When a Classical Liberal Confronted Nazi Terror

Ninety years ago, Adolf Hitler was sworn into office as Chancellor of Germany. January 30, 1933, would be henceforth regarded by Germany’s National Socialists as the Machtergreifung: the day that the Nazis seized power and began consigning the Weimar Republic to its grave.

Hitler never made any secret of his intention to strike against those he saw as his enemies once his grip on power had been consolidated. It was thus at considerable personal risk that a young German economics professor delivered a public lecture in Frankfurt am Main, just eight days after Hitler took office, in which he made clear his opposition to the new government.

Wilhelm Röpke was already known as an outspoken critic of Nazism. He had even personally campaigned against the Nazi Party. “You will be complicit,” he wrote in one 1930 election pamphlet, “if you vote Nazi or for a party that has no reservations about forming a government with the Nazis.” That pointed “or” was a shot at those conservative political and military elites who, three years later, would allow Hitler into office under the illusion that they could control him.

It would not have been difficult for Röpke to adapt himself to post-January 1933 German political realities. For one thing, he was not Jewish. Moreover, Röpke was a decorated combat veteran who had served with distinction in the trenches on the Western Front. Young and athletic, he even looked like the Aryan übermensch extolled by Nazi ideology. At the age of 24, Röpke had become the youngest professor in Germany and by 1933 his fame as an economist was European-wide. Had Röpke been willing to compromise, he could have gone far under the new regime. Röpke’s February 1933 lecture, however, indicated that he was not going to bend. From that moment on, he had no future in the Third Reich.

End Times

When the Nazis acceded to power in 1933, the effect was not mass consternation on the part of those with misgivings. Even the most important German Jewish representative group, the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, maintained that, despite the Nazis’ ferocious anti-Semitism, “nobody would dare to touch [their] constitutional rights.”

In his February 8 lecture, Röpke demonstrated that he had no such illusions. Entitled “Epochenwende” (End of an Era), Röpke’s lecture spelled out precisely why Hitler’s entry into the Chancellery represented something entirely different from a normal change of government. National Socialism’s triumph constituted, Röpke stated, a defeat for reason and freedom. The Nazi movement, he told his audience, with its naked appeal to “moods and emotions” and constant invocation of “myth,” “blood,” and the “primordial soul” left no room for such things.

Not only, Röpke insisted, were “stupidity and stupor” being “inculcated in a way that beggars description”; “every immoral and brutal act,” he observed, “is justified by the sanctity of the political end” for the Nazis. The threats to destroy entire groups—“Jews in Germany” and “hereditary enemies of all kinds”—were not, Röpke argued, mere rhetoric designed to whip up populist resentment that would be quietly shelved once the Nazis took power. It was integral, Röpke knew, to the entire National Socialist project.

Liberalism as Civilization

Röpke’s lecture, however, went beyond listing all the deep problems with the Nazi movement. He also sought to identify the essence of what the highly ideological movements of the right and left then striving for power across Europe wanted to annihilate. Here we come to the second dimension of Röpke’s lecture: his defense of liberalism.

By liberalism, Röpke did not have in mind the liberal parties of Weimar Germany who had been squeezed out by the German Communists to their left and the National Socialists on their right. Nor was he thinking of the liberal thinkers and movements that wielded considerable influence in nineteenth-century Europe. “Today’s rebellion against liberalism,” Röpke stated, “is not a mere rebellion against perishable ideals and modes of thought of the nineteenth century.” Liberalism was “not to be equated with that century’s political or economic liberalism.” By this, Röpke had in mind industrial capitalism and figures like the British Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone. 

Instead, liberalism served in Röpke’s lecture as a synonym for the integration of Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian, and Enlightenment ideas, culture, and institutions that, he believed, constituted the civilization of the West. Nazism—and Bolshevism, for that matter—should, Röpke maintained, be recognized as an insurrection against that particular complexion of concepts, expectations, and institutions.

As a distinguished free market economist, Röpke was well aware of the role played by the hyperinflation that had economically undermined and politically radicalized parts of the German middle class in the early 1920s, as well as the Great Depression in propelling the Nazi Party to power. “The present world crisis,” he said, “outranges all standards of the past.” The economic downturn that began in 1929 had driven Germany to the political abyss by shattering the relative stability that Weimar had attained by 1926.

Röpke, however, was neither an economic determinist nor a philosophical materialist. The political situation in which Germany found itself should not, he claimed, be understood as the country’s entry into “a new historical era” of the type predicted by Marxist dialectics.

The deeper cause for many Germans’ embrace of the Nazis, in Röpke’s view, was the turning of those whom he called “the masses” but also a fair number of professors against very specific values in the name of “Germany’s awakening” and “the purification of the German soul.” The delicate and sophisticated arrangements of capitalism and liberal constitutionalism, Röpke argued, relied upon some decidedly non-materialist foundations that many Germans had either been persuaded to reject or never really internalized.

Individuality, Liberty, and Reason

One such premise of liberalism to which Röpke’s lecture devoted particular attention was every person’s individuality. Liberalism, he said, involved a belief in “every individual’s human dignity” and “the profound conviction that man must never be degraded into an object.” That, Röpke said, was why liberalism rejected the oppression of people because of their race or religion. A coherent conception of tolerance itself was impossible, he noted, without an in-principle affirmation of every individual’s inherent dignity—not least because it ruled out treating one’s political opponents as “enemies” who belonged to a different group, and who would ultimately have to be reduced to the status of non-citizens or expelled from the body-politic altogether.

It was no coincidence, Röpke argued, that the National Socialists submerged everything into the Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community,” “folk community,” or “racial community”). For the Nazis, what mattered was the group: in their case, the racial collective.

Reason, combined with respect for freedom and each individual’s dignity, was indispensable for the liberal constitutionalism and rule of law that inhibited the type of arbitrary power that the Nazis would take to new levels.

On one level, this was the Nazi alternative to the German Communists’ emphasis on one’s class above all else. It wasn’t for idle reasons that Nazi party members addressed each other as “Comrade.” Yet just as Marxism’s class-identity obsession pulverized any concern for the individual, so too did the Nazi fixation with race dismiss the concept of each individual person’s intrinsic worth as bourgeois prattle.

For Röpke, defense of the individual was tied to two other ideas that liberalism, as he understood it, emphasized. One was the priority of liberty. By liberty, Röpke meant more than “to be free from something.” Liberty also involved being “free for something.” That “something,” he said, was nothing less than “civilization”—“the very air” without which we “cannot breathe.”

Liberty in this sense thus went together with what Röpke called a belief in reason. And reason properly understood, for Röpke, far exceeded empirical rationality and utility calculations. Ultimately, reason concerned “the absolute pursuit of truth.” If societies wanted to be free, he added, they had “to accept reason as the common denominator.” For reason, combined with respect for freedom and each individual’s dignity, was indispensable for the liberal constitutionalism and rule of law that inhibited the type of arbitrary power that the Nazis would take to new levels. To violate the rule of law, Röpke underscored, was to behave in an inherently unreasonable manner, not least because it invariably involved choosing to treat individuals as things and to crush their liberty. Therein lay the path to “servilism” and the “total state.”

But where did Röpke ultimately locate the roots of these liberal ideas? Significantly, Röpke did not immediately point to the Kantian philosophy that was so influential among German liberal thinkers of his time. Rather, he urged his audience to look, first, to “the Greek and Roman Stoa” (Stoic philosophers), then “Christianity,” the subsequent development of “natural law,” and finally enlightenment thought—all of which, taken together, rejected “the principle of violence in favor of the principle of reason.” From this standpoint, Röpke explained, “Liberalism is at least two thousand years old.” One suspects that Röpke had been reading Lord Acton.

Herein we find, Röpke argued, “the essence of civilization.” This is what gives rise to “the concept of the civis, the citizen, and it serves to make possible the civitas, the community, living together.” Such a civilizational sense, Röpke stated, had to shape “the natural feeling” that “we call love of our country.” The true German patriot could not pretend that the high German culture of which Röpke himself was an exemplary product could somehow be sealed off from roots that “reach down to Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem.” Just as “economic nationalism leads to material impoverishment,” Röpke suggested, “cultural nationalism leads as inescapably to provincial Babbittry.”

Exile and Vindication

All this was anathema to the men sworn into office by President Paul von Hindenburg in January 1933. The National Socialists had no interest in reason or the individual, let alone freedom as Röpke understood it. They personified what Röpke called the “reigning illiberalism,” which was characterized by “hot air, slogans . . . glorification of direct action, violence in dealing with all those of different opinion, rabble-rousing in every sphere, empty rhetoric, and deceitful stage effects.” Such illiberalism would, he said, “trample down the garden of European civilization.” That, eventually, was what National Socialism did, epitomized by the regime’s attempt to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth.

This darkness, however, lay in the future. Röpke’s immediate problem in 1933 was the new government’s determination to move against those still willing to express open opposition to Nazism.

In Röpke’s case, the university authorities were not slow to act. Over 50 percent of the city of Marburg had voted for the Nazis, exceeding the national average by 16.1 percent. Most students at Röpke’s university fervently supported the Nazi party. On April 7, 1933, the University of Marburg’s Rector invited members of the university senate known to support the Weimar Republic to resign. That was clearly a message to Röpke. This was followed up by a Nazi member of the Prussian Landtag, Hans Krawielitski, writing directly to the new education minister, denouncing Röpke for his “anti-national attitude” and as a “danger to young German academics.” Krawielitski also called for a boycott of Röpke’s classes and his immediate dismissal. He could no longer be considered “a German professor.”

Initially, Röpke was suspended from teaching. Then, despite efforts by friends in high places to protect him, Röpke was forcibly retired on September 28, 1933, under the terms of article 4 of the new law for reorganizing state institutions. Röpke had departed into exile several months before. But the rupture between Röpke and the new Germany was now complete.

Fifteen years later, Röpke found himself among those uniquely positioned to reorientate the German economy away from the hard corporatism and widespread interventionism into which the Nazi regime had led it. But alongside his insistence on the necessity of embracing a market economy, Röpke invested just as much time explaining why his country and the West (more generally) had to embrace the civilizationally-grounded liberalism that he had defended in his February 1933 lecture. That, Röpke plainly believed, was essential if the era which prevailed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was never again to see the light of day, and if the Communist menace was to be resisted.

In our own age of creeping servilism, wokeism, rampant cronyism, identity politics, friend-enemy Manichaeism, and, in some cases, outright nihilism across the political spectrum, it’s surely a message worth considering today.