Commentary Magazine


The Warburgs, by Ron Chernow

Generations

The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family.
by Ron Chernow.
Random House. 820 pp. $30.00.

The history of the Warburg family begins modestly enough in the 16th century when one Simon von Cassel (d. 1566) received a charter permitting him to take up residence as a moneychanger and pawnbroker in the Westphalian town from which his family would later take its surname. His descendants, several of them lay leaders of the Jewish community, moved north from Warburg to Altona on the Elbe River and then, once restrictions against Jewish settlement were removed, to the fast-growing adjacent port city of Hamburg, where in 1798 the banking firm of M.M. Warburg & Co. was established.

Throughout the next century, the family flourished and spread. By 1906, the Jewish Encyclopaedia (an American undertaking which the philanthropist Felix Warburg helped to finance) would enumerate no fewer than 28 localities across four continents where Warburgs had settled, and would list a bountiful 32 different occupations which members of the family had “taken up or married into.”

In his brilliant chronicle of the 20th-century history of this family, Ron Chernow necessarily restricts himself to those Warburgs who have produced the greatest impact on their times. One line of the family stands out among all the others in this regard: the so-called Mittelweg Warburgs (named for the street in Hamburg where they grew up), the remarkable children of Moritz Warburg and his wife Charlotte Oppenheim. These seven children included four cosmopolitan sons who made history.

The first-born, Aby (1866-1929), an omnivorous reader and polymath, straddled genius and madness to become a pioneering art historian who singlehandedly transformed the study of culture. Specializing in Quattrocento Florence, he insisted, contrary to the wisdom of his day, that its art could be understood only in the context of the society and culture that permitted it to flourish. Toward this end, he established, initially for his own use, Hamburg’s magnificent Kultur-wissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (Warburg Library of Cultural Science), a unique collection of books and photographs now housed in the Warburg Institute of London.

Aby’s brother Max (1867-1946), younger by a year, succeeded his father as head of M.M. Warburg & Co., and built it into the foremost private bank in Hamburg. Recognized as a brilliant student of international finance, he advised the German peace delegation at Versailles after World War I, was regularly consulted by Weimar government officials, and served on numerous German corporate boards until forced to resign by the Nazis. He simultaneously provided leadership to German Jewry through his work on behalf of communal organizations and philanthropies. To the end, he battled to sustain what he could of the sinking German-Jewish community, even as he helped emigrants transfer their assets to Palestine. Faced with imprisonment following the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938, he settled permanently in the United States.

Paul (1868-1932), the third son, described by Chernow as “a financial prodigy . . . who made money without especially caring about money,” joined his brother as a partner in the family bank and was one of the first Jews elected to the Hamburg Bürgerschaft (city-state council). In 1902, at the insistence of his American-born wife, Nina Loeb, he settled in New York and became a junior partner in her family’s famous banking house of Kuhn, Loeb. It was, however, not as a banker that Paul subsequently made his reputation, but as a regulator. In the wake of the 1907 financial panic, he became the nation’s leading proponent of central-banking legislation and the behind-the-scenes father of the Federal Reserve Act. Appointed by President Wilson to the new Federal Reserve Board, he quickly became its preeminent member. Insinuations that his loyalty was compromised by his German birth and family ties led Paul to “retire” from the board in 1918; Wilson sacrificed him to avoid a political battle. Settling back into the life of a private banker, he wrote a magisterial two-volume history of the institution he had done so much to create: The Federal Reserve System—Its Origins and Growth (1930).

Felix (1871-1937), the fourth and most jovial of the brothers, was principally a philanthropist, though he too was a banker by trade. When, in 1895, he married Frieda, the only daughter of the American-Jewish banker, philanthropist, and communal leader Jacob Schiff, he became the first of his brothers to settle in the United States. (It was at Felix’s wedding that Paul met Frieda’s young aunt, Nina Loeb; their subsequent marriage confused the family tree by turning Paul into his brother’s uncle.) In America, Felix’s generous nature found its ready outlet in communal service. Chernow describes him as a “philanthropic colossus, a one-man social-welfare agency,” so eager to do good that even his benevolent father-in-law felt constrained to warn him against being “overgenerous.” Countless educational, cultural, and social-service agencies, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, benefited from his time and largesse. In the fifteen years from 1922 to 1937 alone, he and Frieda contributed some $13 million—an amount roughly equivalent to $184 million today—to support more than 200 different charitable causes. In addition, he played a central role in the consolidation of American-Jewish philanthropy, helping to establish both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for relief of suffering Jews abroad, and New York’s local Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. During their first critical years he chaired both of these organizations simultaneously.

The next generation of Mittelweg Warburgs, the grandchildren of Moritz and Charlotte, failed to match its parents’ spectacular achievements. Edward M.M. Warburg, although intermarried, did keep alive the family’s name in Jewish philanthropic circles, and Eric Warburg regained control of the family bank in Germany. But what Chernow says of Felix’s children applies to most of the second generation, and even more so to the third. They seem, he writes, “less rounded, less complete, lacking the energy and drive of their ancestors.” The family’s creative force, Chernow suggests, passed to a different branch, the so-called Alsterufer Warburgs, whose most famous son, Siegmund George, established the English firm of S.G. Warburg & Company.

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In detailing the lives of these and a host of lesser-known family members—their achievements, failures, foibles, even a few closely guarded family secrets—Chernow seeks to clarify the mystery of the German-Jewish community as a whole. The Warburgs, he contends, embodied the essence of that community:

[T]hey exhibited all the enterprise, daring, and philanthropy of the Jewish community in Germany. With their unfailing energy and high spirits, they adored music and literature, light verse and amateur theatricals, elegant parties and outrageous pranks. They financed German industry, influenced its politics, and enriched its culture. . . . [They] also displayed the shortcomings of German Jews. They could be snobbish, arrogant, and status-conscious, especially toward their East European brethren. They were often rigid, authoritarian parents. Superpatriotic and steeped in German culture, they exhibited a fierce, sometimes uncritical, devotion to Germany until it was too late.

Thus, Chernow shows, the War-burgs mirrored German Jewry’s extreme devotion to the Fatherland during World War I. Aby, for example, “supported the war unreservedly to the end and believed that Germany’s cultural superiority guaranteed the country’s triumph.” The larger Jewish community’s ambivalence toward Zionism likewise found its analogue in the Warburg experience. Max, following the lead of his brother Felix in New York, came to espouse non-Zionism: he opposed the idea of a Jewish state yet “viewed Palestine as a possible sanctuary to restore the Jewish spirit.” Meanwhile, akin to many young Jews of her day, his young daughter Gisela fell in love with Zionism, having been converted to the cause by none other than Chaim Weizmann. Lola, her older sister, went Gisela one better: she fell in love with Weizmann and the two maintained an illicit relationship for several years.

Finally, through the lives of the Warburgs, Chernow depicts the tortured efforts of the larger German-Jewish community to grapple with the rise of Nazism. As a leader of the community, Max in particular embodied the conflicts and ambivalences of those terrible times. In Germany he suffered mercilessly as a Jew; outside of Germany he pleaded for an end to the organized Jewish boycott of German goods. Publicly, he facilitated Jewish emigration; privately, he counseled Jews to remain true to their homeland. Alternatively portrayed by historians as either a hero or a villain for his activities during that time, Max was actually neither. Instead, as Chernow effectively demonstrates, he was a victim of his own inner turmoil—at once committed, courageous, and thoroughly confused.

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The ultimate tragedy of the Warburgs, Chernow concludes, lies in their struggle “with an insoluble identity crisis, trying to solve the riddle of who they were.” They sought to “reconcile the contradictions of being Jewish and German, nationalist and internationalist, traditional and modern.” Sadly, Chernow writes,

the world didn’t allow them the luxury of this tolerant cosmopolitanism. In the end, they were forced to choose among clashing aspects of themselves. As with many German Jews, they discovered that it didn’t matter how they defined themselves. In the end, Adolf Hitler would do it for them.

For all of its surface persuasiveness, however, this turns out to be a somewhat flawed analysis. For one thing, it ignores the fact that two of the Warburg brothers, Paul and Felix, settled permanently in America prior to World War I. By 1939 both were dead, and several of their children had intermarried. Eventually, all but one of their children would marry non-Jews; some did so several times over, and among Warburg descendants today there are more Christians than Jews. Surely, Adolf Hitler had no impact on that.

Nor, so far as one can tell, did the Warburgs’ “insoluble identity crisis” or their ongoing struggle to reconcile conflicting identities prove their undoing. If anything, it was the abandonment of that struggle that weakened the cultural fabric of the family. Those Warburgs who actually succeeded in occupying multiple worlds seem, in retrospect, to have been the most creative and successful members of the clan.

Finally, it seems unfair, even in terms of the German Warburgs, to condemn “the world” for having denied the family “the luxury of tolerant cosmopolitanism.” Even if any such “luxury” actually existed (which is doubtful), the German Warburgs paid it no heed. Their real problem, as Chernow properly observes elsewhere—and it was not their problem alone—was that they “didn’t love Germany wisely but too well.”

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