Commentary Magazine

Gold and Iron, by Fritz Stern

Bismarck’s Jew

Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire.
by Fritz Stern.
Knopf. 620 pp. $17.95.

Gerson Bleichröder, Jew, German patriot, and leading banker of his day and country, was Bismarck’s expert for all money matters, personal, political, or national during almost thirty years; he was also Bismarck’s confidential diplomatic agent. But Bismarck was never Bleichröder’s friend. Fritz Stern remarks that in the three lengthy volumes of Bismarck’s memoirs, Bleichröder’s name appears only once, and then in passing with no acknowledgment of any close relationship. In the Junker ethos, which was becoming steadily more “feudal” even as Germany was becoming more modern, money-making was not respectable and Jews were not respectable either; indeed, their status in society was in decline, precipitously so in the 1880’s.

But Bismarck needed sound advice to make money for himself, and to protect his new wealth from the tax collector; and he also needed financial expertise as an adjunct to his own abundant political skills in the realms of both domestic and foreign policy. Bleichröder supplied both. In exchange, Bismarck would allow him to trade (very discreetly) on his grand connection and Bismarck was even willing on occasion to please Bleichröder in his state diplomacy; for example, he put pressure on the Rumanians to concede civil rights to their own Jews—but only to the extent that he happened to need a disinterested excuse for diplomatic coercion meant to achieve quite other goals. But Bismarck did not even try to resist the rising tide of social and political anti-Semitism by committing his own immense prestige against it. And he did not lift a finger to protect Bleichröder from bitter personal attack. He did, however, induce Kaiser Wilhelm to grant a patent of nobility to Bleichröder, who thus became the first unconverted Jew with a “von” to his name.

Bleichröder was not ungrateful, as we may read in one of the thousand-odd letters which form the documentary basis of Fritz Stern’s book:

I hasten to approach Your Highness with the warmly rising sentiments of my gratitude, for after all it was Your Highness who recommended me and my family [Prussian ennoblement was ipso facto hereditary] for this distinction. In all candor I may confess to Your Highness that I am greatly pleased with this distinction for myself and my family, and yet I put the greatest weight on the continuation of Your Highness’s benevolence, for which in most sincere humility I beg you. It will be my life’s task to serve Your Highness at all times in loyalty and devotion. . . .

This was not just the voice of an undignified social climber; the extreme formulations were characteristic of the time and place. Bismarck’s own letter of thanks to Wilhelm for his princely title (quoted on the same page) begins, “To satisfy Your Majesty is an indispensable need of my heart. . . .”

The Germany in which both Bismarck and Bleichröder rose to the heights of their respective professions was advancing rapidly in military power, in wealth, and in all the outward societal attainments, notably in the sciences and the humanities. At the same time, there was a very great regression in the nation’s political life toward a willful obscurantism, of which anti-Semitism was only a part. Truly a reactionary phenonemon, like the witch-craze of the 17th century, the regression of German political life toward a synthetic medievalism was not taking place in spite of the country’s general progress but because of it. The growth of large-scale industry, of rapid communication, of modern commerce, and of education was going too far and too fast for many Germans, and they struck back. Junker, shopkeeper, and uprooted peasant could not destroy railroads, factories, or universities—indeed they were proud of them. But they could strike their blow in the higher realm of the political, and of course against the Jews. As the richest and most visible Jew of them all, Bleichröder was the ideal target, and from his ennoblement in 1872 until his death in 1893 he was to suffer the consequences in every facet of life, public and private.

Fritz Stern writes: “The very term ‘anti-Semitism’ was first invented in Germany in the 1870’s and came to connote a principled unshakable hostility to Jews and the intent to translate this hostility into political action.” It was no longer a question of religious hostility, which conversion could assuage; it was no longer a social detestation that close contact could undermine; it was no longer a matter of economic competition that a rearrangement of affairs could alter into the recognition of mutual interest. Opposition to the Jews was becoming wholly independent of their own human individuality or that of their persecutors. In other words, it was becoming racial, and therefore absolute; it would in the end be satisfied by nothing except the physical removal of the Jews from German life.

Stern is thus describing the phenomenon of Hitlerian anti-Semitism as it first appeared in embryo. But this long book is not an analysis of early anti-Semitism, or a biography of Bleichröder, or a story of his banking house, or a side-view of Bismarck’s career, or an account of 19th-century finance, or a history of Germany in the period. It is all of these things. Adding the vast and almost entirely unexploited data of the Bleichröder correspondence to the established sources, Stern has used all the material and a scholar’s circumstantial erudition to give us an intimate account of Bleichröder, Bismarck, and their world. The book is not strictly ordered chronologically in the obvious scheme natural to biography. Instead, a loose time-sequence alternates with a subject-by-subject categorization. Stern writes very well, in a lively style that alternates short sharp phrases of warning and suggestion with longer and smoother phrases of description. He has a most interesting subject and makes the most of it—except for telling us far too little of the actual banking done by the banker (David S. Landes having made that his own subject in a venture originally cooperative). Historians of the country and period will need the book. The rest of us may simply enjoy it, for neither the sustained analysis nor the accumulation of precise facts interferes with a powerful narrative.

About the Author

Edward N. Luttwak is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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