Werner Sombart

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Sombart, Werner



Werner Sombart, economist, was born in 1863 in Ermsleben, Germany, and died in 1941 in Berlin. His father, Anton Ludwig Sombart, was a landowner, industrial entrepreneur, a National Liberal member of the Prussian diet and of the Reichstag, and one of the charter members of the Verein fur Sozialpolitik. As the son of a well-to-do and cultured member of the middle class, Sombart was able to study law at the universities of Pisa and Berlin and economics, history, and philosophy in Berlin and Rome. His studies in Berlin included the seminars of Gustav Schmoller and Adolph Wagner, the leading economists of the German historical school and prominent Katheder-socialists. He received his PH.D. from the University of Berlin in 1888, with a dissertation entitled “Uber Pacht- und Lohnverhaltnisse in der romischen Campagna.”

In 1888 his father‘s influence enabled Sombart to obtain the position of syndic with the Bremen chamber of commerce. Two years later, he went as associate professor of political economy to the University of Breslau; in 1906 he became a full professor at the Handelshochschule in Berlin and in 1918 he was appointed to the University of Berlin as a full professor.

It is difficult to describe Sombart‘s Weltan- schauung—his political views, social theories, and religious attitudes—because all aspects of his thought underwent repeated changes. In several instances, he approached a social or economic problem initially from the point of view of a Marxist and gradually moved toward a far more conservative position.

When in 1894 the third volume of Marx‘s Capital appeared, Sombart acclaimed its publication as an intellectual event and himself published a study of the Marxist system (1894) that was in turn praised by Engels. Two years later Sombart published a pamphlet that consisted of a series of lectures on socialism and social movements in the nineteenth century (1896), written from the point of view of an advanced advocate of reform. This pamphlet went through ten successively enlarged editions and was translated into 24 languages; the tenth edition, which appeared in 1924 and consists of two volumes (about 1,000 pages), is violently antisocialist, in general, and violently anti-Marxist, in particular. Three years after these wild diatribes of 1924 against Marx and Marxism, Sombart explained in the preface to the third volume of Der moderne Kapitalismus (see below) that this later work constitutes for the most part “nothing but a continuation and in a certain sense a completion of the work of Marx”—a claim that was rejected by representatives of all shades of socialist and social-democratic opinion (see [1902] 1924-1927).

Sombart‘s views on social classes were also un-stable. In 1903 he published Die deutsche Volkswirtschaft im 19. Jahrhundert, which was revised and brought up to date seven times during his lifetime. In this historical exposition of great erudition, Sombart tried to describe the emergence of the various classes in German society. This was a subject that was to interest him for many years: he returned again and again to his studies of the character and function of classes, undaunted by the fact that his conclusions kept changing. In the belief that he was following Marx, Sombart began by defining classes partly on the basis of their formal position in the economy—for example, Junkers and small peasants were located in the same class because both are representatives of “the original owner-economy” (urwüchsige Eigenwirtschaft), and partly on the basis of their members‘ aims—for example, the proletariat was characterized as a class because of its “tendency towards socialization and democratization” (1897, p. 7). Finally, however, he came to the conclusion that Marx‘s approach to the problem of classes led nowhere and that, in fact, it was not Marx‘s illness and death that had pre-vented him from completing the last chapter of Capital, which dealt with this problem, but the inadequacy of his theory. One of Sombart‘s later conclusions was that classes are a phenomenon peculiar to the “economic age,” which he identified with “our epoch” (1934, p. 23).

Sombart‘s best-known work is on the subject of capitalism. Der moderne Kapitalismus (1902) deals with the history, the structure, and “the philosophy of the spirit” of capitalism. To a certain extent the work was influenced by Marx, by Max Weber, by Wilhelm Dilthey, and by Eduard Bernstein. It is an exciting and challenging book; valid facts and unreliable information stand side by side, and liaisons dangereuses between the most varied ideas demand critical attention.

The subtitle of Der moderne Kapitalismus shows how broadly it was conceived: Historisch-systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. The first book deals with the transition from feudal society to capitalism, and the last book treats conditions in the twentieth century. The development of capitalism is divided into three stages: early capitalism (Frühkapitalis-raws), ending before the industrial revolution; high capitalism (Hochkapitalismus), beginning about 1760; and finally, late capitalism (Spätkapitalis-raws), beginning with World War i (discussed only briefly). The moving force during the first stage of capitalism was “a small number of enterprising businessmen, emerging from all groups of the population: noblemen, adventurers, merchants, and artisans” (.[1902] 1924-1927, vol. 3, part 1, p. 11). In the second stage, the capitalist entrepreneur was in command and was “the sole organizer of the economic process.” The third stage of capitalism is, according to Sombart, not a stage of decay; on the contrary, Sombart asserts that this stage represents capitalism in its “prime” (die besten Jahre des Mannes\ even though economic motives are in his opinion no longer paramount, having been replaced by “the principle of agreement.”

In connection with his magnum opus, Sombart published a number of special studies, among them The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911), The Quintessence of Capitalism (1913a), and Studien zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des modernen Kapitalismus (1913k). In these studies his interpretations of capitalism still tended to be idealistic, although they did not exclude materialist conceptions, and, in Luxus und Kapitalismus (1913b, vol. 1), he even found explanations in the area of the erotic for the emergence and development of capitalism.

After the advent to power of National Socialism, many of Sombart‘s theories changed, in order that he might present “a unified view of the various social problems of the time from the point of view of the national socialist way of thinking” (1934, preface). One of the theories that Sombart clearly had to change was that of the role of the Jews in economic history. Nevertheless, official National Socialism never accepted Sombart as its interpreter, although it recognized him as a sufficiently close follower to permit him to print three pamphlets that essentially reproduced parts of A New Social Philosophy (1934).

If the number of editions and translations of his books were an index, Sombart would appear to have been one of the most successful German economists. But he had few disciples and no “school,” just as he himself had never, for any length of time, belonged to any “school.” Sombart was read all over the world but received little recognition in the way of academic or state honors. He was one of the most colorful (and chameleon-like) and interesting academic personalities that Germany produced in the decades from the 1890s to the 1930s.

JÜrgen Kuczynski



1888 Über Pacht- und Lohnverhältnisse in der römischen Campagna. Dissertation, University of Berlin.

1894 Zur Kritik des ökonomischen Systems von Karl Marx. Archiv fur soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik 7:555-594.

(1896) 1909 Socialism and the Social Movement. London: Dent; New York: Dutton. → First published as Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung im 19. Jahrhundert. Title later changed to Sozialismus und soziale Bewegung. The 10th edition was published in 1924 as Der proletarische Socialismus (“Marxismus”).

1897 Ideale der Sozialpolitik. Archiv für soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik 10:1-48.

(1902) 1924-1927 Der moderne Kapitalismus: Historischsystematische Darstellung des gesamteuropdischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegen-wart. 2d ed., 3 vols. Munich and Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. → Volume 1: Die vorkapitalistische Wirtschaft. Volume 2: Das europäische Wirtschaftsleben im Zeitalter des Frühkapitalismus. Volume 3: Das Wirtschaftsleben im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus.

(1903) 1927 Die deutsche Volkswirtschaft im 19. Jahrhundert und im Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts: Eine Einführung in die Nationalokonomie. 7th ed. Berlin: Bondi.

(1911) 1913 The Jews and Modern Capitalism. London: T. F. Unwin. → First published as Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

(1913a) 1915 The Quintessence of Capitalism: A Study of the History and Psychology of the Modern Business Man. Translated and edited by M. Epstein. New York: Dutton. → First published as Der Bourgeois: Zur Geistesgeschichte des modernen Wirtschaftsmenschen.

1913b Studien zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des modernen Kapitalismus. Munich: Duncker & Humblot. → Volume 1: Luxus und Kapitalismus. Volume 2: Krieg und Kapitalismus. Volume 1 was translated into English as a report on Project number 465-97-3-81 under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration and the Department of Social Science, Columbia University.

1930 Capitalism. Volume 3, pages 195-208 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

(1934) 1937 A New Social Philosophy. Translated and edited by Karl F. Geiser. Princeton Univ. Press; Ox-ford Univ. Press. → First published as Deutscher Sozialismus.


Brentano, Lujo 1916 Die Anfdnge des modernen Kapitalismus. Munich: Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Commons, John R.; and Perlman, Selig 1929 [A book review of] Der moderne Kapitalismus. American Economic Review 19:78-88.

Crosser, Paul K. 1941 Werner Sombart‘s Philosophy of National-Socialism. Journal of Social Philosophy 6:263-270.

Engel, Werner 1933 Max Webers und Werner Sombarts Lehre von den Wirtschaftsgesetzen. Berlin: Collignon.

Festgabe fur Werner Sombart. Schmollers‘ Jahrbuch, Vol. 56, no. 6. 1932 Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Krause, Werner 1962 Werner Sombarts Weg vom Kathedersozialismus zum Faschismus. Berlin: Rülten & Loening.

Kuczynski, JÜrgen 1926 Zurück zu Marx! Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

Mitchell, Wesley C. 1929 Sombart‘s Hochkapitalismus. Quarterly Journal of Economics 43:303-323.

Nussbaum, Frederick 1933 A History of the Economic Institutions of Modern Europe: An Introduction to Der moderne Kapitalismus of Werner Sombart. New York: Crofts.

Plotnik, Mortin J. 1937 Werner Sombart and His Type of Economics. New York: Eco Press.

Pollock, Frederick 1926 Sombarts “Widerlegung” des Marxismus. Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

Sutton, F. X. 1948 The Social and Economic Philosophy of Werner Sombart: The Sociology of Capitalism. Pages 316-331 in Harry E. Barnes (editor), An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Sombart, Werner 18631941


German economist Werner Sombart was born in Ermsleben near the Harz mountains, the son of a prosperous landowner and liberal member of parliament. He studied law, economics, and history at the universities of Pisa, Rome, and Berlin. In 1888 he earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin. After working for two years at the Bremen Chamber of Commerce, he became professor of political economy, first at the University of Breslau and later at the Berlin Business School. In 1918 he was appointed full professor at the University of Berlin.

Over his entire career Sombart tried to explain the origins and growth of the capitalist system of economic organization. In addition to his multivolume work on modern capitalism, he published four specialized books on the emergence of capitalism, relating it to such diverse factors as the bourgeois mentality, the Jewish people, warfare, and luxury consumption. To ground his theories Sombart employed a massive quantity of secondary historical material, varying from statistics and letters to novels and travel accounts. Because of his historical approach to economic issues, he is often seen as the last member of the German historical school to dominate economic thinking in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is difficult, however, to place Sombart in any school of thought, because his theories and political views changed repeatedly. He started his career as a Marxian economist, became a conservative, and ended as a sympathizer with Adolph Hitlers Nazi regime.

Undoubtedly, Sombarts masterpiece is Der Moderne Kapitalismus (Modern Capitalism), published in 1902, expanded in 19161917, and enlarged in 1927. This three-volume work, which has never been translated into English, explored the historical evolution of the European economy in the direction of modern capitalism. It was Sombart, not Karl Marx, who coined the word capitalism and described it as a unique economic system in human history characterized by the passion of entrepreneurs to build up pecuniary capitalin other words, to make money. He divided the capitalist era into three stages: (1) early capitalism (15001760), dominated by a handicraft mentality, (2) high capitalism (17601914), in which the Industrial Revolution spread from England to western Europe and the United States, and (3) late capitalism (starting with World War I), typified by growing state intervention. Next to the entrepreneurial pursuit of profit, Sombart identified major historical events such as the discovery of double-entry bookkeeping and the application of new technologies in industry as the main drivers of capitalist development. With its richness of facts and speculative notions, the book is highly stimulating even in its errors, as renown economist Joseph Schumpeter (18831950) aptly put it.

One of the studies Sombart published in connection with Der Moderne Kapitalismus was Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (1911), translated as The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1951). Unlike the well-known sociologist Max Weber (18641920), who linked the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic, Sombart suggested a link between the Jews and capitalist development. As he saw it, the shift in entrepreneurial activity from southern to northern Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted from the move of Jews from Spain, Portugal, and Italy to Germany, Holland, and England. For Sombart, it was no surprise that areas from which the Jews fled underwent economic decline, whereas those they entered gained strength; as he saw it, the Jewish character and religion had the same leading ideas as capitalism (1951, p. 205). Sombarts book did not express outright anti-Semitism; but his discussion of Jews as a group was rife with prejudices that clearly laid the ground for his later sympathy with the Nazis.

Although Sombart was the most productive German economist of his time, he did not achieve fame or earn widespread admiration. His work is overly descriptive, disproportionately concerned with history, sloppy with data, and lacking in theoretical rigor; moreover, his political positions were unsavory. Still, Sombarts historical approach to economic development influenced the first American institutional economists, the French historians of the Annales school, and, most importantly, the economist Schumpeter. For example, Sombart coined the popular term creative destruction, which, along with some of his insights on capitalism, is usually attributed to Schumpeter. Since the late 1990s there has been some renewed interest in Sombarts work, owing to the growing emphasis on the role of historical specificity in economics.


Backhaus, Jürgen, ed. 1996. Werner Sombart (18631941): Social Scientist. 3 vols. Marburg, Germany: Metropolis-Verlag.

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2002. How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science. London and New York: Routledge.

Sombart, Werner. 19021927. Der Moderne Kapitalismus: Historisch-Systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. 3 vols. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1987.

Sombart, Werner. 1911. Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. Trans. by Mortimer Epstein as The Jews and Modern Capitalism. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951.

Gert-Jan Hospers

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Werner Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Sombart was a German economist and sociologist. He was born in the Harz mountains and studied law and economics from 1882 to 1888 in Pisa, Rome, and Berlin, together with Adolph Wagner and Gustav Schmoller. In his dissertation on The Roman Campagna (1888), he discussed the relationship between landowners and agrarian labor in Italy. He became an expert on Italian economics; his studies were rich in statistical and historical detail. At the age of 27 he was appointed professor at Breslau University in Silesia. His studies of Fredrick Engels and Karl Marx, together with a widely-read collection of his lectures, Socialism and Social Movements during the Nineteenth Century (1896), were seen as endorsements of Marxism and delayed further advancement in his academic career until 1916, when he became a full professor at Berlin University. His later work became more nationalist and, in a 1934 tract, A New Social Philosophy, even sympathetic to the then new Nazi regime. Sombart was a colleague of Max Weber and participated with him in the Verein für Socialpolitik as well as in founding the German Society for Sociology in 1909. Sombart's major work, the three-volume treatise, Modern Capitalism (1902–1927), traced capitalism's origins to Enlightenment ideas rather than, as Weber did, to Protestantism.

Sombart's historical and economic studies on population are contained in the third (1927) volume of Modern Capitalism and in a later book, Humanistic Anthropology (Vom Menschen [1938]). In the former work, the main population-related question he tackled, like Marx, was how early capitalist development recruited the masses of workers that were needed, and how this population surplus developed in agrarian societies. Marx had famously asserted that there cannot be a general theory of population but only a theory specific to each period of economic development and structure; Sombart's sociological theory of population applied to the conditions of early and high capitalism. Humanistic Anthropology proposed another theory of population. There his main argument was that all action, including all demographically relevant action, was founded in mental concepts and motives, and thus cannot be explained in biological terms. In 1938 such a stance was in explicit opposition to the racial, eugenic, and Volk-theories of the Nazi regime. The book was banned during the Third Reich and was almost forgotten afterwards, but it deserves a secure place in the history of population thought.

See also: Population Thought, Contemporary.


selected works by werner sombart. Sombart, Werner. 1896. Sozialismus und Soziale Bewegung. Jena: Fischer. (Translated as: Socialism and the Social Movement. New York: Putnam, 1898.)

——. 1915. The Quintessence of Capitalism. London: Unwin.

——. 1927: Der Moderne Kapitalismus. Vol. 3: Das Wirtschaftsleben im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus. München u. Leipzig: Duncker u. Humblot.

——. 1933. History of the Economic Institutions of Modern Europe: An Introduction to Der Moderne Kapitalismus of Werner Sombart, ed. Frederick L. Nussbaum. New York: Crofts.

——. 1938. Vom Menschen. Versuch einer geistwissenschaftlichen Anthropologie. Berlin: Buchholz & Weisswange.

——. 2001. Economic Life in the Modern Age. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Rainer Mackensen

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Werner Sombart

The German economic historian Werner Sombart (1863-1941) is known for his work in two fields: socialism and capitalism. He began as an admirer of Marxian socialism and ended as its bitter critic. Several of his works on the history of capitalism are regarded as classics in spite of many errors of fact.

Werner Sombart was born on Jan. 19, 1863, at Ermsleben. His father was a prosperous landowner and a member of the Prussian Diet and of the Reichstag. Young Sombart was educated at Pisa and the University of Berlin, where he studied under Adolf Wagner and Gustav von Schmoller. He received a doctorate in 1888 and became secretary of the Bremen Chamber of Commerce. In 1890 he became extraordinary professor of economics at the University of Breslau, where he remained until 1905. His radical views on social and economic reform did not please the Prussian government, and in spite of his outstanding performance as a scholar and a teacher he was given no promotion while he remained at Breslau.

In 1905 Sombart was named to a chair at the Handel-shochschule (Commercial College) in Berlin. In 1917 he succeeded Wagner as professor of economics at the University of Berlin, where he remained until his retirement in 1931. Sombart died in Berlin on May 13, 1941.

In his early years Sombart was an admirer and friendly critic of Karl Marx and Marxism, and even after he had swung to the extreme right and had become a bitter if not vitriolic critic of Marx, he spoke at times of his own work as a continuation and completion of Marx's. Sombart's early publications were on trade unionism and socialism, both of which he looked upon favorably. But his Socialism and the Social Movement is a good example of the shift in his viewpoint. The first nine editions were sympathetic to socialism, but the tenth was a bitter attack on Marxism and Soviet socialism. The last (1934) edition was a thinly disguised apology for the Nazi system.

Sombart's work on the history of capitalism is spread over a large number of volumes, beginning with his classic Der Moderne Kapitalismus (1902-1927; Modern Capitalism) and includes a number of ancillary studies of which The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911; trans. 1913) is probably the best known. His approach is the very antithesis of that of Marx. Instead of presenting history as the resolution of a universal law, Sombart presents it as the outcome of unique social forms and forces. Whereas Marx would stress the role of the material in establishing the ethos of an age, Sombart explains material developments as the result of the ethos, for instance, the role of Judaism in the development of capitalism. Although the detailed accuracy of much of Sombart's work may be, and in fact has been, questioned, his overall conception of the history of modern capitalism is widely accepted among economic historians.

Further Reading

A full-length study of Sombart's economic views is Mortin J. Plotnik, Werner Sombart and His Type of Economics (1937). A survey of Sombart's social and economic philosophy by F. X. Sutton is in Harry E. Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). Sombart's career is also examined in Ben B. Seligman, Main Currents in Modern Economics: Economic Thought since 1870 (1962).

Additional Sources

Mitzman, Arthur, Sociology and estrangement: three sociologists of Imperial Germany, New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.: Transaction Books, 1987. □

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Werner Sombart (vĕr´nər zôm´bärt), 1863–1941, German economist. In 1917 he became professor of economics at the Univ. of Berlin. Influenced by Marx's historical approach to economics, he produced several analyses of capitalism, including Der moderne Kapitalismus (Vol. I and II, 1902; Vol. III, 1928) and Der Bourgeois (1913, tr. The Quintessence of Capitalism, 1915). He later turned toward German romanticism, becoming eventually, in Deutscher Sozialismus (1934; tr. A New Social Philosophy, 1937), an exponent of the authoritarian state, accepting Nazism.

See study by M. J. Plotnik (1937).