In an email exchnage with Walter Block, Michael Edelstein et al., Michael raised a question about the religious views of Ludwig von Mises. None of us were certain, so I emailed the man who would know, Richard Ebeling, and he did not fail us. He emailed back:
I once spoke to Margit von Mises about Ludwig’s views on religion. She told me that he was an agnostic.
Margit said that she had been asked to be God-mother to one of Hans Sennholz’s children. After the ceremony at a church, Ludwig, who had been sitting way back in the church, said to her, “That’s enough religion for one day.”
This was not uncommon for German and Austrian Jews of Mises’s generation. In the nineteenth century, especially though not exclusively, in Central and Eastern Europe, there had been a great Jewish movement to join and immerse oneself in modern secular society.
There was, in particular, an attitude that German cultural reflected modernity in science, art, literature, music. Immersion into German culture was an entree into Western Civilization and escape from
the isolation and primitive ritualism of Orthodox Judaism. German society was “Enlightenment.”
Plus, due to the social and political prejudices and restrictions on Jews in German society in the nineteenth century, to be accepted into “society,” conversion to Christianity was found necessary. (This is how Karl Marx’s father could become a Prussian civil servant in Trier in the Rhineland.)
But while there were many sincere conversions to Christianity, many more were “expediencies” for social advancement. Over time, this fostered a shift toward “secularism” among the children and grandchildren of those who did so.
Reading the memoirs of some who attended the same “Academic Gymnasium” (high school) in Vienna that Mises attended in the 1890s, there was a desire to study the “modern” languages along with the required Greek and Latin. To read the latest “progressive” (in the non-political sense) literature of the time, and to be informed on all things “scientific.”
Half of the students at this Vienna high school that Mises attended in the 1890s were Jewish, and the required Hebrew courses (for the Jewish students) were considered a millstone of superstition for which most only had ridicule. It was viewed as an attempt to keep them linked to a cultural past that was only an embarrassment.
“Modern man” was free from these shackles of irrationalism. Now, I don’t want to create a wrong impression. There were many “modern” religious, practicing Jews in both Germany and Austria before and after the First World War. But there was a noticeable percentage who were atheists or agnostics. (Often this was particularly, though certainly not exclusively, among those drawn to the political “left,” as well as the more “advanced” liberals.)
Ludwig’s bother, Richard, had converted to Christianity (but whether this was sincere or an expediency I’ve never read). Their mother, Adele, remained a practicing Jew all her life, contributing to Jewish charities in her home town in Galicia. Their father, Arthur, clearly was more “modern” but active in the Jewish community leadership in Vienna after moving his family from Lemberg in the early 1890s.
And, of course, Ludwig’s great-grandfather had been “ennobled” by the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, in 1881 (the year Ludwig was born) for his service to the empire as the head of the orthodox Jewish community in Lemberg. But the Mises family orthodoxy was sufficiently “enlightened” that they supported and fought for the liberal political reforms of the revolution of 1848.
But for the generation of Austrian Jews of which Ludwig von Mises was one, a philosophical utilitarianism, a political and economic liberalism, and a belief that “reason” and science were marks of thoughtful “modern man” (as was certainly Ludwig’s worldview) atheism or at least agnosticism were almost “inevitable” complements.
This episode of Jewish history in the Germany and Austria of this period is fascinating and revealing (including why and how in spite of this wide attempt by many in the Jewish community in these countries to become “Germans”and “Austrians” parallel to or above their identity as “Jews,” yet that they remained nonetheless “Jews” living in Germany and Austria in the eyes of most non-Jews.)
All best wishes,
Richard also reports that he discusses the subject in greater detail with appropriate references in his introduction to volume 1 of the “Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises” (Liberty Fund, 2010).