A Visit with E.F. Schumacher

by William McGaughey, Jr.

E. F. (“Fritz”) Schumacher was a friend of my parents for forty years. He became acquainted with y mother in 1933 when she was a student at the Columbia School of Journalism and he was teaching classes in Keynesian economics at Columbia. Subsequently, Fritz Schumacher returned to Germany, but he kept up a lifelong correspondence with my mother and father and during infrequent trips to the United States visited them or stayed overnight at their home.

I myself had the opportunity to meet Dr. Schumacher once, apart from introducing myself and my wife to him at a conference on Intermediate Technology at the Minneapolis convention center last March (1976). The earlier visit took place at his mother’s home in Munich, Germany, in early December 1961. I had dropped out of Yale that year and had traveled to West Germany where I spent thirteen months doing much as I pleased before resuming my formal studies.

My parents had sent Schumacher the address of the hotel near the main railroad station in Munich where I lived for the first several weeks. After checking out of the hotel, I returned to see if there was any mail. The only thing was a note from Dr. Schumacher asking me to contact him as soon as possible. When I telephoned him at the number given, he invited me to visit him at his mother’s home in Munich where he was staying for a short period. I have forgotten the address of our visit, but I do recall that it was in a fashionable neighborhood near the Isar River on the northeast side of town where a week or two earlier I had attended a performance of old English music.

My first impression of Dr. Schumacher was of a warm-blooded, energetic, jovial man who was also following a strict time schedule. He informed me that he was quite busy that day but he could give me twenty minutes. As I recall, he then introduced me to his mother, and we sat down in the living room to talk.

Dr. Schumacher was interested in the fact that I had majored in philosophy. Which philosophers did I appreciate the most? I believe I mentioned Plato, Kant, Hume, and perhaps others. Why did I like Hume? I said I admired his logical thinking, his lucid style of writing, and his honesty in seeking and expressing truth. Schumacher’s reaction at the time seemed flippant. While I do not recall his exact words, he compared Hume’s honesty to that of a woman who was “honest but ugly”.

I do not mean to imply that Dr. Schumacher’s manner during this meeting was sarcastic, arrogant, or offensive. On the contrary, he seemed to be in a pleasant mood. He did state his own views as bluntly as he demanded explanation of mine. Generally, he was critical of the purely rational, Cartesian approach I seemed to be taking. Where did the concept of God fit into this philosophy? I told him I was a skeptic regarding God’s existence. Schumacher, however, felt that a complete understanding of life’s experience required an appreciation of the unseen spiritual realities which my philosophical system seemed to ignore. I later recognized this opinion in E. F. Schumacher’s last book, “A Guide for the Perplexed”, which was published last year.

Not all of the time was devoted to philosophical discussion. Dr. Schumacher also told me something about himself and his family. His father had been professor of economics at the University of Berlin. He himself was a Rhodes scholar. (Besides endowing scholarships for Americans to attend classes at Oxford University, Cecil Rhodes had endowed a certain number of students from Germany, and Fritz Schumacher was the first German to receive an appointment under this program.) Schumacher left Germany in the late 1930s when the Nazi government made life difficult for persons of his background and belief. He had been for several years an economist with the National Coal Board in Great Britain, where he currently lived.

Two of Dr. Schumacher’s sisters lived in Munich. One was married to Werner Heisenberg, the renowned physicist, author of the “uncertainty principle.” The other sister was married to Erich Kuby, a journalist and writer. He had written a best-selling novel entitled “Rosemary”, which had recently become a movie. I, of course, was greatly impressed by his relationship to Professor Heisenberg. Schumacher said it might be possible for me to meet Heisenberg; however he wanted first to put me in touch with others of my own age who might share similar interests.

The first was his nephew, Thomas Kuby. With some pride, it seemed, Schumacher told me that Thomas Kuby had dropped out of school to learn blueprint reading at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg. The second person he wanted me to meet was Peter Harlin, a theology student at the University of Munich, whose late father had been editor of the principal newspaper in Stuttgart.

I subsequently was contacted by both persons, and spent memorable and enjoyable times with them in the winter and spring of 1962. Dr. Schumacher’s sister invited me to dinner at their home in a Munich suburb where I participated in a lively political discussion, including, interestingly, a report from Thomas Kuby of the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba six months before the October crisis. (Two years later, Kuby spent a weekend at my parents’ summer home in eastern Pennsylvania.) Even more memorable, perhaps, was the weekend I spent during Easter with Peter Harlin, his mother, brother, two sisters, and an English guest, at their country home in Baden-Wurttemberg. The beauty of the countryside and of this family, saddened by the recent death of their father, bring recollections of a tender interlude in my otherwise coarse and unimpressive life among the foreign riffraff inhabiting the cities of West Germany.

Sad to say, I think Dr. Schumacher’s efforts on my behalf were largely wasted. I had left college with the idea of joining the army to satisfy my requirement of military service. When the army turned me down, I was left unprepared. All I knew was how to study philosophy, and that is mainly what I did during this period in Europe. I accepted the experiences which were put my way by Dr. Schumacher and others but made little effort myself to cultivate such opportunities or participate in the surrounding activities.

Nevertheless, Dr. Schumacher wrote back to my parents that he thought what I was doing was “important”. This apparently was meant to relieve their fears that my life was ruined because I had dropped out of Yale. The twenty minutes which he initially offered stretched to more than an hour. I did not give it much thought. But now the late E.F. Schumacher (author of “Small is Beautiful”) has become an international celebrity as pioneer of a saner economic theory and whole living. I’m privileged to have met him on that winter morning sixteen years ago, and again in Minneapolis last year, and now to tell the story of that personal encounter to others whose lives have also been touched by his, in different yet equally significant ways.

(written in 1977)

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