Preface to Mises's Memoirs

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Ludwig von Mises is the author of dozens of books and hundreds
of articles in which he made pioneering contributions to economics,
history, the philosophy of science, and social philosophy. He had
a direct personal influence on many outstanding social scientists
such as F.A. Hayek, Fritz Machlup, Oskar Morgenstern, Gottfried
von Haberler, Hans Sennholz, Murray Rothbard, George Reisman, Ralph
Raico, Leonard Liggio, Israel Kirzner, Paul Cantor, and others who
attended his seminars from the 1920s to the 1960s. In the interwar
period, he was also a major economic advisor to the government in
his native Austria.

And yet today we still know amazingly few things about this man.
Much if not most of what we know is based on the present autobiographical
recollections, which Mises started to write upon his arrival in
the United States in August 1940. By the end of that year he had
finished a first draft of the German-language manuscript and then
polished his memoirs for another two years. Finally, he gave the
handwritten text to his wife Margit for custody and eventual publication.
In 1978, five years after his death, she published both the German
original and an English translation from the pen of Hans Sennholz.[1]

The memoirs cover his intellectual development from youth to 1940.
Thus they are essential and fascinating reading for all students
of Austrian economics and of the history of ideas.

They are similarly important for students of world politics in
the 20th century. In fact, Mises’s memoirs are a unique source of
inside information about the economics and politics of the first
republic of Austria. They portray his professional life from about
1906 (the year he graduated with a doctorate in law from the University
of Vienna) to 1940, stressing his activities in the Vienna Chamber
of Commerce, in World War I, in government, and in academia. He
not only knew the intellectuals of his day; he had almost daily
interaction with the political leaders of his country, with the
higher echelons of the civil service, and with the executives of
Austrian firms and business corporations. Today this might seem
to be largely irrelevant local history, but in fact it is not. The
little Republic of Austria was the heiress of the great Habsburg
Empire, which had just crumbled in 1918. In the 1920s and 1930s,
the country still played an important role in world politics, most
notably in its opposition to the burgeoning political movements
of Bolshevism and National Socialism. It is not an exaggeration
to say that one cannot fully grasp the world politics of the 20th
century without a thorough understanding of Austrian politics in
the interwar period. The present memoirs are a precious key to such
understanding. They are unique in that their author was not just
an insider but an insider who understood the key economic issues
of his time far better than most other protagonists.[2]

What do the memoirs tell us about their author? What does Mises
reveal about himself? Not much. He essentially confines himself
to a narration of his intellectual development and public life.
There is no word on the following pages about his dreams and feelings,
love affairs, personal income and wealth, passions and temptations;
no word about daily family life or his attitudes toward parents,
brothers, house personnel, cousins, teachers, or neighbors; no word
about car accidents or broken legs.

This is fully in line with his other writings and personal records.
Even in his letters, he handled such private matters with great
discretion. All through his life he studiously avoided writing and
publishing about himself, even though he played a rather remarkable
personal role as we have already noted.[3]

Implicitly, however, the memoirs actually do tell us a few things
about Mises the man.

It is significant, first of all, that in his recollections he chose
to focus exclusively on his public persona, though admittedly it
is not quite clear what this focus signifies precisely. It could
have been the outgrowth of anxiety or feelings of vulnerability.
Mises might have feared that, in writing about his emotions, he
might not be able to control language and thought as much as when
writing about politics and economics. In fact, he did not always
control himself in situations of private conflict, in particular,
when he had arguments with his future spouse.[4]

However, the focus on his public persona could also reflect his
deep-seated humility and stoic concern for disentangling matters
of common interest from those of merely personal interest.

Moreover, the memoirs are unique among Mises’s works in that he
makes a great number of blunt statements about the persons with
whom he interacted in his professional life. He had a reputation
of being unable to suffer fools gladly, but he never stated these
opinions in writing. As he relates in the present book, he had early
on adopted the principle of never writing about the personal moral
shortcomings of his opponents, of focusing instead on their intellectual
errors in order to combat the latter more effectively. Only in the
memoirs — which, again, were not meant for publication during
his lifetime — did he talk about virtues and vices. Now if
we look at his heroes and villains, we find the reflections of a
stoic value system, cherishing above all good will, hard work, and
expertise, while despising avarice, pretentiousness, and shallowness.

Mises would never write an update to cover the last third of his
life in America. The memoirs were a balance sheet of his achievements
in the Old World, written in the style of a testament, at the absolute
low point of his life — a personal reckoning and a lesson for his
future readers. May all readers of this beautiful new translation
benefit from it!

 

 

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Notes

[1] See Mises, Erinnerungen
von Ludwig v. Mises (Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer, 1978); idem
Notes and Recollections (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian
Press, 1978). Meanwhile, translations into the Italian, Spanish,
and French languages have been published: Autobiografia di
un liberale (Soveria Mannelli: Rubettino, 1996); Autobiograf’a
de un Liberal (Madrid: Uni–n Editorial, 2001); Souvenirs
d’Europe
.

[2] Mises is today mainly known
for his contributions to economic theory. But he is also an important
historian of contemporary totalitarian movements. See in particular
Mises, Nation,
State, and Economy
(1919); idem, Omnipotent
Government
(1944); idem, Planned
Chaos
(1947). His very first publications as a young
scholar (1902–1906) also dealt with historical problems, though
in those days he was under the influence of historicist and interventionist
ideas, which he later rejected, as explained in the present work.

[3] Apart from the memoirs (which
he did not publish), the only piece of writing in which Mises
discussed his own ideas is an address delivered to the economics
department of New York University, in November 1940, in the context
of a job search in his new home country. See Mises, “My
Contributions to Economic Theory,”
Planning
for Freedom
, 4th ed. (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian
Press, 1980), pp. 224–33. In his theoretical writings he made
numerous comments on the history of ideas, but almost never on
his own ideas. In the 1960s he published a small booklet on the
history of the Austrian School of economics, in which he also
did not talk about himself. See Mises, The
Historical Setting of the Austrian School of Economics

(1962, 1969; reprinted Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute,
1984 and 2007).

[4] “Occasionally he showed
terrible outbursts of tantrum.” Margit von Mises, My
Years with Ludwig von Mises
(New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington
House, 1976), p. 36.

This article is excerpted from Memoirs
by Ludwig von Mises. It originally appeared on Mises.org.

June
11, 2009

Jörg
Guido Hülsmann [send him mail]
is senior fellow of the Mises Institute
and author of Mises:
The Last Knight of Liberalism
. He teaches in France, at Université
d’Angers. See his website.
See his
Mises archive
.

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