Hans F. Sennholz, R.I.P.

July 23, 2007 | by | Topic: The DNA of Greatness, The Path to FreedomPrint Print

The Pastor of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Grove City, James Seeley, who presided over the memorial service for Hans Sennholz on June 26, 2007 took note of his outstanding qualities. He was indeed a great teacher, having instructed more than 10,000 students in sound economics during his 36 years at Grove City College. Several of his students have distinguished themselves as teachers, scholars, and educational entrepreneurs. Undoubtedly, Sennholz was an exceptional communicator, in demand as a lecturer both to general and specialized audiences in America and abroad. He was a prolific author, publishing 17 books and monographs and more than 500 articles. A fine economist and scholar, he produced important works on European economic integration, monetary reform, inflation, and depression.

At Grove City College, Sennholz is more than all this. He is a legend. Alumni of the college remember him more frequently and more vividly than any other professor. They all seem to have stories about him and relish telling them in their best Sennholz imitation. It was not his storytelling or German accent and mannerisms that made him a legend, however, it was his passion for converting others to economic truth.

He discovered economic truth while in graduate school at Marburg University after World War II. There his intellectual curiosity led him to read the only book by Ludwig von Mises in the university’s library, Theorie des Geldes und der Unlaufsmittel (The Theory of Money and Credit). The other influence on Sennholz’s intellectual development was Wilhelm Röpke. Sennholz admired his writings and cheered the reforms of Ludwig Erhard and the resulting German economic miracle that Röpke inspired. After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Cologne, Sennholz came to New York City in search of an American Ph.D. in economics. His search for a program ended when he learned that Mises was teaching at New York University. After becoming Mises’s first American Ph.D. recipient, his own conversion to economic truth was completed when his mentor secured for him the job of translating Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s 1,200 page, three volume work Capital and Interest into English.

Sennholz soon realized that an academic life would give him the forum for proclaiming economic truth. As Mises’s protégé, he gained the attention of J. Howard Pew, chairman of the Board of Grove City College, who was a supporter of Mises and his work. Pew recognized the powerful combination of economic truth and moral passion that he saw in Sennholz and brought him to the college as chairman of the department of economics in 1956. Grove City College became his home, as Mises was fond of reminding him “there is only one teaching position where we are wanted—and you’ve got it.” Eschewing the typical professor’s desire to teach fewer students in fewer classes, Sennholz taught large classes in introductory economics in the belief that freshmen were better candidates for persuasion than upper classmen. Never bending to the winds of Keynesianism, Monetarism, Supply-Side Economics, and other intellectual blusters, Sennholz remained firmly rooted in the views of his mentor. Under his direction, Grove City College became the world’s leading undergraduate center for the study of Austrian economics.

Like Mises, Sennholz adhered to the twin beliefs that economics is rooted in the unchanging nature of human action and that advancing economic truth is the right way to live one’s life, even if the world remains unconverted. And so he pressed on teaching and writing in the dark decades after the war as the economics profession strayed further from sound economics and became increasingly statist. The fruits of his labors may have been overlooked at the time, but they were ready to be appreciated and enjoyed by those who would constitute the Austrian revival.

Sennholz soldiered on regardless of the popularity of his views. For him, economic truth was a way of life, and his passion for it knew no bounds. Pastor Seeley told the story of how, soon after he assumed his ministry, he delivered a homily in which he pronounced on economic matters. After the service, Sennholz informed him that if he is to make claims about economics he should at least acquaint himself with the subject and suggested several books to read. He admitted that taking Sennholz’s advice educated him.

Sennholz dedicated his life to advancing economic truth. And, like leaven, the life of a gifted man well lived spreads its blessings ever more widely.

Jeffrey M. Herbener

Jeffrey M. Herbener

Dr. Jeffrey Herbener is chair of the department of economics at Grove City College and fellow for economic theory & policy with The Center for Vision & Values.

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