Werner Sombart

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Werner Sombart
Born 19 January 1863(1863-01-19)
Died 18 May 1941 (aged 78)
Nationality German
Fields economics, sociology, history
Institutions University of Breslau
Handelshochschule Berlin
Doctoral advisor Gustav von Schmoller
Adolph Wagner
Doctoral students Wassily Leontief
Richard Löwenthal

Werner Sombart (19 January 186318 May 1941) was an economist and sociologist living in Germany, the head of the “Youngest Historical School” and one of the leading Continental European social scientists during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Life and work

Early career, socialism and economics

He was born in Ermsleben, Harz, as the son of a wealthy liberal politician, industrialist, and estate-owner, Anton Ludwig Sombart, and studied at the universities of Pisa, Berlin, and Rome, both law and economics. In 1888, he received his Ph.D. from Berlin under the direction of Gustav von Schmoller and Adolph Wagner, then the most eminent German economists. One of his daughters, Clara was married to Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt, who first described the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

As an economist and especially as a social activist, Sombart was then seen as radically left-wing, and so only received—after some practical work as head lawyer of the Bremen Chamber of Commerce—a junior professorship at the out-of-the-way University of Breslau. Although faculties at such eminent universities as Heidelberg and Freiburg called him on chairs, the respective governments always vetoed this. Sombart, at that time, was an important Marxian, someone who used and interpreted Karl Marx—to the point that Friedrich Engels called him the only German professor who understood Das Kapital. Sombart called himself a "convinced Marxist".[1]

Sombart was the first sociologist to devote a whole book to the concept of social movement in his 1896 published Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung. His understanding of social movements is inspired by Lorenz von Stein and Marx. For him, the raising worker’s movement was a result of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. The proletarian situation created a “love for the mass”, which together with the tendency “to a communistic way of life” in social production were the prime features of the social movement.

In 1902, his magnum opus, Der moderne Kapitalismus, appeared in six volumes. It is a systematic history of economics and economic development through the centuries and very much a work of the Historical School. Although later much disparaged by neo-classical economists, and much criticized in specific points, it is still today a standard work with important ramifications for, e.g., the Annales school (Fernand Braudel).

In 1906, Sombart accepted a call to a full professorship at the Berlin School of Commerce, an inferior institution to Breslau but closer to political “action” than Breslau. Here, inter alia, companion volumes to Modern Capitalism dealing with luxury, fashion, and war as economic paradigms appeared; especially the former two are the key works on the subject until today. In 1906 his Why is there no Socialism in the United States? also appeared, which, while naturally having been questioned since then, is a classical work on American exceptionalism in this respect.

Sombart's 1911 book, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (The Jews and Modern Capitalism), is an addition to Max Weber's historic study of the connection between Protestantism (especially Calvinism) and Capitalism, with Sombart documenting Jewish involvement in historic capitalist development. He argued that Jewish traders and manufacturers, excluded from the guilds, developed a distinctive antipathy to the fundamentals of medieval commerce. These were primitive and unprogressive: the desire for 'just' (and fixed) wages and prices, for an equitable system in which shares of the market were agreed and unchanging, profits and livelihoods modest but guaranteed, and limits placed on production. Excluded from the system, Sombart argued, the Jews broke it up and replaced it with modern capitalism, in which competition was unlimited and pleasing the customer was the only law.[2] Paul Johnson, who considers the work "a remarkable book", notes that Sombart left out some inconvenient truths, and ignored the powerful mystical elements of Judaism. He refused to recognize, as Weber did, that wherever these religious systems, including Judaism, were at their most powerful and authoritarian, commerce did not flourish. Jewish businessmen, like Calvinist ones, tended to operate most successfully when they had left their traditional religious environment and moved on to fresher pastures.[3] When it first appeared, the book was seen as philosemitic in presentation, but several more recent Jewish scholars have described it as antisemitic, at least in its effect.

Middle career and sociology

Finally, in 1917, Sombart became professor at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, then the pre-eminent university in Europe if not in the world, succeeding his mentor Adolph Wagner. He remained on the chair until 1931 but continued teaching until 1940. During that period, he was also one of the leading sociologists around, much more prominent than his friend Max Weber, who later of course eclipsed him to the point that Sombart is virtually forgotten in that field by now. Sombart's insistence on Sociology as a part of the Humanities (Geisteswissenschaften), necessarily so because it dealt with human beings and therefore required inside, empathic "Verstehen" rather than the outside, objectivizing "Begreifen" (both German words translate as "understanding" into English), became extremely unpopular already during his lifetime, because it was the opposite of the "scientification" of the social sciences (jocularly referred to as "physics envy"), in the tradition of Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim and Weber (although this is a misunderstanding; Weber largely shared Sombart's views in these matters), which became fashionable during this time and has more or less remained so until today. However, because Sombart's approach has much in common with Hans-Georg Gadamer's Hermeneutics, which likewise is a Verstehen-based approach to understanding the world, he is coming back in some sociological and even philosophical circles that are sympathetic to that approach and critical towards the scientification of the world. Sombart's key sociological essays are collected in his posthumous 1956 work, Noo-Soziologie.

Late career and National Socialism

During the Weimar Republic, Sombart moved toward nationalism, and his relation to National Socialism is still debated today. His 1938 anthropology book, Vom Menschen, is clearly anti-National Socialist, and was indeed hindered in publication and distribution by the National Socialists. In his attitude towards the National Socialists, he is often likened to Martin Heidegger as well as his younger friend and colleague Carl Schmitt, but it is clear that, while the latter two tried to be the vanguard thinkers for the Third Reich in their field and only became critical when they were too individualistic and elbowed out from their power positions, Sombart was always much more ambivalent. Sombart had many, indeed more than the typical proportion, of Jewish students, most of whom felt moderately positive about him after the war, although he clearly was no hero nor resistance fighter.

In 1934 he published Deutscher Sozialismus where he claimed a "new spirit" was beginning to "rule mankind". The age of capitalism and proletarian socialism was over and with "German socialism" (National-Socialism) taking over. This German socialism puts the "welfare of the whole above the welfare of the individual".[4] German socialism must effect a "total ordering of life" with a "planned economy in accordance with state regulations".[5] The new legal system will confer on individuals "no rights but only duties" and that "the state should never evaluate individual persons as such, but only the group which represents these persons".[6] German socialism is accompanied by the Volksgeist (national spirit) which is not racial in the biological sense but metaphysical: "the German spirit in a Negro is quite as much within the realm of possibility as the Negro spirit in a German".[7] The antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, which is not a matter of being born Jewish or believing in Judaism but is a capitalistic spirit.[8] The English people possess the Jewish spirit and the "chief task" of the German people and National Socialism is to destroy the Jewish spirit.[8]

Sombart today

Sombart's legacy today is difficult to ascertain, because the alleged National Socialist affiliations have made an objective reevaluation difficult (while his earlier Socialist ones harmed him with the more bourgeois circles), especially in Germany. As has been stated, in economic history, his "Modern Capitalism" is regarded as a milestone and inspiration, although many details have been questioned. Key insights from his economic work concern the - recently again validated - discovery of the emergence of double-entry accounting as a key precondition for Capitalism and the interdisciplinary study of the City in the sense of urban studies. Like Weber, Sombart makes double-entry bookkeeping an important component of modern capitalism. He wrote in "Medieval and Modern Commercial Enterprise" that "The very concept of capital is derived from this way of looking at things; one can say that capital, as a category, did not exist before double-entry bookkeeping. Capital can be defined as that amount of wealth which is used in making profits and which enters into the accounts."[9] He also coined the term and concept of creative destruction which is a key ingredient of Joseph Schumpeter's theory of innovation (Schumpeter actually borrowed much from Sombart, not always with proper reference). In Sociology, mainstream proponents still regard Sombart as a 'minor figure' and his sociological theory an oddity; today it is more philosophical sociologists and culturologists who, together with heterodox economists, use his work. Sombart has always been very popular in Japan.

One of the reasons of a lack of reception in the United States is that most of his works were for a long time not translated into English - in spite of, and excluding, as far as the reception is concerned, the classic study on Why there is no Socialism in America.

However, in recent years sociologists have shown renewed interest in Sombart's work.[10][11] Pamela Geller's "Atlas Shrugs" was harshly criticized for making, in the opinion of Media Matters, a "false" assertion that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (who is Jewish but was illustrated with fake picture of her in a National Socialist uniform) was an "admirer of an architect of German national socialism". Geller did correctly observe that Werner Sombart was quoted at the start of her 1981 thesis: "Ever since Werner Sombart first posed the question in 1905, countless historians have tried to explain why there is no socialism in America." [12][13][14][15]


Works by Sombart

  • Sombart, Werner (1905) [1896]: Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung. Jena: Verlag von Gustav Fischer. English trans, Socialism and the Social Movement in the 19th Century, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898. http://www.archive.org/details/socialismsocialm00sombuoft
  • Sombart, Werner (1906): Das Proletariat. Bilder und Studien. Die Gesellschaft, vol. 1. Berlin: Rütten & Loening.
  • Sombart, Werner (1906): Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus? Tübingen: Mohr. Several English translations, incl. (1976): Why is there No Socialism in the United States. New York: Sharpe.
  • Sombart, Werner (1911): Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. Leipzig: Duncker. Translated into English: The Jews and Modern Capitalism. http://mailstar.net/sombart-jews-capitalism.pdf
  • Sombart, Werner: Der moderne Kapitalismus. Historisch-systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Final edn. 1928, repr. 1969, paperback edn. (3 vols. in 6): 1987 Munich: dtv. (Also in Spanish; no English translation yet.)
  • Sombart, Werner (1913): Krieg und Kapitalismus. München: Duncker & Humblot, 1913.
  • Sombart, Werner (1913): Der Bourgeois. München und Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1913.
  • Sombart, Werner (1913): Luxus und Kapitalismus. München: Duncker & Humblot, 1922. English translation: Luxury and capitalism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Sombart, Werner (1934): Deutscher Sozialismus. Charlottenburg: Buchholz & Weisswange. English translation (1937, 1969): A New Social Philosophy. New York: Greenwood.
  • Sombart, Werner (1938): Vom Menschen. Versuch einer geisteswissenschaftlichen Anthropologie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Sombart, Werner (1956): Noo-Soziologie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Sombart, Werner (2001): Economic Life in the Modern Age. Reiner Grundmann, eds. New Brunswick: Transaction. (New English translations of key articles and chapters by Sombart, including (1906) in full and the segment defining Capitalism from (1916))

Works about Sombart

  • Appel, Michael (1992): Werner Sombart: Historiker und Theoretiker des modernen Kapitalismus. Marburg: Metropolis.
  • Backhaus, Jürgen G. (1996), ed. Werner Sombart (1863-1941): Social Scientist. 3 vols. Marburg: Metropolis. (The standard, all-encompassing work on Sombart in English.)
  • Backhaus, Jürgen G. (2000), ed. Werner Sombart (1863-1941): Klassiker der Sozialwissenschaft. Eine kritische Bestandsaufnahme. Marburg: Metropolis.
  • Brocke, Bernhard vom (1987), ed.: Sombarts Moderner Kapitalismus. Materialien zur Kritik und Rezeption. München: dtv
  • Drechsler, W. "Zu Werner Sombarts Theorie der Soziologie und zu seiner Biographie", in Werner Sombart: Klassiker der Sozialwissenschaft. Eine kritische Bestandsaufnahme, Marburg: Metropolis, 2000, pp. 83–100.
  • Lenger, Friedrich (1994): Werner Sombart, 1863-1941. Eine Biographie. München: Beck.
  • Muller, Jerry Z., 2002. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. Anchor Books.
  • Nussbaum, Frederick Louis (1933): A History of the Economic Institutions of Modern Europe: An Introduction of 'Der Moderne Kapitalismus' of Werner Sombart. New York: Crofts.
  • Kevin Repp (2000). Reformers, Critics, and the Paths of German Modernity: Anti-Politics and the Search for Alternatives, 1890-1914. Boston, MA.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00057-9. 
  • Sombart, Nicolaus (1991): Jugend in Berlin, 1933-1943. Ein Bericht. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer.
  • Sombart, Nicolaus (1991): Die deutschen Männer und ihre Feinde. Carl Schmitt - ein deutsches Schicksal zwischen Männerbund und Matriachatsmythos. Munich: Hanser.


  1. Abram L. Harris, title=Sombart and German (National) Socialism, Journal of Political Economy, volume=50, issue=6, year=1942, pages=805–835, doi=10.1086/255964.
  2. Werner Sombart, The Jews and Modern Capitalism, English trans., London 1913. Cited in Johnson, p.284
  3. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p.284
  4. Harris, pp. 808-9.
  5. Harris, pp. 810-11.
  6. Harris, p. 811.
  7. Harris, pp. 812-13.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Harris, p. 813.
  9. (1953) Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History. R. D. Irwin, 38.  (quoted in "Accounting and rationality")
  10. Joas, Hans (2003). War and modernity. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 9780745626451. 
  11. http://www.sociologica.mulino.it/journal/article/index/Article/Journal:ARTICLE:322/Item/Journal:ARTICLE:322
  12. Dimiero, Ben (2010-07-02). Geller illustrates ridiculous attack on Kagan with image of Kagan in a National Socialist uniform. Media Matters. Retrieved on 2010-08-24.
  13. Attention TV networks: Pam Geller is lying to your viewers. Media Matters (2010-08-19). Retrieved on 2010-08-24.
  14. Thesis: To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City 1900 to 1913 "Ever since Werner Sombart first posed the question in 1905, countless historians have tried to explain why there is no socialism in America."
  15. Geller, Pamela (2010-07-02). SHOCKING: Kagan's Princeton Thesis Cited German Socialist Who Endorsed National Socialists. Atlas Shrugs. Retrieved on 2010-08-22.


External links

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