Richard Ehrenberg, economist and economic historian, was born in 1857 in Wolfenbüttel in the Grand Duchy of Brunswick, Germany. He was the son of a Jewish educator and the brother of a famous Göttingen law professor and authority on insurance law. Coming from an impecunious family, Ehrenberg was not able to finish his secondary school education but instead had to work as a bank clerk to earn his living. However, after saving a little money, he applied for admission at the University of Tübingen and was accepted as a student despite the fact that he did not have his Abitur. Eventually, after further studies at Munich and Göttingen, he acquired a doctoral degree in economics.
Ehrenberg then became the secretary of the Altona chamber of commerce, a position that gave him unusual insight into the way business was conducted in one of Europe’s largest commercial ports. At the same time, he devoted himself to historical studies and, in 1896, published one of his most important works, Das Zeitalter der Fugger, a book that has remained so fresh that a French edition was published as recently as 1955. Its appearance brought Ehrenberg the appointment of associate professor at Göttingen. He moved to the University of Rostock as a full professor in 1898 and taught there until his sudden death in 1921.
Throughout his life, Ehrenberg was interested in new problems and in new solutions for old problems. He was a prolific writer and did research in many areas. Because the University of Rostock owned the papers of Heinrich von Thünen, Ehrenberg was drawn into studying the work and ideas of this important nineteenth-century German economic theorist, whose influence can clearly be discerned in Ehrenberg’s writings. Thünen had made important contributions not only to economic theory but also to agricultural economics, and since Rostock was located in one of the fertile regions of the German Empire, it was natural that Ehrenberg’s attention would be attracted to that area of research also. German economic thinking at that time was dominated by problems of Sozialpolitik, and it is not surprising that Ehrenberg shared an interest in labor problems. In this sphere, he strove to achieve a reconciliation of businessmen and workers, based on the recognition of their community of interest.
However, none of these are the fields in which Ehrenberg did his most creative work. By inclination he was a historian, and his early work on the Fuggers, in fact a book on sixteenth-century financial institutions, is evidence that talent coincided with inclination. This historical bent was complemented by experience with modern business acquired in his former chamber-of-commerce position. As a result, his interest turned from economic history proper to what today we would call “business history.” In 1902 and 1905, respectively, Ehrenberg published the first and second volumes of Grosse Vermögen: the first treats Jakob Fugger, the Rothschilds, and Krupp; the second, based on the autobiography of John Parish, a Hamburg merchant, deals with the house of Parish in Hamburg. In 1906, Ehrenberg published Die Unternehmungen der Brüder Siemens, a book in which he proved a pioneer in the particular brand of business history developed some thirty years later by N. S. B. Gras at the Graduate School of Business, Harvard University. In fact, Ehrenberg exerted some influence on Gras.
It was neither Ehrenberg’s historical bent nor his own experience with business that alone moved him to study business and businessmen in historical perspective. As a matter of fact, he also belonged to that group of German economists who first promoted the study of business administration, a research area then designated in Germany as Privatwirtschaftslehre. Consequently, he became one of the first to propose an academic education for businessmen and was active in efforts to promote that goal by establishing the so-called Handelshochschulen.
According to Ehrenberg, economic theory, too, could profit from the study of business records, especially of the accounts of enterprises, as well as of household budgets, in that it might thereby become more “exact.” To this end he founded the Vereinigung für Exakt-vergleichende Wirtschaftsforschung, whose name conveys Ehrenberg’s idea that the use of business records for improving economic theory could be combined with the comparative study of economic life in various places and periods. To promote this program, he founded, in 1905, the Thünen-Archiv: Organ für exakte Wirtschaftsforschung (with Volume 3 the title was changed to Archiv für exakte Wirtschaftsforschung). Nine volumes appeared, the last in 1922; many of Ehrenberg’s important papers appeared in this periodical and a bibliography of his writings is in the last volume. However, he was unsuccessful in his attempt at promoting the use of business records in economic research. Economists had not yet learned to distinguish between macroeconomics and microeconomics, a fact that made his suggestions premature and led to some confusion.
Ehrenberg’s outstanding achievements have never received the recognition they deserve. His work was not compatible with that of the younger historical school, then dominating German economics, and he himself was on bad terms with Gustav Schmoller, its master. In Germany, this assessment has persisted: the Neue deutsche Biographie, a biographical dictionary in the process of publication, does not contain an article on Ehrenberg.
[For discussion of the subsequent development of Ehrenberg’s ideas, see the biography ofGras.]
(1896) 1928 Capital and Finance in the Age of the Renaissance: A Study of the Fuggers and Their Connections. New York: Harcourt. → A translation, with some sections omitted, of the author’s two-volume work Das Zeitalter der Fugger.
(1902–1905) 1925 Grosse Vermögen: Ihre Entstehung und ihre Bedeutung. 2 vols. 2d ed. Jena (Germany): Fischer.
1906 Die Unternehmungen der Briider Siemens. Jena (Germany): Fischer.