Werner Sombart Research Paper

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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 Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Undoubtedly, Sombart’s masterpiece is Der Moderne Kapitalismus (Modern Capitalism), published in 1902, expanded in 1916-1917, 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 capital—in other words, to make money. He divided the capitalist era into three stages: (1) early capitalism (1500-1760), dominated by a handicraft mentality, (2) high capitalism (1760-1914), 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.

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 (1864-1920), 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). Sombart’s 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, Sombart’s 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 Sombart’s work, owing to the growing emphasis on the role of historical specificity in economics.


  1. Backhaus, Jürgen, ed. 1996. Werner Sombart (1863–1941): Social Scientist. 3 vols. Marburg, Germany: Metropolis-Verlag.
  2. Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2002. How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science. London and New York: Routledge.
  3. Sombart, Werner. 1902–1927. Der Moderne Kapitalismus: Historisch-Systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. 3 vols. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1987.
  4. 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.

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