Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Warburgs by Ron Chernow

The illustrious history of the Hamburg banking family is chronicled in a hefty volume by Ron Chernow.  The story is really an epic about the Jewish family of Hamburg's third largest bank.  We learn of the trials and sacrifices the befell the Warburgs.  We learn about the effects of assimilation of German Jewry, the attachment to Deutchland and the astonishment felt during the Nazi takeover.  We discover the ill feelings between the Zionists and non Zionist Warburg family.  It is also the story of the American Jewish community at a time when the banking firm, Kuhn Loeb reigned under the leadership of Jacob Schiff and then by his son-in-law Felix Warburg.

I found the relationship that Jacob Schiff maintained with Germany during WWI fascinating and that his position was heavily influenced not only because of his birthplace but also because he wanted to thwart the Anti-Jewish activity in Russia thus supporting the Japanese by underwriting loans to them.  The marriage of his daughter, Freda to Felix Warburg help solidify a true internationalism in banking that was very common before the world was taken over by nationalism.

We are introduced to famous Jewish figures like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion.  In the eyes of the Warburgs, these are negative characters because the Warburgs are unable to appreciate the value and need for a Jewish State.  Their attachment to Germany and America cloud their understanding.  Felix Warburg finds Ben Gurion too dogmatic and extreme to be a diplomat.  He sees Weizmann smooth and highfalutin.  We also find out that Weizmann carried on an affair with Eva Warburg.  We find out that Weizmann really could not stand dealing with the wealthy non-Zionist Warburgs.  He nevertheless put on the charm, persuading Felix Warburg to contribute to the cause of Zionism.

The most stunning part of this epic was how the Hamburg bank survived Naziism. Max Warburg could not believe that Hitler would last and continued to believe in Germany and its people.  The Aryanization of the bank required a name change.  The Warburgs called upon Dr. Rudolf Brinckmann to take over the Bank during the dark years of WWII.  In public the Warburgs praised Brinckmann for leading the bank during those dark years.  They defended him, never calling him a Nazi.  During WWII, the Warburgs moved operations to London and New York.  In Hamburg the bank was called Brinckmann and Wirtz & Co.  What became quite curious was the fact that after the war Brinckmann refused to change the name of the bank back to Warburg.  The 4 years of the war negated the 143 year history of the bank!  Brinckmann did not seem to appreciate that his 4 years at the helm of the bank could not replace what the Warburgs accomplished over the years.  It took Brinckmann's retirement and ultimately his death to add the original name to the bank.

Bringing the bank back to Germany was very important to the family because their attachment to Germany was absolute.  The family was cultured and believed in German culture.  Siegmund Warburg refused to condemn Germans.  He was loyal to his homeland and made great attempts to forgive what happened there. 

This was not true of the American branch.  The Americans could not understand the attachment to Germany in light of what brutality took place there. There was, nevertheless, a great appreciation for America and we learn about the fact that Paul Warburg was really the author of the Federal Reserve.

One interested in Jewish history of the twentieth century should plow through this epic.

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