No Peace, No Freedom

p>Max Weber must be smiling today, as his much-contested thesis on the Protestant Work Ethic is proved once again in the arguments of those who support a generalized American war against the Islamic world – as opposed to a careful, ongoing hunt for Al-Qaeda terrorists. In pointing to the political and economic backwardness of the countries we propose to conquer as justification for war, these writers buck the multicultural trend, suggesting that the cultures of Islamic countries are inferior, stunted by their religiosity – why else would they be so poor? – and in need of a “Reformation” and “Enlightenment.”

And there is something to what they say: Surely, the Moslems of Turkey are better off in most ways than those of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, because the former enjoy a system which leaves religious practice to individual choice. But secularizing revolutions such as Turkey’s are inevitably homegrown: No outside army or puppet guerrilla movement imposed Kemal Atatürk’s regime on the dying Ottoman Empire. In fact, it emerged as part of a nationalist rebellion against Anglo-French plans to carve up Asia Minor among the winning Allies after World War I. (Some armchair warriors’ plans to carve up Iraq come to mind….)

While authoritarian in practice, Atatürk’s regime made enormous strides in modernizing Turkey and making space for prosperity and freedom, without injuring the religious culture of its citizens.

True, some fiercely illiberal regimes have been defeated and their nations converted to liberalism under occupation: Imperial Japan and National Socialist Germany, for instances. But each of those regimes was rooted in a relatively recent seizure of power by a faction that claimed, unjustly, to represent the nation’s ancient traditions. (In Modern Times, Paul Johnson demonstrates that the highly nationalist Shinto promoted by Japan’s militarists was in fact a 19th century creation, like German Völkisch movement.)

Islam runs deeper and stronger, and as the Turkish case suggests, can only progress as a result of native developments that we cannot reliably predict nor promote. I can find no instance of an Islamic nation that has been successfully modernized and liberalized as a result of foreign conquest. If we mobilize our nation for open-ended struggle against the culture and religion of 1 billion Moslems, there is only one result we can safely expect: the decline of personal freedom and economic prosperity that always results when life is militarized. By extending the “Warfare State” indefinitely into the future, we will perversely be remaking our own society more in the image of those illiberal, impoverished regimes we so rightly detest.


This profound insight permeated the works of the free-market economist Wilhelm Röpke, a key architect of the postwar German economic “miracle.” Röpke found refuge in Istanbul after Nazi officials forced him into “early retirement” for having denounced Hitler’s new regime. (In fact, he’d been fighting the National Socialists for years, spending his modest professor’s salary to print anti-Nazi election leaflets, which he handed out at the polls himself, warning Germans not to return their country to “primeval darkness.”) He left Germany one step ahead of the Gestapo, and made his way to Istanbul.

Kemal Atatürk was taking advantage of the exodus from Germany to build a first-rate staff of exiled intellectuals at his new University of Istanbul. Röpke’s intimate friend and collaborator, Alexander Rüstow, was already teaching there, working on his massive critique of illiberal politics, Ortsbestimmung der Gegenwart (entitled Freedom and Domination in the English version).1 Röpke was appointed Professor of Economics, and founded The Institute for Social Sciences. The four years Röpke spent on the Bosporus were productive ones, full of fellowship with other German exiles. These included such notable thinkers as Erich Auerbach – who wrote his majestic work of literary criticism, Mimesis, in Istanbul – and composer Paul Hindemith, to name only the best known.2


Röpke had not always been a partisan of market liberalism. Like many idealistic intellectuals of his time, he went through a youthful flirtation with socialism. Appalled by the brutality, cynicism and regimentation imposed upon German life by the Kaiser’s regime and the war he waged, Röpke saw in socialism a cogent, all-encompassing rejection of the corrupt status quo – a system that had thrown millions of young men into the trenches to no good purpose. As he recalled in later years:

“If I was typical of those who went through the War in my wish to make sure that it should not happen again, I think I was also typical in the analysis I had made of it. We who were under a common obligation to kill one another had a great deal more in common, too, and since all of us on either side were roughly trained along the same lines, our revulsion with war brought us pretty much to a single conclusion. Our personal experience told us that a society capable of such monstrous depravity must be thoroughly rotten. We had been educated just enough to call this society ‘capitalism.’

“…Our protest against imperialism, militarism, and nationalism was a protest against the prevailing economic and political system, which was a feudal and capitalistic one. The protest and its attendant denial made, the affirmation followed of itself: socialism.”3

This story is familiar to students of intellectual history. Our century is littered with the names of men of brilliance in one field or another who fell prey for a time to dangerous delusions in the realm of politics – out of idealism, ignorance, or disdain for bourgeois values. Most were drawn to leftist versions of collectivism; a very incomplete list includes W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Pablo Picasso, Dalton Trumbo, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jack London. Other modernist masters were drawn to the far Right, such as Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Charles Maurras, D.H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel, Ernst Jünger and Georges Bernanos.

While many of these thinkers quickly found their way out of these delusions, others did not, and wasted their best years in pursuit of poisonous utopias. Röpke, for his part, had emancipated his intellect well before his 25th birthday. What moved him to secede from the tendencies of his age? The particular stimulus that sent Röpke along another path was reading the work of Ludwig von Mises. In a talk given at the Mont Pelerin Society four decades later, Röpke recounted Mises’ influence as follows:

“[A]ll the greater is the debt I owe him as a man who would be an entirely different kind of economist and even of person, if, in the most formative years of his life, he had not happened to come across a voluminous book entitled Die Gemeinwirtschaft and later on, another book bearing the title Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufmittel…. [I]t was his book Nation, Staat und Wirtschaft (1919) which set me on his track really and which was in many ways the redeeming answer to the questions tormenting a young man who had just come back from the trenches…. I would like to stress, on the present occasion, how immense is my debt to Ludwig von Mises for having rendered me immune, at a very early date, against the virus of socialism with which most of us came back from the First World War….”4

Röpke was particularly devoted, even during his socialist period, to international free trade – a divisive subject then and now. Looking at the pre-war period, Röpke could see that the rise of economic nationalism had prepared the way for the chauvinism and ensuing slaughter of the Great War.5


Before the breakdown of international relations, Europe enjoyed a period Röpke considered the golden age of liberalism; the decades 1850 to 1895 saw a continent largely at peace, linked by cooperation in the production of wealth, where national borders were permeated by the free transfer of goods and currency, and producers and consumers of many (even traditionally hostile) nationalities were knitted together in a community of interest, the mutually profitable division of labor. (Röpke was not of course blind to the many problems with the international trading system of that era; but he would always insist on responding to the known flaws of a proven system by reforming it, rather than destroying it in favor of something untried.) With his trenchantly logical mind, he could see that the attempts – increasingly popular in the wake of the Great War – to transform nations into economically self-sufficient entities and sever their remaining trade links could only lead in one direction: towards mounting nationalism and another monstrous war.

Röpke further noted that, for all the internationalist rhetoric of the Bolsheviks and other socialist movements, “nobody was immediately working for world socialism.” Whatever Marxist theory might prescribe about spontaneous revolution taking place in many nations at once, rendering the nation-state irrelevant, in fact leftist parties were trying to seize power in particular territories, over which they must retain control and whose economies they must coordinate – pending the global uprising, which always promised to be just around the corner. In the meantime, they must work – in Stalin’s memorable phrase – for “socialism in one country.” Röpke grasped the import of this before many of his fellow-reformers:

“But if socialism could only be achieved within a national framework, state boundaries took on a new and primarily economic significance. Did not the simplest logic make it clear that a socialist state, which directed economic life within the nation, could not grant even so much freedom to foreign trade as had the protective tariffs against which we had protested? The deduction was this: there is only one ultimate form of socialism, the national. With that, my generation wanted nothing to do.”6

But here Röpke was mistaken. All too many members of Röpke’s generation were willing to embrace a nationalist socialism, in which the nationalist element would gradually come to predominate over the original, wistful fantasy of a working class solidarity that would render borders meaningless. Of course, no one – least of all Röpke – would wish to equate the humane idealists of the Social Democratic Party in Germany with the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party or the German Communists. But it is telling that parties with such vastly different agendas could agree on one point: that the State, rather than private individuals acting freely, should direct the flow of economic life.

This told Röpke that all of these parties must be mistaken, and in the same way. Albeit to different degrees and by different means, each such collectivist philosophy elevated the State above the individual, directing his economic activity – and thereby, the vast majority of his time and effort – not by persuasion but by force. For Röpke, this fact alone was devastating. As he recalled:

“Life in the army had shown what it meant for the individual to exist as part of an apparatus whose every function assumed lack of freedom and unconditional obedience. … [P]hysical degradation was also accompanied by a spiritual one that worked to the total debasement of human dignity in mass existence, mass feeding, mass sleep – that frightful soldier’s life in which a man was never alone and in which he was without resource or appeal against the might (inhuman but wielded by man) that had robbed him of his privacy.”7

While he would ultimately come to see some virtue in military life, Röpke would never lose his disgust for the regimentation, anonymity and depersonalization that military mobilization entails. Any philosophy that proposed this wartime model for the whole of society in peacetime was profoundly repugnant, both aesthetically and morally (indeed, for the classically-minded Röpke, the two categories were never entirely divorced).

Thus from a rejection of nationalism and militarism, Röpke concluded that he must reject any form of collectivist polity. As he came to believe:

“War was simply the rampant essence of the state, collectivity let loose, so was it not absurd to make one’s protest against the dominance of man over man take the form of collectivism? Not all the pacifist, antimilitarist, and freedom-demanding statements of even the most honest socialists could obscure the fact that socialism, if it was to mean anything at all, meant accepting the state as Leviathan not only for the emergency of war, but also for a long time to come.”8