Never was the future in Germany so little foreseeable, nor the chaos so ubiquitous as in the spring of 1945.” So observes the noted German historian Heinrich August Winkler. By the end of the terrible war it had unleashed, Germany was a Zusammenbruchsgesellschaft, a “collapsed society.” Its cities lay in ruins, foreign armies divided and occupied its territories, millions of people were in flight and without shelter; the entire population faced starvation. The legal, economic, and political order had evaporated completely. The evocative term sometimes used to refer to this fateful historical moment, the Stunde Null, the “zero hour,” captures the sense of existential emptiness, disorientation, uncertainty, and fear that pervaded it.

Yet, as Winkler points out, a Stunde Null never truly existed, at least not in the sense of a time when everything came to an end. Starting over did not mean starting from nothing. Well before the collapse, and even during the turbulent years that brought the Weimar Republic’s failed experiment in democracy to its disastrous conclusion, groups of engaged intellectuals and activists had been planning a new order. This order had to respond to the perversions of the old and repair the malignant institutional and social arrangements that had helped bring them about. To ensure a viable future for the country, the new order would have to rest on a foundation of truly reasonable norms, about which a stable and healthy social consensus could cohere. In short, Germany needed to create authentic social solidarity.

To a remarkable degree, this happened. Not long after the war, West Germans—and others—began to speak of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, that laid the foundations for Germany’s unchallenged preeminence in the Eurozone today. Economic recovery, however, wasn’t the greatest miracle. A chronically restive Germany entered the twentieth century dominated by an imperial bureaucracy under the Kaisers. In the wake of World War I, intractable social conflict and political stalemate enfeebled the Weimar Republic’s parliamentary democracy, which ended in a headlong fall into a totalitarian nightmare. Yet, after 1945, West Germany became one of the world’s most stable democracies and functional ­societies, so much so that in 1990 it reabsorbed an entire failed state: the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. If we speak of miracles, surely we must give priority to the social and political transformations that made possible the Germany we know today.

The “social market” program put forward by Konrad Adenauer, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party in the Federal Republic’s first parliamentary elections in 1949, was a key element in this social and political transformation. By giving Adenauer’s party and its allies a narrow majority, the voters ratified his vision of Germany’s future, one that drew deeply from Christian, and especially Catholic, thought about the challenges facing modern society. This collective decision continues to shape the political economy of Germany today—and of Europe more generally.

Among Catholics, sustained and sophisticated reflection on social, economic, and political problems stretches back to the time of the French Revolution, when on the night of August 4, 1789, the National Assembly simply abolished the existing order. François Furet wrote that this night “marks the moment when a juridical and social order, forged over centuries, composed of a hierarchy of separate orders, corps, and communities, and defined by privileges, somehow evaporated, leaving in its place a social world conceived in a new way as a collection of free and equal individuals subject to the universal authority of law.” Those decisions, Furet remarked, amounted to “philosophy’s destruction of a world.”

The nearly overnight creation “of a wholly modern, individualistic society,” Furet points out, posed a new and monumental problem: Just how would these free, sovereign, equal, and wholly autonomous individuals be related to and united with one another? This is the heart of what came to be known as “the social question,” which raises fundamental queries about human nature and the possibilities for pursuing life in common. It addresses political, economic, and legal relationships; the nature of the family, work, and other social relationships; the role of the state; the institutions of civil society; the anthropology of the person; and more. Thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Spencer, Max Weber, and the holders of the Chair of Peter, to name but a few, all have addressed the social question in one form or another. It largely defined nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics, with communism and nationalism posing two of the most powerful and dangerous ideological answers. Perhaps more than any other, it remains the most pressing issue of our day as well.

From the outset, German Catholic social theorists and activists played a prominent role in addressing the social question, shaping what we now know as the Catholic social thought tradition. This prominence flows in part from the unique challenges the Germans faced. Unlike in England or France, political development in Germany occurred on the territorial level. Germany entered the nineteenth century primarily as a set of diverse duchies, principalities, and relatively small states. Many stood under the direct control of France; all were under its influence. Many had very traditional political structures, and the level of industrialization across the territories was low or nonexistent. Thanks in part to a “revolution from above”—the imposition of liberal economic and social arrangements by governmental elites in the Prussian regions—Germany exited the century a unified economic, political, and military power. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, Germany had become an industrial powerhouse. E. E. Williams’s Made in Germany, published in England in 1896, was a runaway bestseller.

Great social upheaval and dislocation accompanied this transformation. The abolition of the feudal obligations of the peasants and their lords, agricultural reforms, and the introduction of the free alienability of land led to large-scale migrations from the countryside into the cities. Marx called this rising class the proletariat, a term he borrowed from the polymath and early Catholic social theorist Franz von Baader. Derived from the Latin proletarius, “the one who produces offspring,” the term referred in ancient Rome to citizens without property, those whose children represented their only lasting contribution to society. Modern proletarians also stood on the margins of society. Having lost their traditional places, they had no legal, social, or economic standing.

Catholics (as well as Protestants) worked to develop concrete responses to the needs of the growing proletariat, working to integrate them into social structures and give them legal status. The remarkable bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler (1811–1877), strongly encouraged the formation of workers’ and other forms of associations to replace the institutions swept away by the liberal reformers. “Through the dissolution of all the old associations, the worker is entirely isolated and left to rely on himself,” Ketteler observed. This is an alienating isolation, for it is both “a natural law and constitutional principle of the human being” to cooperate with his fellow man to promote the common good.

To this affirmation of solidarity, Ketteler added insights that were later expressed through the concept of subsidiarity. He maintained that individuals and smaller associations should be left to accomplish what they could without interference, but that larger bodies had the duty to supply assistance when required. Consequently, he eventually concluded that the state had the positive obligation through lawmaking to encourage self-help through the protection and enhancement of mediating associations and the extension of assistance to those in need. Ketteler’s thought strongly influenced Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the first official document of the Catholic Church to explicitly take up the social question.

Catholic social thinkers mounted an early and sustained critique of the doctrinaire individualism and the abstract social contract approaches of theorists on whom modern liberalism rests: Hobbes, Locke, ­Rousseau, and their followers. Those Catholic thinkers emphasized our intrinsically social nature and championed the importance of the local, grass-roots bodies that stand between individuals and the large institutions of the market and the state—what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons.” Because the state and other large institutions could reach individuals only through these mediating bodies, these thinkers provided them with defense against the state’s overweening power, as well as the economic power of the large industrial enterprises. They also pointed out that these local institutions and associations afforded a powerful means for self-rule and self-responsibility.

In short, as engaged Catholics, both lay and clerical, took the measure of the social transformations of modern economic and political life, they began to develop a body of reflection, properly called social Catholicism. It was debated and refined, eventually leading to explicit teachings: Catholic social doctrine. This involved the development of fundamental concepts such as solidarity and subsidiarity, as well as intermediate judgments about labor unions, private property, and the legitimate scope of government control over education and family life. It’s wrong to imagine this body of doctrine to be a complete system like Thomism, but it did provide a stable, coherent basis for thinking about the social question.

By the turn of the twentieth century, social Catholicism was well rooted in both the Catholic laity and those in religious life in Germany. An extensive network of Catholic societies, study groups, and workers’ groups had arisen, along with the (Catholic) Center Party, which became an important voice in national politics. This practical work was supported by important theological scholars. The Jesuit economist and moral theologian Heinrich Pesch (1854–1926) exercised considerable influence, as did his successors, such as the Jesuits Gustav Gundlach (1892–1963), and Oswald von Nell-Breuning (1890–1991).

Well-schooled in scholastic thought, Pesch studied economics with Gustav Schmoller, Max Sering, and Adolph Wagner, leading members of the “younger historical school” of economics. The historical school rejected the notion that abstract, atemporal, and generalizable laws govern economic systems. Instead, they saw economies as a product of cultural, historical, and political forces.

Pesch and his Jesuit successors developed the idea of “solidarism,” by which they intended “a mean between individualism and socialism.” Solidarism represented not a “lazy compromise” but rather the recognition of “the actual reciprocal dependence of humans.” “The law of solidarity and reciprocity,” insisted Pesch, “completely permeates all spheres of life.” Solidarity serves as more than an ethical principle. It is also a social-legal principle by which the state, the economy, and the society should be organized. “The human,” he maintained, is “always and everywhere the subject and the end of the economy.”

Pesch called for a “solidarity-based work system” that would put modern capitalism on a “foundation of solidarity.” To enable this, and to provide for a “more democratic-constitutional make-up of the firm” and of the economy generally, Pesch called for worker participation in managerial decision-making. To democratize the economy and enhance opportunities for individual self-determination and responsibility, Pesch also called for the establishment of self-regulating occupational and professional bodies. These bodies should include everyone working in the same vocational or industrial branch and stand free of the state. The goal was to integrate people at every level of the economy and society, giving average workers the means to participate in economic decisions that directly affected their lives.

The idea of occupational councils found an echo in Article 165 of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, a development that Pesch enthusiastically supported. It called for the creation of joint worker-management councils, organized on the local, regional, and national level. They were to provide for economic co-determination and self-management. Throughout the Weimar era, Gustav Gundlach and Oswald von Nell-Breuning continued to develop and explicate ideas for social and economic organization through occupational councils and worker-management self-regulation and participatory decision-making. They were assisted in this by the other members, both clerical and lay, of the “Königswinter Circle,” a group of social theorists. Occupational councils, along with the subsidiarity principle, became key elements of the plan for the “Reconstruction of the Social Order” presented in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Nell-Breuning, often called the “Nestor” of Catholic social thought, drafted the early versions of this encyclical.

Throughout the 1930s and the post-war period, the German Dominicans also played an important role in the debates about economic and social order. Albert Maria Weiss, O.P. (1844–1925), for example, published widely on social issues. He was a member of the Fribourg Union, another important Catholic study group that focused on the social question, and did preparatory work for Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. The Dominican abbey at Walberberg, near Cologne, became an important center for Catholic social reflection and activism.

While the German Protestants never developed something similar to Catholic social doctrine, they have a long history of influential reflection and action on social and economic issues, as well as a tradition of ethical critique of modern liberalism. Johann ­Friedrich Oberlin (1740–1826), for whom Oberlin College is named, was an important early figure. He was the founder of the “home [domestic] mission” of charitable relief and Christian education. Others include Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), ­Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen (1818–1888), and ­Victor Aimé Huber (1800–1869). Huber carried on an extensive correspondence with Bishop von ­Ketteler and with the great socialist Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864). He was one of the first conservatives of his era to seek ways to integrate the proletariat into society. He supported programs for producer cooperatives and, later, for unionization and worker co-­determination. In 1890, Adolf Stoecker, Ludwig Weber, Adolph Wagner, and Adolf von Harnack founded the famous Evangelical Social Congress. Scholars such as Max Weber played active roles.

The seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 effectively shut down open discussion of the social question. Nell-Breuning was silenced in 1936 and his works suppressed. Warned in 1938 that he would be arrested if he returned to Germany, ­Gundlach remained at the Vatican. Laurentius Siemer, the stout anti-Nazi provincial of the German Dominicans, joined the Cologne resistance cell—the “Cologne Circle”—organized by the Catholic Workers’ movement, most of whom were executed after the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. Narrowly avoiding arrest, he spent the remainder of the war in hiding. Siemer involved his fellow Dominican Eberhard Welty in the resistance, and Welty’s work on a “Christian system of living” played a key role in post-war discussions.

Protestants were also active in planning a Christian social order for the future. Helmuth Count von Moltke (1907–1945) and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg (1904–1944) formed the “Kreisau Circle,” which had ties with other resistance and study groups. It included Protestants and Catholics (including the ­Jesuit Alfred Delp), aristocrats and trade unionists. Its members spanned the political spectrum. They insisted that the reconstruction of Germany could not succeed without a Christian basis. Their somewhat mixed program emphasized personal responsibility and urged an economy based on small- and ­medium-sized undertakings, along with strict state control of monopolies and cartels. They also called for the state ownership of extractive industries such as coal, and for worker-management ­co-determination. The 1944 failed attempt on Hitler grew from Kreisau Circle members. Afterward, a number were executed, including those without a direct role in the plot, such as von Moltke and Delp. (Delp refused clemency on the condition that he leave the Jesuits.)

There was also a “Freiburg Circle.” It aimed “to ground social and economic ethics on a Christian foundation, in direct accord with the Protestant understanding.” Centered on the university there, it included both Protestant and Catholic theologians, but the core group was made up of the economists Walter Eucken (1891–1950), Constantin von Dietze (1891–1973), and Adolf Lampe (1897–1948), the jurists Franz Böhm (1895–1977) and Erik Wolf (1902–1977), and the historian Gerhard Ritter (1888–1967). All were dedicated members of the “Confessing Church” that was formed to resist the Nazi domination of the official Protestant church organizations.

At Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s request, members of the Freiburg Circle prepared an extensive Protestant position paper for a planned post-war ecumenical meeting to discuss a peacetime order. Meeting secretly and at great risk—the group had ties to the Kreisau Circle—they also prepared extensive plans for a new ordering of the economy. Threatening him with torture, the Gestapo twice interrogated Eucken and arrested both Lampe and Dietze. Bonhoeffer was executed.

Within weeks of the war’s end, these social theorists and activists were drawing up plans for a new economic and social order. In the British zone, ­Eberhard Welty and Johannes Albers set to work drafting the “Ahlen Program” for the newly formed North Rhine Westphalian Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Albers, a typesetter, a Christian Union leader, and a Cologne resistance member, had been imprisoned in 1944. He was a co-founder of the CDU.

“The starting point of all economic activity is the recognition of the individual,” the Ahlen Program stated, and its goal “is to serve the people.” The program called for mixed public-private ownership of key industries to prevent monopolies and economic concentration, “planning and direction” of the economy, self-management of economic relations through occupational councils, promotion of small- to ­medium-sized firms, and protection of individual freedom and private property. The Ahlen Program was self-consciously based on the principles enun­ciated in Quadragesimo Anno.

Konrad Adenauer hailed the Ahlen Program as a “brilliant and very fine achievement.” This is not surprising. One scholar reports that Adenauer played a decisive, if concealed, role in its formulation. Nevertheless, as Albrecht Langner reports, Adenauer apparently regarded the Ahlen Program as “a transitory compromise.” In a radio address given in March 1946, Adenauer stated that the principles of Christian ethics “must be determinative for the rebuilding of the state and the limitation of its power, for the rights and the duties of the individual, for economic, social, and cultural life, for the relationship of the people to one another.” He continued:

The economy has a double goal: satisfying the demands of the people and unfolding the creative power of individuals and the community. The starting point of any economy is the recognition of one’s personhood. From this flows the necessity to create a social right that binds employers and employees on an equal basis in management and in responsibility. Thereby a new social ordering of the economy and the society will be achieved and the spirit of class struggle will be overcome. Freedom of the person in the economic and in the political sphere are closely related.

Adenauer may have been Catholic, but as Langner remarks, “the Catholic Adenauer cannot simply be equated with the Catholic social activists in the party and their practical-political demands of the time.” Within months, Adenauer shifted his support from the Ahlen Program to the “Social Market” concept developed and promoted by Ludwig Erhard (who became Adenauer’s economics minister and later his successor as chancellor), as well as the “Freiburg School” of economics, most of whose members had direct ties to the Freiburg Circle.

The market side of the social market put supply and demand at the center of the economic order. Erhard saw competition as the primary regulatory principle, regarding it as the best protection of individual freedom, as well as conducive to creativity and voluntary arrangements. In this sphere, the state has the role of defending the competitive order by maintaining a regulatory framework that protects but that does not intrude into market and price mechanisms. As one theorist described it, competition “is a game, regulated by the state.” Thus, removing cartels, monopolies, and other obstructions constituted an important regulatory task. It’s the responsibility of the state to create and sustain the legal frameworks to sustain a genuine market economy.

The social side of the program called for measures to assure just distribution of wealth, joint responsibility, and social harmony. It sought to promote a vision of the common good that was more than economic efficiency and fair market competition. Worker-­management councils and the inclusion of union leaders in corporate governance—practices that Americans find baffling—are examples. With this dimension, Adenauer promoted a vision of social solidarity in which a free market economy would play an essential but not ultimate role. It was capitalism for the sake of the common good rather than the other way around.

The revived center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by the courageous Kurt Schumacher, made proposals for a planned economy, something along the lines adopted by post-war Britain, and not terribly dissimilar to those it supported during the Weimar period. Schumacher had spent nearly the entire period between 1933 and 1945 in concentration camps. A dedicated social democrat, he once famously referred to the communists as “red painted fascists.” As Heinrich August Winkler noted, the Federal Republic’s first parliamentary elections amounted to a plebiscite over Ludwig Erhard’s social market policies over and against Schumacher’s emphasis on a planned economy. By giving the CDU and its coalition parties a slight majority, the voters made a momentous choice that set the course for Germany’s—and eventually Europe’s—future.

Today, economic globalization is threatening to rip up the social contract in America. Opportunities seem to flow to the well-educated and enterprising upper-middle class. They benefit from globalization. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans find themselves competing with low-wage laborers abroad and immigrants at home. We certainly don’t face a Stunde Null, but there are new and profound challenges to the post-war, middle-class consensus that once glued us together and helped us answer the social question: How are we as individuals to share a common life together as a nation? It’s a question we’re having a hard time answering today.

How can we find an adequate answer? In Centesimus Annus, his encyclical on the social question, John Paul II directs our attention to “some countries” that in the wake of the Second World War made “a positive effort to rebuild a democratic society inspired by social justice” while endeavoring “to preserve free market mechanisms.” These countries “avoid making market mechanisms the only point of reference for social life, and they tend to subject them to public control which upholds the principle of the common destination of material goods.” Their arrangements set “the conditions for steady and healthy economic growth in which people through their own work can build a better future for themselves and their families.” While not explicitly named, Germany stands as the reference point for the pope’s remarks.

We should not imagine that we can import German policies, past or present. Our national history, economic system, and moral culture require different solutions. But of this I think we can be confident. Catholic and Protestant traditions of social reflection can help us get our priorities straight. They provide resources for thinking again, and in a way ­appropriate to our time and place, about how to sustain a free society capable of real and substantial unity for the sake of the common good. These traditions of social doctrine can help us see our task: to understand how a globalized free market that is eroding solidarity can be shaped into a social market.

Thomas C. Kohler is the Concurrent Professor of Law and Philosophy at Boston College Law School.