Egon Sohmen

Egon Sohmen (1930-1977)

(excerpt taken from Herbert Giersch)

"On June 1, 1990, Egon Sohmen would have reached the age of 60 had he not suffered from a fatal illness. It demanded his death at the early age of 46. If he were still with us, he would play a prominent role in the current debate on monetary arrangements and on allocation theory, perhaps including environmental issues and urban economics. His contributions are well remembered by his colleagues and friends, by his former students, and by many in the economics profession on both sides of the Atlantic. In extrapolating his great achievements as a scholar and teacher beyond the time of his death, one is inclined to suppose that Egon Sohmen's name would figure high on many a list of candidates for honors and awards in the field of international economics.

For the reconstruction of economics in the German language area Egon Sohmen was invaluable. Born in Linz (Austria), he studied in Vienna at the Business School (Hochschule für Welthandel, now Wirtschaftsuniversität), then went to the US as a Fulbright scholar (1953), returned to Europe to take his doctorate in Tübingen, Germany (1954) and crossed the Atlantic again to teach at MIT (1955-1958) where he obtained a Ph.D. (1958) under Charlie Kindleberger. He might have stayed permanently in the US, continuing a career that he started as Assistant Professor at Yale University (1958-1961), if the US visa provisions had been applied in a more liberal fashion.

Fortunately for quite a few people in Germany, Egon was offered a chair at the young Saar University in 1961, after the faculty had been persuaded to waive the traditional Habilitation requirement. We were glad that he accepted. It gave us new opportunities to strengthen our ties with MIT and Yale, with Austrian economists like Gottfried Haberler and Fritz Machlup,who had become Egon's friends and mentors, with Willy Fellner, and with the international economists of Egon's age cohort. Many students at the Saar University were deeply impressed by his teachings, including his later wife, our best female student, and quite a few who now hold prestigious posts in economics and public life. I can frankly say without hesitation that Egon's influence was particularly strong among those bright collaborators who went along with me in 1964 to establish the German Economic Expert Council (Sachverständigenrat) and who - in 1969 - helped strengthen international economic research at the Kiel Institute. No economist teaching in Germany would have deserved the Kiel Institute's Bernhard Harms Prize more than Egon. This acknowledgement must serve as a posthumous substitute.

Egon was not afraid of controversy; perhaps he even liked it. Great controversies developed in Saarbrücken over the exchange rate issue, with Wolfgang Stützel defending fixed rates, Egon propagating flexibility, and some - like myself - pondering for a while until circumstances demanded a system switch in the interest of domestic price level stability. In May 1969, when action was needed, Egon and I drafted a memorandum that we sent to the government. When we went to the public it aroused a political turmoil when more than a hundred economics professors in Germany openly joined forces with us. A few months later, exchange rates became the main issue in the general elections.

In stormy periods, one needs friends with a strong character. Egon was a true friend. He had an instinctive sense of the needs of others, notably his family. Without his good advice and the generous financial support he diverted from his salary as a young professor in his early thirties, much of the scope for productive human capital formation in the Sohmen family would have remained unexploited, as I gather from remarks by his sister. From his brother, Helmut, Egon quickly received high intellectual returns. Those who have read the preface to the first edition of "Flexible Exchange Rates" will remember that he thanked his brother for having acted as Dr. Wong, meaning Jacob Viner's Chinese draftsman who turned out to be an excellent amateur economist by discovering a mistake in Viner's reasoning about "Cost Curves and Supply Curves."

It so happened that Helmut Sohmen, as if Egon's reference had had predictive power, made his way to the top of the world business community in the Chinese cultural and ethnic environment of Hong Kong with such success that he acquired the means for creating the Egon-Sohmen-Foundation. Should sociologists have doubts about the viability of the family in a cosmopolitan environment, they would become more confident by looking at this example. Egon surely was a father figure, and economics is now benefiting from it in a roundabout way."

Taken from Herbert Giersch (ed.). 1992. Money, Trade, and Competition: Essays in Memory of Egon Sohmen. p. v-vii. Berlin: Springer.

Selected Works

A complete bibliography of Sohmen's work is contained in a volume of essays in his memory, edited by J.S. Chipman and C.P. Kindleberger, Flexible Exchange Rates and the Balance of Payments (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1980). The chief items are:

1961. Flexible Exchange Rates. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. Rev. ed., 1969.

1964. International Monetary Problems and the Foreign Exchanges. Special Papers in International Economics, Princeton: International Finance Session.

1966. The Theory of Forward Exchange. Princeton Studies in International Finance, Princeton, International Finance Section.

1976. Allokationstheorie und Wirtschaftspolitik. Tübingen: J.C. Mohr (Paul Siebeck)."