

Before “neoliberalism” became a dirty word, Röpke sometimes embraced the term to differentiate his program from 19th-century laissez-faire. Markets, he reminded readers, depended upon institutional safeguards protecting against firms accreting dangerous powers. Unlike American neoliberals, however, Röpke understood the threats posed by corporate power as more than a mere reduction of consumer surplus or challenge to price signals’ function conveying dispersed information—they represented a sociopolitical problem. “Monopoly-and-proletariat capitalism” undermined political freedom, foreclosed individuals’ opportunity to attain a satisfying competency, and thus destabilized the polity. Consequently, antitrust policy was essential—as was consistent ex ante rulemaking that could ensure the same rules applying to small business affected those who “knew the right strings to pull in Berlin.”

Röpke’s counsel applies as much to today’s postindustrial information economy as the immediate postwar period. Yet translating them into specific policy prescriptions means accounting for economic change. The economist supported free trade as an antimonopoly measure. International competition, he contended, would discipline attempts to leverage market power. This analysis rings true for heavy industry—Röpke’s primary concern, as it accreted neofeudal power in Bismarckian and Weimar Germany. A different logic, however, applies to postindustrial software firms. With zero marginal costs and network effects increasing returns to scale, free trade merely empowers the biggest competitors. Other solutions, including direct antitrust enforcement and common-carrier regulation thus gain significance. The latter merits consideration, especially, as a counter for hegemonic corporate culture causing interfirm cooperation without any formal cartel agreements—the knottiest problem in antitrust regulation per Röpke’s ally Franz Böhm and an increasingly pressing threat to free expression.

Finally, Röpke contended, a moral revolution was necessary as modern tyrannies like Nazi Germany were “marked by the entire dissolution of the values and standards without which … society … cannot exist.” This argument took two sides. One framed the Nazi regime itself as “the expression of complete Nihilism.” This classification faces an obvious objection stated concisely by Walter Sobchak: “say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” Röpke’s retort on Naziism’s nihilism is only partially satisfying. Its adherents, he had long held, rejected the whole Western heritage. On this point, he paralleled Leo Strauss’s provocative 1941-lecture “German Nihilism.” Yet Strauss captured something Röpke missed—that the ultimate motive of German nihilism was “not in itself nihilistic.” Rather, Strauss saw its roots in a “moral protest” at “a world without blood, sweat, and tears” lowering man’s horizons “to production and consumption only.”

Long before Francis Fukuyama, Strauss’s young Germans considered what seemed the inevitable end of history and found the last man’s existence intolerable. Having arrived at a resounding “No!” without articulating a positive program, they nevertheless proceeded to action—attempting to destroy the civilization they saw leading to that intolerable existence. For this, Strauss blamed the young nihilists’ teachers who failed to “explain to them in articulate language the positive … meaning of their aspirations.” The more compelling side of Röpke’s argument about nihilism builds upon a similar insight. German liberals had been seduced by Prussia’s promise of efficiency and prosperity. Purely technical, positivist reason based on these priorities offered no satisfying answer to young nihilists and left Germans unarmed against them. Thus, Röpke offered “A Value Judgment on Value Judgments:” Their elimination from scientific discourse resulted “in total skepticism and complete nihilism”—offering no principled argument against tyranny in the name of efficiency.

This lesson—having long stalked economic-policy debates—applies doubly to health-policy questions. Debates over Covid responses have largely pit two materialist metrics against each other—health outcomes against GDP. This tradeoff obscures considerations about freedom and broader human flourishing. Instead, we, like Churchill’s (probably apocryphal) interlocutor, find ourselves merely haggling over prices—and putting a price on life is at least as disreputable as putting one on the marital act. Recovering the language of humanistic liberalism remains a key defense against technocratic nihilists claiming the mantle of “science”—be they partisans of eugenics or South Australia’s premier declaring his constituents “should feel pretty proud” of an app their state developed to enforce lockdown by tracking their location constantly.

Röpke’s moral revolution faced the problem of collective guilt and redemption. Speaking of guilt, he explained, “implies the conceptions of repentance, expiation, and rebirth.” Röpke could relegate this point to a parenthetical aside, but this connection between repentance and the promise of redemption requires additional emphasis in our post-Christian age. Holding out the possibility of forgiveness and a redeemable vision of Deutschtum were necessary conditions for Germany’s moral revolution. Summary punishment of the average German would harden sentiments against it and to deprive him of cultural roots would be to recreate the conditions that had prompted Bismarckian jingoism and militaristic nihilism. Thus, Röpke’s attempt to uncover a usable past in an earlier, nobler Germany—and the regional cultures of its Länder—was key to his project.

These same lessons apply to those hoping to reform America’s political morality today: Reformers must avoid joining Röpke’s German nihilists in committing “spiritual arson,” loosening fallen man from the limits of tradition and morality. Without the promise of forgiveness and recognition of cultural roots, calls for moral reformation will invite backlash rather than reflection.

Bob Kaminski holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and is a scholar of business, labor, and politics in the 19th- and 20th-century United States.

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