(Courtesy of Shelby White…)
In a wide-ranging professional life, Albert O. Hirschman worked at prestigious colleges and institutes, wrote some of the most perceptive works of social science in his era and acquired a devoted following of economists, political scientists and journalists.
Through his books, lectures and essays, Dr. Hirschman, who died Dec. 10 at 97, sought to apply rigorous and rational social-science scholarship to clashes of political ideology and economic impasses — conflicts that have often fueled violence and repression. He had learned the stakes first-hand and devoted his career to advancing economic development and the spread of democracy.
Raised in Germany in the aftermath of World War I, Dr. Hirschman witnessed the rise and spread of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and was credited with helping save hundreds of lives through his work with the anti-fascist underground resistance before and during World War II.
His admirers found him remarkable in part because he maintained a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature despite the tumult he had witnessed. He rejected the notion that societal problems are intractable. His life, his biographer Jeremy Adelman once wrote, “can be seen as a parable of the horrors and hopes of the 20th century.”
Otto Albert Hirschmann — his name later would be changed — was born April 7, 1915, in Berlin to an assimilated family of Jewish origin. He was baptized a Protestant.
His father, a surgeon, died of cancer in 1933, a year that also brought Adolf Hitler to power as German chancellor. Dr. Hirschman left to pursue studies first in France and then at the London School of Economics. At the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he put his education on hold to join the anti-fascist forces that ultimately lost to Gen. Francisco Franco.
“I could not just sit and look on without doing anything,” he once told an interviewer.
He eventually returned to his studies and received a doctorate in economics from the University of Trieste in Italy in 1938 — the year Benito Mussolini’s regime enacted the anti-Semitic racial laws.
Dr. Hirschman served in the French army at the start of World War II and went underground after the French surrender to the Germans in 1940. He made his way to Marseille, where he became second-in-command to Varian Fry, the American journalist who orchestrated the escape from Europe of 2,000 Jews and other refugees, including artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.
Dr. Hirschman’s nickname was “Beamish,” Fry later recalled in an account of their exploits, “because of his impish eyes and perennial pout, which would turn into a broad grin in an instant.”
Fry credited Dr. Hirschman as being a crucial member of the rescue network. “Beamish” rustled up fake identification documents for the refugees and, having studied in detail the vagaries of black markets, devised new ways to smuggle money into France.
When fascist authorities learned of Dr. Hirschman’s activities, he, too, had to flee. He crossed into Spain over the Pyrenees on foot, Adelman said in an interview, bringing with him extra socks and a two-volume collection of the works of Montaigne.
Dr. Hirschman arrived in the United States in 1941, worked briefly at the University of California at Berkeley and then joined the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the CIA.
In 1945, he served as an interpreter in one of the early war crimes trials of German military officials. “Grave-faced,” wrote a Time magazine reporter, Dr. Hirschman informed a German general that he would be “shot to death by musketry.”
After the war, Dr. Hirschman worked for the U.S. government on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. His first book, “National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade” (1945), grew from his experience during the war and was an early indication of his inclination to combine political science and economics.
He spent several years as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board, which sent him to Colombia for field work. The experience led to a life-long interest and expertise in Latin American politics and economics. Over the decades, he sharply criticized the U.S. government’s foreign aid packages that tried to attach Cold War strings to much-needed economic development support in Latin America, Adelman explained.
In a 1984 New Republic article titled “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” Dr. Hirschman noted that “a precious capital of good will that we have slowly accumulated in Latin America” among the poor and middle-class professionals was endangered by right-wing ideologues of the Reagan administration.
Specifically, the story targeted the White House’s purging and underfunding of “people-to-people,” self-help development grants from the government-supported Inter-American Foundation. Adelman quotes from the article in his forthcoming biography: