Many are familiar with F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.  Fewer know of Wilhelm Röpke’s The Solution to the German Problem.  The two books are in basic agreement about the political and economic factors leading to the rise of the Third Reich, but Röpke’s greater emphasis on economic culture yielded timeless insights about the human capacity for blindness when confronted with truths that are, or which seem to be, too terrible to look at.

The arguments of The Road to Serfdom and The Solution to the German Problem overlap in fundamental respects.  Shortly after the Potsdam Agreement, both shot a warning flare to those who were willing to see it: Hayek threatened that “It is necessary now to state the unpalatable truth that it is Germany whose fate we are now in some danger of repeating,” and Röpke cautioned a year later in his own volume, “let not the Englishman or America be too sure that ‘it can’t happen here’.”  Why?  Both thought that fascism and socialism are not to be understood as distant and incompatible enemies but as cousins with shared essentials, most importantly collectivism.

What distinguished Röpke’s argument was the claim that it was a kind of cultural sickness that explained the rise of Nazi Germany, and it was a sickness that Germany shared with the western powers. The Solution to the German Problem is a wide-ranging volume that covers a lot of ground, going back even to the forests of medieval Germany in search of the cultural sources of the Third Reich; these pathways of the book are fascinating, but it is not my aim to provide a summary.  Instead, I focus here only on the main argument, which was that the blindness of Germans and of the rest of the world to the Nazi threat was due to a “weakening of the moral reflexes.”

The result was that people “were blind because they were determined to be blind,” even in the face of “unprecedented barbarism.”  In this modern tragedy people “simply did not want to know, because it was inconvenient knowledge.”   In this scenario, there was “universal passivity” and “paralysis” resulting from “a spiritual and moral poisoning” that made people determined to “ignore the writing on the wall in order to postpone the day of reckoning and to purchase a few years of peace and comfort, at the price of a most terrible final catastrophe.”

One really must go to Röpke’s A Humane Economy to see the kinds of virtues growing from a rich cultural soil that he thought were necessary for people who would have been more capable of rising to the occasion of pre-war Germany.  In his diagnosis of a “spiritual and moral poisoning,” Röpke had in mind this broad cultural foundation of virtue, but one can point to various concrete instances of their absence in the history of the rise of the Third Reich that seem to bear this out: the stab-in-the-back myth that allowed many Germans to lay blame for the loss of the Great War and the signing of the Armistice on civilians and, in particular, Jewish people, rather than on the Army; the unwillingness of the various parties in the Reichstag to coalesce around a unified opposition to the National Socialists even after the Beer Hall Putsch; the unwillingness of the allied nations to take action even after open German rearmament began – in obvious violation of the terms of Versailles; the collective plugging of the ears during Churchill’s many warnings in the years preceding the invasion of Poland.  One could add to this list a certain strain of American isolationist impulse, well described in a recent book; this, I hasten to add, is an impulse sometimes wedded to a bizarre antisemitism.  

What one cannot add to that list is Wilhelm Röpke.  A professor in Germany at the time of the birth of the Third Reich, he thought his platform gave him a duty to “speak a word of warning,” so he wrote and distributed a leaflet, in which he appealed to his fellow Germans’ “common sense and their consciences,” showing “how appallingly they were being deceived.”  Although his warnings fell well short of the actual atrocities that would come by Nazi hands, he was “laughed at and abused.”  Later, he delivered a speech, incidentally on the very morning before the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933; in it, Röpke warned that the Nazis were “proceeding to turn the garden of civilization into fallow land and to allow it to revert to the primeval jungle.”  The speech caught the attention of the Nazis, and he soon fled in exile, until, through the blunt trauma of war, more people would see clearly that he had been right all along.


Bill Reddinger has been a professor of political science at Regent University since 2010. Prior to that, he taught political science at Wheaton College in Illinois and at South Texas College. He received his undergraduate degree from Grove City College in Pennsylvania before completing his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Northern Illinois University, where his studies focused on the history of political philosophy and American political thought. You can also find Reddinger’s posts in the OLL Reading Room.