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Monday, October 1, 1984

A Reviewers Notebook: My Years With Ludwig von Mises

If economics is a dismal science, you would never know it from Margit von Mises’ book about her husband, My Years With Ludwig von Mises, which has just been republished, with important additions, by the Center for Futures Education, Inc. (P.O. Box 489, Cedar Falls, Iowa 50613, 230 pp., $12.95 cloth; $7.95 paperback).

Margit von Mises has all along disclaimed any intention of “answering” economic problems in her book. But her whole story is living testimony to the truth that interventionism, if persisted in by governments, can only have disastrous consequences. She happened to be married to a fighter, with the inevitable consequence that her book is a battlefield report as well as a very human story of life with a private person who kept his personal feelings to himself.

Before her marriage to “Lu,” Margit had a life as an actress on the North German and the Viennese stages. A widow with two children, she had managed to support herself after leaving the stage by translating English and American plays for presentation in Central Europe. She also wrote short stories. She has an unfailing dramatic instinct in anything she writes. Curiously, though she was married to a man who had sedentary habits (he couldn’t be bothered with tennis because he had “no interest in the fate of the ball”), her method is wholly appropriate to what she has to tell.

The dramatic centerpiece of the book is the account of a great exodus. Margit first met Lu in the mid-die Twenties, but thirteen years had to pass before he could see his way clear to propose a marriage. This was in 1937. Lu had already left Vienna to take an economic professorship in Geneva at Dr. William Rappard’s Graduate Institute of International Studies. The date for the wedding was set for April of 1938, but on March 14 Hitler marched into Vienna. The problem was how to get Margit and her daughter Gitta out of Austria, but somehow that was managed. The wedding came in June, not April.

Mises’ Academic Career in Europe

“Austrian” economics, even in the heyday of Carl Menger and Bohm-Bawerk, had always had to contend with the German “historical” school which had no valid theory of value. (Mises had written about this in The Historical Setting of the Austrian School of Economics, recently pub lished in pamphlet form by the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Auburn University.) Mises had to build a reputation as an economist without “official” support in German and Austrian university circles. His famous Vienna seminar was held in the offices of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, for which Mises worked while writing his early books.

Teaching at Rappard’s Institute in Geneva was the first academic job that Mises had really liked. But after the fall of France in 1940, life in Switzerland seemed unbearably constricted. The problem this time was how to get through occupied France to Lisbon in Portugal. It was a problem faced by other intellectuals from Central Europe who had incurred the Nazis’ displeasure. Margit tells the story of a ticklish escape with a fine attention to the details. They had to make a great circle in France, with occasional backtracking to avoid German troops. At the Spanish border they were held up by customs officers who were only accepting French, American and English passports for passage. Mises had to go to Toulouse for a valid visa for himself and Margit and for other refugees from Central Europe that had been on the bus through France.

Mises could have gone to California, where he had an offer of a six-month job as a lecturer, but he and Margit chose to stay in New York City. There was a two-month interlude in Mexico. Margit Mises describes this exciting but poverty-stricken country as it has never been described before. The trip to Mexico was only the first of many Mises incursions into Latin America, where his non-interventionist economics has had great appeal to dissident intellectuals who would like to get away from their statist regimes. It is a Mises disciple, Dr. Manuel Ayau, who founded the Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala to teach Austrian economics to bigger and bigger classes. Ayau will make it difficult for Nicaraguan Sandinistas and Castroites to take over in his country.

The New York Story

The Mises New York story is intimately bound up with the rise of the conservative movement that finally placed a Mises reader named Ronald Reagan in the White House. It is far more than a domestic chronicle that Margit Mises has undertaken in this section of her book. There is a full account of the Mises seminar at New York University that meant so much to such Mises scholars as Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. Mises had plenty of enemies, but he had great and enduring friendships. Leonard Read brought him frequently to The Foundation for Economic Education for lectures and seminars. And Harry Hazlitt and Larry Fertig took it as a special privilege to find backing for Mises projects.

It was Hazlitt who brought Mises’ great work, Human Action, to the attention of Eugene Davidson at the Yale University Press. Davidson published it with great success, but lost his job before a new edition could be brought out. The new edition was incredibly botched, and Mises was even denied the opportunity to have a look at the page proofs. Was there sabotage involved in the botching? Mises was angry in an ice-cold way, and for the first time in his life he had sleeping problems. Margit Mises asks one question: “Was Eugene Davidson the only person whose support had brought Human Action to life?” It wasn’t until Henry Regnery had brought out a new edition of Human Action that Mises slept soundly again.

Rewarding Originality

Murray Rothbard has said that Mises was badly rewarded in America even by those who were willing to give him a public forum. This may be true enough, but things hadn’t been much different in his native Austria when it came to rewarding originality. Mises has recalled that Freud was laughed at in Vienna, and Gregor Mendel carried on his genetic experiments in an “intellectual desert.” The aging pioneer of marginal utility, Carl Menger, when told about the Mises Vienna seminar discussions, remarked that “when I was your age, nobody in Vienna cared about these things.”

All in all, Mises has had attention—the current rout of the Keynesians in academic circles is proof that his non-interventionist doctrines have had their effect. In an entirely new chapter in her book, Margit Mises sketches the story of the spread of her husband’s influence. The chapter takes thirteen closely-packed pages.

Other new additions to the book include a letter from Professor Hayek and an appendix containing impressions and memories of still-living students who had attended the original Mises Vienna seminar.

Mises once said that “truth persists and works, even if nobody is left to utter it.” But in his case there are plenty left to give utterance. []

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.