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John Kenneth Galbraith had Rolf Wagenfuhr kidnapped in order to calculate Germany’s Gross National P

Philipp Lepenies reminds us statistics are no stranger to skullduggery. In his book on the political history of GDP, during World War II the Allied Forces economics team kidnapped a star economist and dispatched agents to steal documents, all just to get a clear picture of the size of the German economy.

Rolf Wagenfuhr, known by some as a ‘roast beef’ Nazi – brown on the outside, red on the inside, headed the industrial economy research department in IfK, the German Institute for Economic Research. In the last phases of the war, the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith set up shop in Berlin to help Allied forces plan economic policy for post-War Germany. Galbraith needed Wagenfuhr’s expertise. Catching wind of the news, Wagenfuhr escaped into Berlin’s Soviet quarter. Undeterred Galbraith sent a team who kidnapped him back for debriefing.

Outraged, Marshal Zhukov appealed directly to General Eisenhower for Wagenfuhr’s release and return. Allied Forces agreed to return Wagenfuhr, to be escorted by another brilliant statistician Jurgen Kuczynski. In a shocking turn, while he finished his work for Galbraith, Kuczynski remained in East Berlin and became a leading economic advisor in East Germany. Wagenfuhr eventually left Berlin and returned to the West to become head of statistics for the organization that became the European Union. Wagenfuhr and Kuczynski remained friends throughout the Cold War.

After the war, the statistical office of the soon-to-be Federal Republic of Germany found that its key industrial census data were at the Reich’s old offices in the Soviet sector of Berlin. German statisticians reported this to American officers in Berlin, who promptly engineered a break-in to snatch the papers back. The first GDP of Germany produced by its own statisticians was released in 1949.

Lepenies reminds us that calculating Gross Domestic Product is still a relatively recent enterprise. The US government started calculating Gross National Product calculations in earnest only in the 1930’s. US policy makers were worried that military production crowded out civilian production. Instead, they found that military production stimulated civilian production, and the leadership could comfortably green light more resources to the war. Galbraith thought these insights were as valuable as several infantry divisions together.

See the original research:

Lepenies, Philipp. The power of a single number: a political history of GDP. Columbia University Press, 2016.

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