Memories of Ludwig von Mises

Email Print


This paper was prepared for the Grove City College conference on The Legacy of Ludwig von Mises, February 23—24, 2007.

It is quite a task to talk about teachers who played important roles in our lives. Professor Ludwig von Mises played a decisive role in my life. I met him in 1950 when he was 70 years old, teaching at New York University, and I was 28, seeking a new beginning in the United States. I was aware of the Professor, of the important role he was playing in the fields of economic and social thought. Two years earlier, when I was a student of economics and law at the University of Marburg in Germany, his name had come up again and again among a few interested students. German professors did not mention him, but students readily did; they were keenly aware of the evils of the old socialist order and the importance of a new beginning in individual freedom and a free market order. The University library had one copy of Mises’ book The Theory of Money and Credit. There was a waiting list of several weeks before a student could borrow the copy for a few days. I patiently waited before I had the opportunity to read and enjoy the book.

Having come to the United States in December 1949, I was living with relatives, and soon decided to add an American Ph.D. to my German degrees in order to open American employment doors. Many were closed to my Marburg and Cologne degrees. As a poor immigrant, I had my eyes on Wall Street, which caused me to search for the university that offered the best financial and monetary courses. In January and February 1950, I visited several New York universities, requesting catalogues and application forms. I visited Columbia University, Fordham University, New York University, and several other institutions of learning. To my complete surprise, I found Professor Mises’ name listed in the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration catalogue. I had now found the institution where I would earn my American degree.

Professor Mises had arrived in New York from Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal on August 2, 1940. He immediately resumed his educational efforts by writing two relevant books which Yale University Press readily published. Omnipotent Government appeared in May 1944, a second printing in February 1945 and a third in May 1945. Bureaucracy was first published in September 1944, a second printing in October 1944, and the third in January 1946. Generous grants by the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Bureau of Economic Research supported him in his study and writing.

American universities had no regular academic position for this foremost Austrian scholar. But, in 1945, the Graduate School of Business Administration of New York University accepted him as “Visiting Professor” as long as the Volker Fund in Burlingame, California, and other foundations and funds provided his support. But even when university administrators became conversant with his thought during the 1950s and 1960s, they were not prepared to employ a great mind like Mises. In seventeen years of effective teaching at the University of Vienna, the authorities did not let him go any further in his academic career than to an unsalaried Visiting Professor. In twenty-four years of teaching in the United States (1945—1969) he was never promoted. Among the many institutions of higher learning in Europe and America, both the University of Vienna and New York University distinguished themselves in that they tolerated his teaching, provided it did not cost them a penny.

Professor von Mises’ main teaching effort in Vienna focused on his non-accredited “private seminar” in which as many as forty to fifty young people gathered around him for informal discussions of important economic and philosophical issues. From this small Mises circle in Vienna emerged some of the most eminent scholars of our day — e.g., Friedrich A. von Hayek, Gottfried von Haberler, Fritz Machlup, Oskar Morgenstern, Erich Voegelin, and others. “There was greatness in this unassuming exchange of ideas,” Mises later recalled, “and in it we all found happiness and satisfaction.”

At New York University, Professor von Mises conducted a formal seminar for students interested in writing master’s reports and doctoral dissertations. The weekly meeting attracted not only a few serious degree candidates but also several nonregistered students from the New York City area. The circle was joined by some of Mises’ eminent friends, such as Henry Hazlitt and Lawrence Fertig, and other scholars who happened to be in town.

In the fall of 1950, working in a television factory to earn my living expenses and school tuition, I registered and enrolled in Professor Mises’ basic course on Political Economy. I was impressed by the large size of his class, some 100 to 120 students who listened attentively to his lectures. But talking to a few of his students, I soon found that they were aware of his Austrian accent and background but utterly unaware of an Austrian school of thought and the eminent role Professor Mises played in the history of economic thought. They merely were meeting easy class and credit requirements but were not studying Misesian thought.

I soon introduced myself to the professor and petitioned him to become my tutor and sponsor for a Doctor of Philosophy degree. But I was surprised and actually hurt that he rejected me without hesitation. His reply: “The School has strenuous requirements which most students cannot meet.” Surely, I was aware that the School conferred many Master’s Degrees but only a handful of Ph.D.s every year and that, since his appointment as “visiting professor,” Professor Mises only had one degree candidate — Louis Spadaro, associate professor of economics at Fordham University. Professor Mises’ blunt rejection of me undoubtedly made sense in the light of the school’s stringent policy and tradition; but this student could not be discouraged so easily. When, six weeks later, I petitioned him again, always communicating in German, he surprised me by readily accepting me in a friendly manner, waxing eloquently about his past experience. I never learned whether he treated and tested all his applicants in such a manner or whether he had seen my school application revealing my Cologne University doctorate. I was to become his first Ph.D. at New York University, one of four who passed his and the school’s rigorous requirements. Thereafter, our relationship was always cordial and like colleagues until he passed away in 1973.

I don’t know whether Professor Mises’ lectures and seminar discourses would have made me an Austrian scholar. At that time my eyes were on Wall Street and the fortune I intended to earn there. I was confident that, in the long run, thorough knowledge of money and credit, of the trade cycle, and the effects of government intervention would yield fame and fortune. Toward that end, knowledge of Austrian and especially Misesian theory would be useful and profitable. But I never intended to make such knowledge and teaching my life’s work. Two distinct causes pointed and guided me in this new direction.

Professor von Mises himself provided the first and strongest impetus. Soon after I appeared in his classes and he had accepted me as a candidate, he introduced me to a friend and admirer, an eminent industrialist and the founder of Libertarian Press, Frederick Nymeyer, who was eager to publish great Austrian books not yet available in English. Professor Mises had pointed him toward the scholarly writings of his own great teacher Eugen von Bhm-Bawerk (1857—1914), whose three-volume magnum opus, Capital and Interest, was accessible only to German readers, and recommended the name “Libertarian Press” for the new publishing venture. It needed a translator and publisher who would introduce it to the wide English-speaking world. Frederick Nymeyer was the eager publisher and I was elected to be the translator. As I had never been a translator, I had serious doubts about my linguistic ability to translate some 1200 pages of scholarly text from my mother tongue into a foreign language. Surely, I had had three years of English in high school and had learned more since then, but I surely was no translator of scholarly sentences, half a page long, written by a former Secretary of Finance of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. But Professor Mises persisted in his advice, which I began to understand only several years later. I conquered the tome, translating two pages a day, earning a $10 fee per page. It made me a lucid English writer and, above all, an Austrian economist — which may have been Professor Mises’ intent all along.

It is noteworthy that, in 1984, the Nymeyer estate sold not only the inventory of Bhm-Bawerk books to our son Robert and daughter-in-law Lyn but also Libertarian Press itself. Its inventory of Austrian titles now is located in a warehouse in Grove City.

Mrs. Mises induced me to translate the Professor’s memoirs many years later, in 1977. He had penned his Notes and Recollections soon after his arrival in the U.S., in August 1940. They read like the last testimony of a resistance fighter who is looking back because there may be no tomorrow. It is a statement of defiance, proud of his efforts, and exalted in his integrity to the end. (Libertarian Press, 1978).

The other force that changed my direction from Wall Street to the world of academe was my wife. Her older sister being happily married to a professor at Penn State University had introduced her to the free and serene lifestyle of a college professor. When she met me in the Mises seminar, she soon saw in me a potential professor and encouraged me to move in that direction. I have never regretted our joint path.

As the promoter of translations of great Austrian books, Professor Mises undoubtedly kept an eye on this translator. The special family relationship that developed probably rested on the words and deeds of Mrs. Margit von Mises. At a social seminar meeting at the Mises residence in Manhattan, she had introduced me to another seminarian who was to become my life partner, Mary Elizabeth Homan. As our “matchmaker,” she later insisted upon becoming our son’s godmother. She carried him during his baptism in front of our Lutheran congregation in Dobbs Ferry while the Professor watched the proceedings sitting in the last pew. He declined an invitation to a congregational reception afterwards, which made us return for lunch to our third floor apartment at 14 South Broadway in Irvington. Throughout her long life (Mrs. Mises followed him in death, eight days before her 103rd birthday) she faithfully observed her godson’s birthdays and holidays with cards, letters, gifts and phone calls.

Another personal bond that allowed us to befriend both the professor and his wife was our 1956 publication of the Mises Festschrift. A few ardent students were keenly aware that the professor’s 50th anniversary of his Dr.jur. degree from the University of Vienna was approaching and that none of his old colleagues and friends was making preparations for a volume of learned articles as a tribute to the 75-year old scholar. Therefore, my wife invited the most famous Mises friends and colleagues to contribute to a volume in his honor. Nineteen responded promptly. There was C. Antoni in Italy, Faustino Ballvé in Mexico, Louis Baudin, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Jacque Rueff in France, W. H. Hutt and L.M. Lachmann in South Africa, William E. Rappard and Wilhelm Röpke in Switzerland, and Percy L. Greaves, Jr., F. A. Harper, F. A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Fritz Machlup, William H. Peterson, Leonard E. Read, Murray N. Rothbard, Louis M. Spadaro, and this writer in the United States. In March 1956, my wife presented the Festschrift to the professor at a banquet, arranged by Leonard Read, the founder and president of the Foundation for Economic Education. It was a grand evening at the University Club in New York City, with excellent speeches by F. A. Hayek, Leonard Read, Fritz Machlup, and Henry Hazlitt. When, thirty-six years later, I headed the Foundation for Economic Education it re-published a large paper-covered edition in 1994. At that time, most of the authors who in 1955 had collaborated in the preparation of the Festschrift had departed this life.

In 1956 this writer joined the Grove City College faculty. The Chairman of the Board, J. Howard Pew, may have been my sponsor as we had met several times and he had heard me lecture at The Foundation for Economic Education, of which he also had been Chairman. In a conversation with the new College president, J. Stanley Harker, I had mentioned the opportunity to confer an honorary degree on Professor Mises; it would give Grove City College the distinction of being the first to confer such an honor on a great scholar, now 75 years old, author of numerous books and countless articles, and foremost champion and guardian of the free society. President Harker and the Board of Trustees apparently agreed and granted him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree (L.L.D.) at its seventy-seventh commencement on June 8, 1957. As the College was not accustomed nor prepared to give a special reception after the graduation exercise, Mary and I invited the trustees and faculty members to meet the honoree at our house at 200 East Pine Street. Most trustees and faculty members were eager to meet the famous professor and joined us in our living room. J. Howard Pew and his wife led the way.

A few months earlier, the University of Vienna, which had conferred the doctorate on him in 1906, had renewed his title. It was, according to the dean’s correspondence, a special honor granted only to the most meritorious recipients. Despite the University of Vienna’s and Grove City College’s recognition and honors, the professor’s influence continued to be rather negligible in the mainstream of economic thought. Yet he continued to meet his classes at New York University until the spring of 1969 at the age of 87, regularly lectured at the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington until 1972, at the age of ninety, and went on numerous lecture tours. In 1962 the President of Austria honored him, conferring the Austrian Medal of Honor for Science and Art, which is the highest decoration the Austrian government can bestow on “one of her sons”; the Austrian ambassador bestowed it at a luncheon in Washington with many friends and former students in attendance. A year later, New York University managed to confer on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws “for his exposition of the philosophy of the free market and his advocacy of a free society.” And in 1964, the University of Freiburg in Germany, where F. A. Hayek occupied an influential position, granted him the honorary degree of Doctor Rerum Politicarum. On his 90th birthday on September 29, 1971, his old friend, Larry Fertig, at a small party at the New York University Club, presented to him a two-volume Festschrift of seventy-one essays by scholars in eighteen countries, former students and ardent admirers from all over the world.

Throughout the 1960s we remained in close touch with Professor and Mrs. von Mises. Whenever we went to New York we would be invited for tea in their apartment at 777 West End Avenue. I would have to report about my academic activity and especially about my current research and writing. Mrs. Mises always wanted to know about the growth of her godson. In November 1970, when he was 89 years old, they returned to Grove City College. I had invited the Professor upon the urging of my students who were most eager to see the famous author. Unfortunately, the octogenarian failed to impress and persuade many twenty-year olds. He had been more vigorous and persuasive on a few earlier speaking tours on which I was fortunate to accompany him. When, in 1964, no other young economist could be found to travel with the master and his spouse, I, together with my spouse, was chosen to join them and add my lectures. The Miseses and Sennholzes toured Costa Rica and Guatemala together, giving lectures and seminars at several universities. I always knew my place and deportment in the presence of the teacher and his spouse.

The Mises spent their last summer (1973) at a health resort near Lucerne, Switzerland, enjoying the view of beautiful lakes and snow-covered mountains. Our son Robert, at the young age of seventeen, attending summer school in Germany, did not miss the opportunity to visit the Mises. With a bouquet of flowers in hand, he greeted his godmother and her husband. He spent the day with them, returning to his school the following morning. It is not difficult to imagine the communication between a boy of seventeen and his hosts in their eighties and nineties. The Mises returned to New York in August. The professor promptly entered the hospital, which he never left.

Although a great man may die, his thought and deeds may survive and leave an indelible stamp on his fellow men. Ludwig von Mises left the stage of life but lives on in many books and hundreds of articles he published and in thousands of publications about his ideas. He wrote originally in German but continued in English soon after his arrival in the United States; some of his books were translated into more than a dozen foreign languages. His influence is felt as an effective intellectual force of economic, social, and political reform all over the world.

This writer has observed three generations of Mises colleagues and students who were inspired and guided by the master. The first undoubtedly consisted of some of his contemporaries in Austria, Germany, France, Italy, England, and the United States. In 1947 some forty of them, economists, historians, philosophers, and journalists, led by F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Wilhelm Röpke, organized the Mont Pelerin Society. Members met every year in a different country, discussing pertinent issues of the time. There were Jacques Rueff, Louis Baudin, and Bertrand de Jouvenel of France, William E. Rappard of Switzerland, Carlo Antoni and Bruno Leoni of Italy, Faustino Ballvé of Mexico, and Henry Hazlitt, F. A. Harper, Fritz Machlup, and Leonard E. Read of the United States. All of them were aware of the force and intransigence of Professor Mises’ position, which encouraged them to reconstruct the market order wherever it had been crushed. He greatly influenced Wilhelm Röpke who gave guidance and support to the recovery of West Germany from the ashes of totalitarian socialism. In France, Jacques Rueff urged General De Gaulle to stabilize the currency and return to the gold standard. In Italy, President Luigi Einaudi, a life-long friend and colleague of Professor Mises, managed to stem the tide of inflationism and socialism. In many other countries, in Japan and Guatemala, Argentina and Spain, Mises admirers labored to restore the market order.

Some members of the second generation of Mises admirers and disciples actually had the opportunity to sit in his classes or listen to his lectures on his many tours. Countless members undoubtedly acquired economic knowledge by studying his books and articles. Some even pleased the professor by passing his tests and examinations. At New York University, a few managed to earn their doctors degrees and then share their newly acquired knowledge with their students. There were Louis Spadaro of Fordham University, Israel Kirzner of New York University, George Reisman at St. John’s University in Brooklyn, N.Y. and later Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California. This writer graduated in 1955 and then taught at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. for thirty-six years.

At New York University, thousands of students had the opportunity to attend the professor’s classes and hundreds to come to his weekly seminar. Some became well-known as writers and teachers in their professions and occupations. An illustrious Mises student who reached out to millions of readers was Murray N. Rothbard who taught for many years at the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Although he earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at Columbia University, he also studied with Professor Mises at New York University. He became the author of many important works in Austrian economics and, until his death in 1995, was editor of the Mises Institute’s scholarly Journal of Austrian Economics.

Two other eminent economists who faithfully attended the Mises seminar and became good friends of the professor were Percy L. Greaves, Jr. and his wife, Bettina Bien Greaves. Greaves reached many readers as economic adviser to the Christian Freedom Foundation and columnist for its publication, Christian Economics. He later served as Professor of Economics at the University of Plano, Texas. His wife was a senior member of the staff of Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. She often served as Professor Mises’ assistant and secretary and created his bibliography, a definitive listing of his work and articles about him.

Teachers and writers undoubtedly affect the thoughts and actions of their students and readers. They may reach out to hundreds or even thousands of individuals who are interested in their thoughts and policies. But in order to reach millions of readers and affect public opinion, the teachers and writers may depend on entrepreneurs who know how to promote and spread the ideas. They may place their trust in the founders and managers of schools, foundations, publications, and other media of communication.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell is such an entrepreneur. He is the founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, which is the educational center of the Austrian School of Economics. Ever since 1982, it has been reaching out with a large array of publications, programs, and fellowships that seek to move the educational climate toward individual freedom and the market order. This writer is a proud member of the faculty of 250 who undoubtedly reach millions of readers on all levels of understanding.

The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) created by Leonard E. Read in 1946 is the oldest educational organization dedicated to the preservation of individual freedom and the private property order. Given direction by its advisor, Professor von Mises, it publishes The Freeman, an award-winning monthly journal which reaches many thousands of readers. It conducts a wide variety of seminars at the FEE site in Irvington, New York as well as all over the country. This writer headed FEE from 1992 to 1997 and continues to serve as President Emeritus of the institution.

A few other foundations took a great interest in Professor Mises’ ideas and writings. There was the Volker Fund of California which was managed by H. W. Luhnow. It provided the funds for the Mises seminar at New York University along with others in California, at Wabash College in Indiana and at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. There was Antony Fisher of England who founded economic institutes in London, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and New York. His Atlas Foundation, now capably managed by Alejandro Chafuen, reaches out to all corners of the world. There were Pierre Hamilius in Luxembourg, Ludwig M. Lachmann in South Africa, Toshio Murata in Japan, Alberto Benegas-Lynch in Argentina, Manuel Ayau in Guatemala, and several others who founded Austrian schools and institutions. Their dedication and loyalty to Misesian ideals made them an ideological force that was felt throughout the free world.

The third generation of Mises followers and admirers never met the master but was introduced to his thought and deeds by some of his students. Llewellyn Rockwell’s Mises Institute, for instance, is reaching millions of students at all levels, assisting thousands of students at hundreds of colleges, and conducting summer schools all over the world. This writer, in thirty-seven years of teaching, reached some ten thousand college students and, in a dozen books and nearly one thousand essays and articles published in opinion journals and on the internet, probably touched many more readers. The same may be true with many other Mises disciples and followers, such as Walter Block and Thomas DiLorenzo of Loyola University in New Orleans, Peter Klein of the University of Missouri, Joseph Salerno of Pace University, Guido Hülsmann of the University of Angers, Jeffrey Herbener of Grove City College, and, last but not least, Thomas Woods, Mark Thornton, and David Gordon of the Mises Institute. They all are contributing in their ways to spreading the words and teachings of Ludwig von Mises.

Dr. Hans F. Sennholz [send him mail] was professor and chairman of the department of economics at Grove City College. See his website.

Email Print