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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 517-539

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The De-Germanization of Swedish Economics

Bo Sandelin


It is well known that the German influence on the discipline of economics was much greater a century ago than it is now. This is true not only of economics in Sweden, as the title of this essay suggests, but also of economics in the United States. As Joseph Dorfman (1955, 22) described in his pioneering article, the United States saw “an ever increasing number of college graduates [go] to Germany for advanced work in the [eighteen-] seventies and eighties.” The present situation is quite different, of course, and is reflected in the opening remarks by the editors of Kyklos in a recent special issue titled “Is There a European Economics?”: “Today, academic economics is strongly dominated by North American scholars which is reflected by publications, citations and also by Nobel Prizes” (Frey and Frey 1995).1

What accounts for the decline in the German influence? To answer that question, we begin by briefly touching upon the attitudes of the most influential Swedish economists, starting with the founders of modern economics in Sweden, among whom were the rather German-oriented David Davidson and Knut Wicksell, who were active at the beginning of the twentieth century; we compare them with the quite “de-Germanized” [End Page 517] generation of Gunnar Myrdal, Bertil Ohlin, and others a few decades later. After that, we discuss the development of a few proxy variables for influence.2 We shall find that around the turn of the twentieth century about half of the foreign books in economics acquired by Swedish university libraries had been published in Germany; by 1954–55 the share had declined to 15 percent. A similar tendency obtains for works cited by authors of doctoral dissertations, and this tendency does not disappear in a regression analysis in which we control for a subfield and some other variables.

Finally, we hint at some possible explanations for this de-Germanization. The process seems to have been particularly intense in the 1920s and 1940s, and an obvious hypothesis is that this was a result of the First World War and the Nazi period, including the Second World War, respectively. An alleged lingering importance of the historical school in Germany, the diminishing significance of geographical distance, and American demographic and academic growth are other factors that we discuss.

The Founders' Sources of Inspiration

The founding of modern economics in Sweden is usually dated at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when David Davidson (1854–1942), Knut Wicksell (1851–1926), Gustav Cassel (1866–1945), and Eli Heckscher (1879–1952) started their careers. This period is also the point of departure for this article. The founders were largely, but not exclusively, influenced by German authors.

Both of David Davidson's parents came from Germany. He took his doctoral degree in 1878, at the age of twenty-four, with his thesis Bidrag till läran om de ekonomiska lagarna för kapitalbildningen [An essay on the economic laws of capital formation]. Heckscher ([1951] 1998, 33–34) says the following about Davidson's sources of inspiration: “The classical writers of Western Europe are not altogether excluded—Turgot, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill do figure in it—but there is no doubt that pride of place is given to the best of the German-speaking theorists, that is to [Carl] Menger, [Karl] Knies, [Friedrich Benedikt Wilhelm von] Hermann and [Hans von] Mangoldt; Marx, too, is the subject of a long footnote that occupies a good four pages of small type.” The same [End Page 518] names, with the addition of C. L. Moll, are found in Davidson's own list of “utilized sources.” Later in his life, Davidson became more interested in the British classical economists.

Knut Wicksell made long study tours to London, Berlin, and Strasbourg in the 1880s. German authors play an important role in his doctoral thesis Zur Lehre von der Steuerincidenz (1885), which became the first part of Finanztheoretische Untersuchungen (1896), but so do...


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