Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Familyby Ron Chernow, Marty Asher (Editor)
Bankers, philanthropists, scholars, socialites, artists, and politicians, the Warburgs stood at the pinnacle of German (and, later, of German-American) Jewry. They forged economic dynasties, built mansions and estates, assembled libraries, endowed charities, and advised a German kaiser and two American presidents. But their very success made the Warburgs lightning rods for anti-Semitism, and their sense of patriotism became increasingly dangerous in a Germany that had declared Jews the enemy.
Ron Chernow's hugely fascinating history is a group portrait of a clan whose members were renowned for their brilliance, culture, and personal energy yet tragically vulnerable to the dark and irrational currents of the twentieth century.
“Excellent. . . . An enthralling story, told with a novelist’s zest.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Splendid. . . . Chernow does a wonderful job fleshing out the lives of the major characters in this family drama.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[Ron Chernow] has surpassed himself in this absorbing chronicle.” —The New Yorker
“This is grand-scale scholarship. . . . It is all here, along with so much of the painful, tumultuous history of our time, all in one splendid book.” —David McCullough, author of The Wright Brothers
“Ron Chernow’s blockbuster history traces the heart-rending saga of this German-Jewish banking family. . . . Despite his scrupulous documentation of sources, Chernow is never less than readable. A graceful and lucid writer, he offers old-fashioned narrative in the grand style.” —Newsday
“The history of a fascinating family. . . . What we learn about in this book is people. . . . Chernow is very good at bringing them to life. He has a sharp eye for detail. . . . One can open the book anywhere and enjoy it.” —The New Republic
“Ron Chernow . . . has made the stories of these four brothers the cornerstones of a dark, though not quite tragic, family saga. [He is] a graceful writer with an eye for the telling anecdote. . . . The result is a book of considerable pathos and immediacy. . . . Through his portrait of this complex dynastic organism, he sheds interesting light on various larger historical themes.” —The Boston Globe
“Excellent family history. . . . This chronicle of one of the most important banking families in history tells us much about the people. . . . A great, and lengthy, saga.” —The Times (London)
“The Warburgs stand revealed as a family more fortune-kissed, fated and fascinating even than the Kennedys, and . . . just as important . . . and now their story has been ably told.” —The New York Daily News
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Read an Excerpt
Jews settled as far north as the Rhineland after the Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70. Far from feeling alien, these winegrowers and craftsmen felt rooted in Germanic soil. But their pastoral idyll was shattered by the religious zealotry of the eleventh century. Butchered by the Crusaders, they were expelled from their farms and forced into moneylending. During the Black Death, roving flagellants cursed the Jews for supposedly causing the bubonic plague by poisoning wells. They were also periodically accused of draining blood from Christian children to bake unleavened Passover bread-the so-called blood libel. Like dark, disturbing figures from a grim fairy tale, the Jews would secretly linger on in the German psyche as ghouls tricked out in civilian clothes. This legacy would lie dormant, but never dead, in the culture.
The Warburgs sometimes claim to be Sephardic Jews and fancifully trace their genealogy back to medieval Italy. But the first certifiable ancestor appears in I 559, when Simon von Cassel moved from Hesse to the Westphalian town of Warburg, which was founded by Charlemagne. This picturesque walled town had four stone watchtowers that loomed over a maze of crooked cobbled streets, Romanesque churches, and half-timbered houses. The original Warburg house, built in 1537, still stands.
Imported by the Prince-Bishop of Paderborn, who granted him a Schutzvertrag or protective charter, Simon worked as a money changer and pawnbroker. Stymied by the Church prohibition against lending money at interest, noblemen conveniently recruited Court Jews to sin in their stead and stimulate trade. This created a rare historic case of a minority being segregated in a profitable job ghetto. Still a patchwork of three hundred kingdoms, citystates, principalities, and duchies, "Germany" needed Jewish money changers to exchange currencies among these polities. In the popular mind, Jewish bankers deftly exercised a sinister form of black magic, engendering an explosive mixture of envy and resentment.
Court Jews belonged to a special caste and occupied a paradoxical position. (The Warburgs were, strictly speaking, a minor species of Court Jews called Schutzjuden or "protected Jews.") However prosperous, they survived at the sovereign's sufferance and could be repudiated whenever debts grew too burdensome. They hung from a golden thread, suspended between gentiles above and Jews below. What anxious tremors fluttered beneath the comfortable air? For ten years, the Schutzvertraq guaranteed the religious freedom of Simon, his family, and servants. Yet they still paid a higher tax rate than that levied upon Christian residents. While Simon hosted the local synagogue in his home, Jewish corpses had to buried safely beyond the town walls in a special cemetery.
No innate cleverness about money pushed Jews toward finance. Barred from crafts by medieval guilds and from farming by local ordinances, they were shunted into trade or moneylending by default. In Warburg, they couldn't brew beer, sell shoes or clothing. Like many supposedly "Jewish traits," moneylending was artificially created by anti-Semitic barrierseven if anti-Semites later loudly decried "financial strangulation" by the Jews.
The Warburgs had settled in a tolerant town that didn't force them to listen to missionary preachers. They were never penned into ghettos at night or stigmatized by having to wear yellow badges, as in Frankfurt and other sixteenth-century cities. Because they were spared the psychic scars of early persecution, they would move about with extra self-assurance. Yet their background as protected Jews left them with a contradictory legacy. Dependent upon official patronage, Court Jews identified with authority figures who safeguarded their privileged status and they were always warily respectful of the state. More cultured and educated than ordinary Jews, they acted as community elders and felt deeply responsible for poor Jews. Simon's grandson, Jacob Simon Warburg, headed the Jewish community in the Paderborn bishopric, had the town synagogue in his home, and mediated between Jews and the prince. This ambiguous, hybrid status-neither totally Jewish nor gentile-contributed to the deeply schizoid Warburg character.
The town of Warburg was sacked during the Thirty Years' War, riled by religious fanaticism, and then struck by plague in 1666. The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 severed sea access for the small German states, starving inland trade. All this probably explains why, in 1668, Simon's great-grandson, Juspa-Ioseph, moved north while retaining the name "von Warburg." (Before their nineteenth-century emancipation, German Jews couldn't take surnames, so sometimes adopted their hometown names.) [uspa-Ioseph settled in Altona on the Elbe River, which flowed into the North Sea only seventy miles away. (He had been preceded by his son, Jacob Samuel, who moved there in 1647.) At the time, Jews couldn't live in Hamburg, even if they worked there, so they resided instead in Altona, a separate principality under relatively benign Danish rule. The Danes granted the Jews ample liberties, including the right to their own schools, cemetery, and synagogue.
Dropping his "von," Juspa-Ioseph became plain Warburg. His northward move was momentous: This maritime setting endowed the Warburgs with a cosmopolitan air that must have been quite liberating after provincial inland Germany. On the Blbe, the Warburgs operated in a wide commercial world; Old merchant families launched rich argosies to prosperous port cities of the medieval Hanseatic League and. this northern seaside world tied residents closely to London, Amsterdam, and other foreign cities as well. The Altona and Hamburg Jews forged strong links to their cities and, by 1668, the first Warburg was buried in an Altona cemetery.
In 1773, Juspa-Ioseph's descendant, Gumprich Marcus, moved to neighboring Hamburg, a thriving city-republic with its own merchant flag, foreign consulates, and military defense. The Dutch-looking town was crosshatched with canals, lined with tall, slim houses, and topped by pointed gables. Special cannons boomed warning of high tides that periodically flooded the town. Europe's bounty passed through the harbor: fish bound for Scandinavia, wool for Flanders, fur from Russia. LikeBremen, Hamburg had elected councils and other quasi-democratic institutions missing in the backward, landlocked duchies. Not only would the Warburgs be anchored in this port city, but its tolerant civic culture would represent their Germany during the worst throes of nationalistic unreason. But although Hamburg had no ghetto, its Jews did remain fenced in by unseen barriers, assigned to certain streets. Even there, the Jews couldn't buy houses or own property but had to rent their lodgings from Christian citizens.
In 1798, Gumprich Marcus bequeathed his money-changing, pawnbroking firm to his two eldest sons, Moses Marcus and Gerson. They expanded it into a bank named M. M. Warburg & Co. which mostly brokered bills. The bank could not have been better located. Hamburg, renowned as a safe haven, profited from turbulence in neighboring countries. During the French Revolution, noblemen stashed funds there for safekeeping and Amsterdam businessmen fled there to circumvent Napoleon's Continental Blockade.Hamburg jealously guarded its neutrality, since business was its secular religion. This single-minded devotion to material betterment would insulate it from political frenzy even as it created a certain smug, philistine complacency that would be the bane of some later Warburgs. If wealthy Hamburg burghers never reached for the sky, neither did they crawl in the mud.
The Warburg family often spawned contrasting types, and Moses Marcus and Gerson were the first such paired opposites. One embodied the family's solemn sense of duty and the other its free-spirited conviviality. With his thick shock of hair and cautious gaze, Moses Marcus was the steady, decisive brother, the Orthodox Jew and community leader, who subsidized publication of sacred Jewish works. He and his family lived above the Peterstrasse bank. The bald Gerson was a cheerful, uninhibited bachelor, irreverent and fun loving. When a relative visited Hamburg, Moses Marcus duly took him to synagogue, while Gerson spirited him off for a lively evening at the music hall.
For thirty years, the brothers squabbled bitterly. Beforehis death in 1801, the ailing Gumprich drafted a will to reconcile his sons. "Never part," he intoned. "Only through unity will you be strong and will your business flourish.... Mark my last words and admonitions."! Ignoring their dying father's injunction, the brothers fought on. At one point, they didn't speak for a year, if legend is to be believed. At the Hamburg stock exchange, they turned from each other in so rhythmic and reflexive a manner that people said it resembled a nimble square dance. Brokers would buy foreign exchange from one brother, then sell it to the other at a higher price. But in one area they agreed: Neither brother severed his Jewish roots, which was then unthinkable. When Moses Marcus and Gerson drew up their first partnership agreement in 1810, it was written in German with Hebrew lettering and dated 20 Sivan 5570 by the Jewish calendar.
From 1806 to 1814, Hamburg was occupied by Napoleon's troops and effectively annexed to France. For gentile residents, the occupation lacked redeeming features, since the new authorities levied heavy taxes and confiscated property owned in Hamburg by the British. The Jews, however, were in a quandary since the French Revolution had emancipated the Jews while Napoleon had liberated Italian ghettos. In fact, the otherwise brutal French reign proved something of a honeymoon for Hamburg Jews, who briefly enjoyed rights equal to other citizens and could buy houses and property in once-taboo streets.
In 1812, the French tried to extort five hundred thousand francs from the Jewish community by arresting Gerson and interning him with other wealthy Jews on the Liineburg Heath. Relieved to be rid of Gerson, Moses Marcus stalled in paying his ransom and only capitulated under extreme duress from the Jewish community. By one account, he greeted his brother's release with the retort, "Why don't they keep him for goodl'? Meanwhile, in prison, the sociable Gerson learned French and tried to drum up business with the military government.
Ultimately, the occupation damaged the Jewish community by fomenting in its wake a new nationalism heavily laden with Christian overtones. These nationalists glorified German peasants and the medieval past and were distinctly xenophobic and hostile to diversity-traits that would unfortunately persist in the culture. And when the French left, the Jews surrendered their newly won rights. In 1814, Moses Marcus joined a committee that futilely tried to perpetuate these fleeting freedoms acquired under French military rule. Instead, the Hamburg Jews experienced in 1819 the six-day pogrom of the so-called "Hep Hep" riots, instigated by exclusionary guilds that felt threatened by Jewish competition: In Frankfurt, mobs attacked the Rothschild house.
Gerson and Moses Marcus never called a truce in their private civil war. The friction between them surely sharpened when Gerson fell in love with Sara, the strikingly beautiful daughter of Moses Marcus. She was only fourteen, and Moses Marcus must again have been outraged by the irresponsibility of his insouciant, devil-may-care brother who had found fresh ways to offend him.
When Gerson died in 1825, Moses Marcus faced a crisis that sporadically confronts every banking dynasty: he had no male heirs. With his sizable 250,000 Mark Banco fortune, he was ready to furnish a magnificent dowry for Sara: a partnership stake in the bank for any future son-in-law. Sara, a romantic young woman, must have been delighted to receive a marriage offer from her first cousin, Elias Simon Warburg, who had blue eyes, thin blond hair, and a handsome, sensitive, dignified face. But Moses Marcus and his wife, Rosa, thought they were too closely related. In 1829 they arranged for Sara to marry her queer-looking, slit-eyed second cousin, Aby Samuel Warburg, who thereby became a bank partner." Aby seems the one man in Hamburg for whom the hot-blooded Sara felt no amorous attraction, and it must have been a jolting initiation into the hard realities of a banking family.
Meet the Author
Ron Chernow’s bestselling books include The House of Morgan, winner of the National Book Award; The Warburgs, which won the George S. Eccles Prize; The Death of the Banker; Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Washington: A Life, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and Alexander Hamilton, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and adapted into the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton. Chernow has served as president of PEN American Center and has received seven honorary doctoral degrees. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Ron Chernow narrates with panache the riveting tribulations of the Warburgs, a prominent Jewish banking dynasty emerging in Germany in the sixteenth century. The author does an outstanding job in switching back and forth between the Alsterufer Warburgs and the Mittelweg Warburgs, the two rivaling branches of the Warburgs. Ron Chernow indeed vividly recasts the numerous actors of that saga against the economic, political and social backdrop of their time. The author brilliantly helps his readers understand the painful dilemma that many German Jews, keener and keener on assimilation into Germany, faced especially under the Weimar Republic and then under Nazism. Ron Chernow also underlines how several Warburgs emigrating outside Germany had a positive influence on the unfolding of some key domestic and overseas events. Ironically, M.M. Warburg & Co., the German cradle of the banking dynasty that Nazism and then internal infighting almost torpedoed with success, is the only one to remain independent today. M.M. Warburg & Co. is Germany¿s second largest private bank. S.G. Warburg is now part of Union Bank of Switzerland while Warburg Pincus, successor of E.M. Warburg, belongs to Credit Suisse.
This biography of a family reads like one of those big, fat, family sagas they used to make miniseries out of . Its cast of "characters" is vast and every one of them is memorable. This is an engrossing read.