The plot of Ayn Rand’s controversial 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged couldn’t be more relevant to Germany as the European financial crisis unfolds—or so contends a young Munich executive, Kai John, who has published a new translation of the libertarian classic. In the novel, the brightest and most productive citizens (i.e. the Germans!) deeply resent having to support the weaker members of society and rebel, leaving society in tatters, a fate that could befall the Continent if Angela Merkel and the German parliament refuse to bolster the European Union’s straggling economies. A series of bailouts has left John, 36, a vice president at a multinational financial services company, feeling like Rand’s hero, John Galt: “The time is here to make Germans aware that collectivism has its limits.”
Though the book has always sold well in the U.S.—it broke its own annual sales records as recently as 2009—Atlas Shrugged has been hard to come by in Germany, and John decided late last year that that needed to change. He grew up in Hamburg, and after watching Dead Poets Society on television, asked to be sent to boarding school in England. He read Atlas Shrugged for the first time while studying at Oxford. “It opened my eyes,” John says. “It basically put into words all the feelings that I have but couldn’t express.” He reread the book in 2011, as the financial crisis in Europe gathered steam, and went looking for copies to give German friends, only to discover that the two existing translations were out of print; used copies were fetching more than €300, or $364.75. Immediately seeing a business opportunity and political calling, he decided to invest his nights, weekends, and life savings, “a six-figure sum,” to put out Der Streik, an homage to Rand’s working title, The Strike.
“The Germans are living it,” says Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute in California. But bringing Randian ideals to Germany, Brook predicts, will be harder than just publishing a fresh translation. The novel, Brook says, never caught on in Europe, with the exceptions of Britain and parts of Scandinavia. The Germans, he says, might find the book too simplistic. “The way [Germans] understand reality is through complexity and difficulty,” he says.
Ten years ago there weren’t more than 10 or 20 people in Germany who considered themselves libertarians, according to David Schah, an editor at Germany’s only journal for libertarian ideas, eigentümlich frei. But he sees Der Streik as a potential boon. “If in the U.S. Ayn Rand was a gateway drug for libertarianism, then the same thing could happen in Germany,” he says.
For now, the only hope for German Rand devotees is Frank Schäffler, a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) delegation in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. Schäffler, who brought Der Streik with him on vacation this year, was among the minority of Bundestag members who voted against a bailout package for Spanish banks on July 19.
It’s hard to imagine Angela Merkel advocating Randian solutions anytime soon. In articles about the new translation, the German press has largely written off the book as a bizarre American import. The best thing a German libertarian can hope for at the moment is some personal success as an entrepreneur. John has already sold most of his first press run of 5,000 copies, retailing at €39.90 ($48.50), and is planning to order a second run before the end of the year. He’s on track to recoup his life savings and turn a profit. “I think personally that it is important for the book to be accessible to the German-speaking world,” he says. “And I strongly believe that it is liberty rather than collectivism that leads to a good life. Nobody aside from Ayn Rand has put this into the plain words that the ordinary Joe can understand.”