Alexander Gerschenkron

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Alexander Gerschenkron
Native name
Александр Гершенкрон
Born (1904-10-01)1 October 1904
Odessa, Russian Empire
Died 26 October 1978(1978-10-26) (aged 74)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality American Jew
Institution Harvard University
Field Economic history
School or tradition
Austrian School
Alma mater University of Vienna
Influences Max Weber
Influenced Alfred H. Conrad
Albert Fishlow
John R. Meyer
Peter Temin

Alexander Gerschenkron (Russian: Александр Гершенкрон; 1 October 1904 – 26 October 1978) was a Russian-born American Jewish economic historian and professor at Harvard University, trained in the Austrian School of economics.

Born in Odessa, then part of the Russian Empire, Gerschenkron fled the country during the Russian Civil War in 1920 to Austria, where he attended the University of Vienna, earning a doctorate in 1928. After the Anschluss in 1938, he emigrated to the United States.


Alexander Gerschenkron was born in Odessa to an elite family of the Russian intelligentsia. At the age of sixteen, Alexander Gerschenkron and his father fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, and all he brought with him were two books: poetry by Alfred de Musset and a political history of 19th Century Europe. Gerschenkron and his father eventually would settle in Vienna, Austria. Soon after arriving in Vienna, Gerschenkron taught himself languages, such as German and Latin. In 1924, Gerschenkron enrolled in the (University of Vienna’s school of Economy). He would graduate 4 years later in 1928.[1]

After graduation, Gerschenkron got married and had a child. He found work in Vienna as a representative for a Belgian motorcycle firm. He worked for the firm for three year, but then decided to commit himself to politics, in particular the Social Democrats. However, in 1934 the party ceased to exist after the Austrian Civil War.[1]

In 1938, Gerschenkron and his family emigrated to the United States after the annexation of Austria to the German Reich. Charles Gulick, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, invited Gerschenkron to be his research assistant. Gerschenkron spent twelve months researching and writing to help produce Gulick’s book, Austria from Hasburg to Hitler. He researched at the University of California Berkeley for five years and then in 1943 he moved to Washington DC to join the Federal Reserve Board.[1]

In 1944 he worked with the Federal Reserve in the Research and Statistics department. During his time on the Federal Reserve Board, Gerschenkron established himself as an expert on the Soviet economy. His knowledge was of vital importance to the Board, because it was during a time when the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States was a central issue. He worked on the Federal Reserve Board for four years, and was eventually promoted to the head of the International Section.[1]

In 1945, Gerschenkron became an American citizen and in 1948, he left the Federal Reserve Board to accept a position as a tenured professor at Harvard University. He was a Professor of Economics at Harvard for about 25 years. There, he taught economic history and Soviet studies.[1]

In a recent research article, the Dutch social historian Marcel van der Linden demonstrates that Gerschenkron was a member of the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Austria, one of the two major political parties in Austria, which has ties to the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) and the Austrian Chamber of Labour (AK); and, later, the Communist Party of Austria, both banned between 1933 and 1945 under both the Austrofascist regime and the Nazi German control of Austria after the 1938 Anschluss. Gerschenkron kept his former political affiliations a secret after he was able to immigrate to the United States.[2]


Gerschenkron kept to his Russian roots—in his economics, history and as a critic of Russian literature. His early work concentrated on development in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In a celebrated 1947 article, he found the Gerschenkron effect (changing the base year for an index determines the growth rate of the index). His early work often pursued the statistical tricks of Soviet planners.[1]

The "Gerschenkron effect"[edit]

In 1954, he published a highly celebrated article, A Dollar Index of Soviet Machinery Output, 1927-1928 to 1937, in which he founded the Gerschenkron effect (the difference between calculated Paaschr and Laspeyres volume indexes). In this study, he constructed a series of dollar indexes of Soviet industrial output for the purpose of proving the deficiencies of the official Soviet index during that time (1927-1937). He proved that the remarkably high rates of growth of Soviet industrial production owed itself to the index number bias: a Laspeyres index calculated on the basis of 1926-1927 weights significantly overstates real expansion. His founding of the Gerschenkron effect was a significant finding that deflated the vastly superior Soviet growth. [3]

The OECD website:[4] gives a more in-depth description of the Gerschenkron effect:

Economic backwardness[edit]

In 1951, Gerschenkron wrote a vastly important essay titled “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective”. This essay was a cornerstone of Gerschenkron's career and it is of great significance to European economic history. In it, he advanced the linear stages theory of economic development, which posits that economic development goes forward in fairly determined stages.[1]

The key idea in “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspecive” is that of economic backwardness. He argued that the more backward an economy is at the outset of economic development, the more likely certain conditions are to occur. He argues that a country such as Russia, backward relative to Britain when it embarked on industrialization, did not go through the same stages. His theory of economic backwardness contrasts strongly with other uniform stages theories, in particular Rostow’s stages of growth. The theory predicts that the more “economically backward” a country is, the more we will see:

  • More rapid rates of industrial growth
  • A greater stress on producer or capital goods as compared to consumer goods
  • More rapid growth spurts rather than gradual growth rates
  • Larger scale of plants and firms and a greater emphasis on up-to-date technology
    • Backward countries are able to purchase machinery from early producers, for example Russia (most backward country) would import Britain’s (least backward economy) machinery and transportation equipment
  • A greater emphasis on capital-intensive production rather than labor-intensive production
  • A lower standard of living
  • Less role played by agriculture
  • A more active role by the government and large banks in supplying capital and entrepreneurship
  • More “virulent” ideologies of growth”

Gerschenkron never clearly defines economic backwardness but he relates it to: income per capita, amount of social overhead capital, literacy, savings rates and level of technology. He also eluded economic backwardness to a northwest-to-southeast axis within Europe, with Britain as the least backward followed by Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Italy and the most backward Russia. In his essay he mostly references Britain, Germany and Russia. Despite his roots in the Austrian school he criticized the "penny pinching, 'not-one-heller-more-policies'" of the prominent Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk when the latter was Austrian Minister of Finance and laid much of the blame for Austria's economic backwardness on Böhm-Bawerk's unwillingness to spend heavily on public works projects. [5]

Bread and Democracy in Germany[edit]

In 1943, Gerschenkron published a book titled Bread and Democracy in Germany. In this study, he analyzes the problem of the relation between democracy and the protection of agricultural products, particularly of grain, in Germany. Gerschenkron understands that the establishment of democracy in Germany depends on a numerous amount of factors, and in his book he specifically deals with one aspect of the problem, the position of the Junkers and the agricultural policy in its relation to democracy.

He defines the economic history of the problem as this: In 1879, Germany introduced a new tariff and formulated a definite policy, which protected domestic grain production against overseas competition. This policy worked in favor of the big estate owners, the Junkers, who held important political positions in Prussia. It also worked in favor to a major part of the German peasantry. In 1926, 8 years after the Germans were defeated at WWI, the Junkers started to plot against the forces of democracy. They introduced a new era of increased agricultural protection, which once again favored the peasants and Junkers.

Gerschenkron arrives at this conclusion, “that democratic reconstruction of Germany… in insurance of world peace calls for a radical elimination of the Junkers as a social and economic group.” He also recommends a radical land reform. To achieve the readjustment of agriculture and to place it on a competitive basis he suggests the introduction of a government trade monopoly of the bulk of agricultural products in Germany. With a monopoly in place, the government could set a price policy, which would force a number of farmers to discontinue grain production for the market and eventually carry out the needed adjustment of high cost agriculture to the international market conditions.

Gerschenkron also warns of the possible difficulties of creating a government monopoly. He believes the management of the monopoly would require “great practical skill and energy”. He believes the Germans should include this program of the agricultural adjustment plan in the peace treaties and entrust its execution and supervision to an international economic agency. [6]


Gerschenkron had a profound influence on his students. At Harvard, he led the Economic History Workshop and taught courses on Soviet economics and economic history. His teaching on economic history was a year-long course required of all graduate economics students. His course required 2 major dissertation papers and a final exam. He also led evening seminars once a week in which his graduate students would discuss ideas for dissertations and evaluate quantitative techniques.

Many of his students went on to have productive careers, and it can be recorded that a good number of them have attained presidency of the Economic History Association. Ten of his students in the mid-1960s prepared a Festschrift in his honor. The book was titled "Industrialization in Two Systems" and was published in 1966. [7]

Gerschenkron as a scholar[edit]

Gerschenkron was known as an extremely bright scholar. As one of his former students Donald McCloskey put it, “Alexander Gerschenkron was not the best teacher or the best economist or the best historian among these- nor even, I think, the best human being. But he was the best scholar I have known.”

Gerschenkron studied many subjects, from history of economics, economics of the Soviet Union, statistics, Greek poetry, and a great deal in between. He also learned a great amount of languages. From his studies in Austria, he learned Latin, Greek, French and German. Later in life he would pick up languages with ease- Swedish one week, Bulgarian the next. An example of well he grasped languages comes from an account his student, Donald McCloskey, tells of Gerschenkron’s harsh evaluation of a Russian translation, “He wrote a devastating review of a translation from Russian of a book in economics, attacking in detail the author’s apparently feeble command of the language. The translator had the termerity to approach Gerschenkron at a conference and say amiably, “I want you to know, Professor Gerschenkron, that I am not angry about your review.” Gerschnkron replied, “Angry? Why should you be angry? Ashamed, yes; angry, no.”

To go along with his vast knowledge of economic history, he also studied a great amount of literature. Him and his wife wrote an article together on translations of Shakespeare, which was published in a literary journal. [8]

Alexander Gerschenkron Prize[edit]

The Economic History Association created the Alexander Gershenkron Prize. It is awarded for the best dissertation in the economic history of an area outside of the United States or Canada. To be eligible for the Alexander Gershenkron Prize, you must have received your Ph. D within 2 years of when the award is given out. [9]

The 2014 winner was a Harvard alumnus, Tyler Godspeed, who won for his dissertation titled "Upon Daedalian Wings of Paper Money: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772. [10]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1943). Bread and democracy in Germany, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California press.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1945). Economic relations with the U.S.S.R., New York.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander and Alexander Erlich (1951), A dollar index of Soviet machinery output, 1927-28 to 1937, Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander and Nancy Nimitz (1952), A dollar index of Soviet petroleum output, 1927-28 to 1937, Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander and Nancy Nimitz (1953), A dollar index of Soviet iron and steel output 1927/28-1937, Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1954), A dollar index of Soviet electric power output, Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1954), Soviet heavy industry: a dollar index of output, 1927/28-1937, Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1962), Economic backwardness in historical perspective, a book of essays, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1966), Bread and democracy in Germany, New York: H. Fertig.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1968), Continuity in history, and other essays, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1970), Europe in the Russian mirror: four lectures in economic history, London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1977), An economic spurt that failed: four lectures in Austrian history, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Gerschenkron, Alexander (1989), Bread and democracy in Germany with a new foreword by Charles S. Maier, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Fishlow, Albert (2001). "Review Essay". Retrieved 2015. 
  2. ^ van der Linden, Marcel (2012). "Gerschenkron’s Secret. A Research Note". Critique: A Journal of Socialist Theory 40 (4): 553–562. 
  3. ^ Gerschenkron, Alexander (1955). "A Soviet heavy industry. A dollar index of output, 1927/1928-37". Review of Economics and Statistics: 120. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Gerschenkron's Theory of Economic Backwardness" (PDF). Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  6. ^ Basch, Antonin (September 1944). "Reviews: Bread and Democracy in Germany". Political Science Quarterly (Academy of Political Science) 59 (3): 440–443. 
  7. ^ Dawidoff, Nicholas (2003). The Fly-Swatter: Portrait of an Exceptional Character. New York: Vintage. 
  8. ^ McClouskey, Donald (1992). "Alexander Gerschenkron" (PDF). The American Scholar (John Churchill): 241–246. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  9. ^ "Alexander Gerschenkron Prize". Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  10. ^ "Tyler Goodspeed (PhD '14) awarded Alexander Gerschenkron Prize". 21 September 2014. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Rosovsky, Henry, ed., Industrialization in two systems; essays in honor of Alexander Gerschenkron by a group of his students, New York, Wiley & Sons (1966) ISBN 0-471-73674-0
  • Forsyth, Douglas J. and Daniel Verdier, eds., The Origins of National Financial Systems: Alexander Gerschenkron Reconsidered, London and New York, Routledge, (2003) ISBN 0-415-30168-8
  • Dawidoff, Nicholas, The Fly-Swatter: Portrait of an Exceptional Character, New York, Vintage (2003) ISBN 0-375-70006-4
  • Gerschenkron, A., ‘Soviet heavy industry. A dollar index of output, 1927/1928-37’ Review of Economics and Statistics, 120 (1955)
  • Basch, Antonin, "Reviews: Bread and Democracy in Germany" Political Science Quarterly 59.3 (1944): 440–43.

External links[edit]