1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org
The German Question, by Wilhelm Roepke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1946)

by PROFESSOR F.A. HAYEK (pp. 11-14)

PROFESSOR Roepke should need no formal introduction to the English public if it were not for the intellectual isolation of the several parts of Europe during the last six years. Long known to his professional colleagues in all countries as an economist of unusual brilliance and versatility, he has become known on the Continent in recent years far beyond these circles as one of the outstanding leaders of liberal thought. In a series of three books which have attracted the widest attention, not only in Switzerland where they first appeared, but wherever Swiss books could penetrate, and which have exercised a considerable underground influence even in the countries then still under German occupation, he has given a fascinating outline of a possible better world of free men. No less an authority than Benedetto Croce greeted the first of these books as “certainly one of the most important books which have yet appeared on the political and economic problems of our dine.†It should not be long before this trilogy which has made Professor Roepke’s name familiar in most countries of the Continent will be available to English readers.

The present, however, is a later work by Professor Roepke on the even more urgent problem of Germany, and it is right that it should appear in an English translation with as little delay as possible. Although now long resident in Switzerland, Professor Roepke is himself a German by birth; and as the public has some ground for feeling a little weary of books by Germans on Germany, a few words may be permitted to explain why his views on the subject seem to possess a title to attention which few others can claim. His wisdom is not born of hindsight. Professor Roepke can claim to have seen and fought from within Germany the evil that was coming at a time when most of the foreign observers, who are now so ready sweepingly to condemn all Germans, preferred to be blind and to close their ears to the warnings that came from within Germany; He has rightly felt that to justify what he has to say he ought himself to give the reader an outline of his career; and though in the autobiographical sketch contained in the book he says much less than he might say to establish his credentials, I need to add no more than that in the twenty years during which I have known the author I have never known him express opinions which are not consistent with his present views. While his convictions have grown and developed, he is not a new convert to the views he defends and he has, as few men have, earned the right to speak as he does. This is true even where he has bitter words to say about the past policy of the Western powers and some of the conflicting and confused views which appear to inspire the present policy towards Germany.

Perhaps I should add to this a caution to the reader that, more courageous and honest than politic, Professor Roepke has placed at the front of his book that part of his argument which will be least popular in this country. A correct diagnosis of the condition of Germany is however the first prerequisite of a consistent and successful policy, and few will deny that at the moment there is more danger that the assets may be overlooked on which such a policy will have to build than that the liability side of the account is forgotten. Not many who know Germany, I think, will find the complete picture which the book gives either unduly favourable or out of perspective. There is much, however, in Professor Roepke's account of the growth of the Nazi evil which will satisfy neither those who regard it as a recent growth, nor those who believe that it was always inherent in the German character. It is Professor Roepke's contention that the seeds which have borne the horrible fruits were sown by Bismarck and his contemporaries. In this he seems to me to be fully borne out by much other evidence, and particularly by Mr. E. Eyck's monu­mental new biography of Bismarck.

So interesting is Professor Roepke's discussion of the growth of the views which produced Hitler that there is some risk that the reader may forget that it is intended merely to provide the justification for the recommendations of policy to which the last part of the book is devoted. Their most important part is a plea that the victors should not regard Bismarck's creation of a highly centralised Germany as an irreversible fact, and that, if Germany is ever to fit as a peaceful member into the European family of nations, it will be necessary partly to undo Bismarck's work and to reconstruct Germany with a decentralised and truly federal structure. It is a remarkable testimony to the hold which the ideas of Bismarck's generation have since gained on all the rest of the world, and, it seems, particularly on what are supposed to be “progressive†views, that a German Liberal should thus have to plead against the tendency of the victors to perpetuate Bismarck’s work, and to point out that Germany must cease to be the large unit centrally organised for a common purpose which Bismarck made her, if she is not again to be a danger to European peace.

Personally, I am fully convinced that Professor Roepke is right in this, and that it is of the utmost importance that even at this late hour the lesson which he drives home should be fully learnt. A centralised Germany will always continue the spirit of Berlin with all it has stood for during the past eighty years; yet at the moment it would seem as if the Allies were preparing a new and even greater centralisation of power ultimately to be handed over to the Germans. Decentralisationneed neither mean a Germany partitioned by the victors, which in the course of time would almost certainly produce a new wave of virulent nationalism, nor a Germany condemned to lasting poverty; it would, on the contrary, make it easier to give the Germans a chance to regain economic standards which in a centrally-organised Germany would appear as a threat to her neighbours. Instead of building up a central German administration, the Allies should tell the Germans that whatever central administration Germany is to possess will remain indefinitely under Allied control, and that their only but certain path to independence is through developing representative governments in the individual German states, which will be freed from Allied control as they succeed in establishing stable democratic institutions. This process would have to be gradual, with the Allies retaining in the end no more control over the individual state than corresponds to the minimum powers of a federal government.

To be successful such a policy would need to be supplemented by the enforcement of complete free trade, external and internal, for all these German states. This not only would be necessary to prevent those deleterious economic effects which the opponents of decentralisation fear, but it would also constitute the most effective economic control, which would make it impossible for Germany to become again dangerous without preventing her from regaining prosperity. Under free trade Germany could never achieve that degree of industrial and agricultural self-sufficiency on which her economic war— potential rested; she would be driven to a high degree of specialization in the fields where she could make the greatest contribution to the prosperity of the world, and at the same time become dependent for her own prosperity on the continued exchange with other countries. There would, in fact, be hardly any other economic controls required, while this one essential control is also the only kind of control which could not be secretly evaded.

Professor Roepketouches on these possibilities only briefly to­wards the end of his book, and he rightly calls them the boldest and most revolutionary steps which could be taken in our time. The suggestion has been singled out here not only because it throws into strong light the opportunities which are open to us if we are only willing to use them, but in order that it is considered as seriously as it deserves. It is so startling at first that the reader may be inclined to dismiss it as entirely impractical. There is, in fact, no reason other than this unfamiliarity why it should not be put into practice.