For some unknown reason, some of Wilhelm Röpke’s best work has long been out of print, including his 1959 book International Order and Economic Integration (maybe the title alone killed the book!). In any case, in prepping the volume for online availability, I can’t resist quoting this passionate statement about how the early generation of socialists had embraced the state that had created the war that they so hated (WWI). This is a very interesting look at what led Röpke out of socialism, but it also speaks for the generation of postwar liberals and how they came to see the relationship between war and social systems. It is interesting to realize that the rebirth of old liberalism in the modern age really came about in protest against the state-created ravages of World War I.
As soldiers too we had learnt what it meant to be crammed for years into a machine in which the individual had no other life than that of the mass, a life determined by force, unconditional obedience and constraint. Even outside the army the war brought with it a hitherto unknown degree of restriction upon elementary freedoms. Waging war did not only mean killing and being killed, inconceivable hardships, mud, vermin, hunger, thirst and disease, destroying, lying and hating; it also meant militarism, giving and obeying orders, the unchaining of brutal thirst for power, the triumph of unbridled ambition, the exploitation of uncontrollable positions of power, the degradation of the human being, mass existence, by day and night, mass feeding, spiritual stagnation, restriction of the most primary freedoms. It meant never being alone, never being one’s own master, never to think or to question. Only when we look back today are we able to recollect that this life also had its compensations. The idea that prevailed with us at that time, however, was that such an existence was unworthy of a human being and could only be tolerated in the light of higher aims and the feeling of fulfillment of duty. We might safely have been termed anti-militarists, we were seized with an indescribable craving for the simple human quality of civilian life, a craving which made every leave a foretaste of Paradise. The fact that in all these matters no difference existed between us and our workingclass comrades refutes the cheap suggestion that then as now we were lamenting the loss of a liberty of which the working-class had long been deprived. Leave – that is to say a temporary return to the elementary freedom of civilian life – meant just as much to the worker as to the student, so that we are speaking today not only for ourselves, but also in the name of the working-class, when we denounce the slavery of a collectivism i.e. a militarised, economic and social system.
It was the war, therefore, that taught us the meaning of freedom in the most elementary sense of the word, and so made anti-militarists of us. Here too it was in keeping with our general thoughtlessness when we gave expression to our protest by adopting Socialism. Only gradually did the realization mature in us that we had chosen a social ideal whose very existence must consist in perpetuating militarisation.
If we examined ourselves rightly, our revolt against war amounted actually to a passionate protest against the intolerable domination of the State. This was the sinister, intangible authority, impervious to ethical standards, which had led us into war, and which now continued t cause us suffering by cowing us and lying to us at the same time. War was simply the State run riot, collectivity let loose. It was what happened when the few had too much power over others and were able to make them dance like puppets. Was it therefore not absurd to clothe this protest against the domination of man over man in the shape of a profession of collectivism? Be they ever so honest, what can all the professions of pacifism, antimilitarism, humanism, or demands for freedom on the part of the Socialists avail against the fact that Socialism, if it is to have any meaning at all, must make a leviathan of the State, not only for the emergency times of war, but for an incalculable period? Would that not mean increasing the abuse of political power both at home and abroad to an infinite degree? And was it not making an unreasonable demand upon our credulity to expect that just such a State should free us from militarism, imperialism, war, thirst for power and authority, mass existence, command and slavery? Would not all that become worse? Or did the Socialists not really mean it seriously with their collectivism? In that case they ought to be told that they were playing with fire…