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Wilhelm Roepke

From 1899
 to 1966

"We need a combination of supreme moral sensitivity and economic knowledge. Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism. Ethics and economics are two equally difficult subjects, and while the former needs discerning and expert reason, the latter cannot do without humane values."

A decorated soldier in the Kaiser's army, Wilhelm Roepke returned home from the trenches of World War I in 1918, determined to work to ensure that Western civilization never again experienced a crisis of the type that led to the horrors of mass warfare. His life was henceforth to be spent fighting against all forms of collectivism--be it of the National Socialist, Communist, or welfarist variety--and promoting the free society, which, he believed, needed to be grounded in a culture of Christian humanism.

Quickly emerging as one of Europe's premier experts on business-cycle theory, Roepke was equally well known for his classical liberal economic views. An outspoken critic of communism and Nazism, Roepke delivered a public address at Frankfurt-am-Main on February 8, 1933, in which he directly criticized the newly installed Nazi regime. Roepke was consequently among the first professors purged from the German academy by the Nazis. Realizing there was no place for him in Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich, Roepke departed into exile in November 1933, eventually settling in Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1966.

Exile did not diminish Roepke's engagement in the world of ideas. Roepke's work was immensely influential upon Ludwig Erhard, the initiator of West Germany's post-war economic miracle, which began with the liberalization of the economy in 1948. As well as tirelessly arguing for the necessity of these reforms, Roepke also assisted Friedrich von Hayek in creating the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, an international academy of intellectuals devoted to protecting liberty against the tide of collectivism then sweeping across Europe. A committed Christian, Roepke described himself as a Protestant who wished the Reformation had never happened. Though convinced of economics' rightful autonomy as a science, Roepke also held that the truths discovered through economics did not contradict the wider truth ultimately found in Christian Revelation. His writings on economic philosophy are full of references to figures such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Hugo Grotius. Roepke also greatly admired Catholic social teaching, especially its articulation of the principle of subsidiarity.

In 1962, Roepke was awarded the Willibald Pirckheimer Medal in recognition of his immense labors and achievements in the cause of liberty and economic truth. The citation read: "The measure of the economy of man. The measure of man is his relationship to God." There could be no more apt summation of the deepest principles underlying Wilhelm Roepke's commitment to authentically human freedom.