Remembering the Plutocrat and the Diplomat

There’s a grand new building on Berlin’s Museum Island: the James Simon Galerie. Some people think it’s an architectural masterpiece, but the Berliner Zeitung dismissed it as“the most expensive cloakroom in the world.” A dramatic expanse of glossy white stone skirting the river Spree in the heart of the German capital, the James Simon Galerie is, perhaps, both of these things. For it is unquestionably a beautiful building: The sleek white colonnade and imposing stairway echo the classical idiom of the great museums that surround it, but in a chilly, deliberately modern key. And yet it is only an adjunct to them, a place for visitors to enter, buy tickets, leave their coats, and move on. It is a building that towers over you as you approach it. But viewed from across the water, it appears as a sliver of contemporary elegance overshadowed by the massive stone bulk of the Pergamon Museum to which it gives access, a building whose properly monumental scale reflects the drama and ambition of the famous archaeological reconstructions within.

At 134 million euros, the James Simon Galerie is certainly a costly undertaking, one that asserts Berlin’s ambition to be a capital of world culture like London, New York, and Paris. It is the city’s answer to the dramatic glass pyramid that now serves as a gateway to the Louvre, just as the iconic bust of Nefertiti—royal wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten and stepmother to his son, Tutankhamun—is regularly described as “Berlin’s Mona Lisa.”

Portrait of James Simon by Willi Döring, 1901. (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie/Volker H. Schneider.)
Portrait of James Simon by Willi Döring, 1901. (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie/Volker H. Schneider.)

Most things in Berlin speak to the city’s troubled past, and the James Simon Galerie is no exception. James Simon (1851–1932)—the man who brought Nefertiti to Berlin in 1913—was a German Jew. A philanthropic industrialist who made a fortune in cotton, although he had never really wanted to enter the family business, Simon was also responsible for bringing the famous blue-and-gold Ishtar Gate to Berlin over a decade after the Nefertiti bust. Few who have seen the extraordinary reconstruction of what was once the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon (built on the orders of the king who destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem) will ever forget it. Even fewer will appreciate that it was only one among literally thousands of significant archaeological finds brought back to Germany from excavations that Simon helped to finance through the German Orient Society, which was founded in 1898 on Simon’s initiative.

For much of this time, Simon was buying great art—but always with an eye to giving it away. His personal collections of Renaissance and German art were foundational for the creation of what is now the Bode Museum. For an arriviste European state like Wilhelmine Germany, the ability to showcase internationally significant collections of oriental art and antiquities alongside canonical masterpieces provided a country repositioning itself as a major world power with essential cultural capital, much as it does today. The 10,000 objects Simon donated to Berlin’s state museums during the Wilhelmine and Weimar years—even as his business crumbled after the First World War—were a significant part of that endeavor. Unsurprisingly, however, his generosity was excised from public memory by the Nazis. In this—as in the style, if not the scale, of hisgiving—James Simon was not alone.

Visitors enter the James Simon Galerie during the “Long Night of the Museums,” August 31, 2019. (Photo by Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.)
Visitors enter the James Simon Galerie during the “Long Night of the Museums,” August 31, 2019. (Photo by Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.)

To the powers that be in Berlin, the James Simon Galerie is a very conscious attempt to put this right. It is, in the words of Michael Eissenhauer, director-general of the city’s national museums, intended as “a tribute to him and the Jewish bourgeoisie in Berlin,” many of whom gave generously to the state museums in their own right. How many museum-goers will understand it in that way is a different matter.

The reconstructed Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin. (Wikimedia.)
The reconstructed Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin. (Wikimedia.)

For the James Simon Galerie is a vast but empty shell. The minimalism of its neoclassical exterior is reflected in an austere, functional interior. Millions of tourists and Berliners will pass through this building every year as they visit the city’s famous museums, but only a large stone sculpture of a reclining lion hints at the glories within. As for James Simon, it’s unlikely that many will give him a thought.

Lying Lion by August Gaul sits watch in the foyer of the James Simon Galerie, May 2019. (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/David von Becker.)
Lying Lion by August Gaul sits watch in the foyer of the James Simon Galerie, May 2019. (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/David von Becker.)

Visiting this summer, I did not see anyone take the time to identify the massive bronze inscription that outlines the foundational contribution of this “Berlin entrepreneur,
art-collector and philanthropist” to the state museums. Since most of the tourists were foreigners and the inscription is only in German, that may not be surprising. Yet even German tourists will likely struggle to grasp the meaning of this commemorative act. For while Nefertiti features here in the list of Simon’s most significant donations, there is not even a passing allusion to Simon’s Jewishness. The reclining lion—commissioned by Simon’s Jewish contemporary, the liberal newspaper magnate Rudolf Mosse—carries a similarly oblique message. The description refers to the lion’s history of expropriation under the Nazis and subsequent restitution but gives no sense of who Mosse was. Nor does the interactive display in the basement, which outlines the history of Berlin’s state museums, provide enlightenment on either of these issues. A video installation did tell the Simon story at the grand public opening in July, but it was—quite literally—a three-day wonder.


Only the initiated know that if they really want to remember Simon, they should leave the crowds queueing for the Pergamon Museum and make their way along the river to the Bode Museum, the Pergamon’s undervisited sister. Here, in the James Simon Kabinett, they will find a more meaningful act of restitution. Back in 1904 when Simon gave his personal collection of Renaissance art to the state, he stipulated that these works, which he had loved, should be exhibited together in the same room for a hundred years. Needless to say, they were not. Only in 2019 was the collection redisplayed in its original format and location.

The unexpected density of objects; the confusion of paintings, furniture, and sculptures; the magnificent wooden table at the center; and the lack of labels all give this room a warm, inviting quality that even the presence of a few reproductions does nothing to dispel. For the museum’s founding director, Wilhelm von Bode, the domesticity of the room reflected the collection’s origins and its donor’s sensibility. Visitors nowadays may struggle to see a room that includes Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna with Sleeping Child as home-like, yet it does conjure up the taste and culture of a man and a particular historical moment. Leaflets available in English explain the nature of Simon’s original gift and the Nazis’ refusal to honor the museum’s commitment to its most notable “Jewish patron.” By contrast, the failure to provide adequate context for Berlin’s grand gesture denudes the James Simon Galerie of meaning. And herein lies a paradox, since for contemporary Germany, the significance of this gesture lies precisely in Simon’s Jewishness.

Without the terrible memory of Germany’s Nazi past, it is unlikely that the city would have thought to remember James Simon so emphatically. Other Jewish donors gave generously to great national museums elsewhere in Europe, yet their generosity is now largely forgotten. The German-born chemist and industrialist Ludwig Mond, for instance, left 42 Renaissance masterpieces to the National Gallery in London, including paintings by Raphael, Titian, Bellini, and Cranach. Like Simon, he wanted them to be displayed together, and in 1928, a special room was built for this purpose at the expense of his estate. But after the Second World War, the National Gallery chose to break up the Mond bequest, and few now recall its existence. Edmond de Rothschild, too, left his peerless ensemble of great master drawings to the Louvre, which also benefited from the generosity of his cousins Adolphe and Adèle. Meanwhile, 150 French museums received some sort of gift from Edmond’s brother Alphonse as part of a systematic program of cultural decentralization that enriched around half of the country’s museums. As Tom Stammers rightly remarked, “The Rothschilds did not so much buy into French civilization as constitute it through their munificence.” While this generosity is not exactly forgotten (it is the subject of a recent monumental three-volume work edited by Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy), few of the millions who visit the Louvre associate it with Rothschild philanthropy.

Did the Jewishness of these men matter? They would undoubtedly have hated to think that it did. Men like Simon, Mond, and Edmond de Rothschild chose to give to great national museums because they identified with Germany, Britain, and France—and because they valued the prestige that came through association with these institutions: It symbolized, among other things, a precious kind of acceptance. Nor was their generosity uncontroversial. Back in the early 1900s, antisemitic voices did not hesitate to denounce Bode, the Berlin museum director with whom Simon worked closely for decades, for cultivating a clique of Jewish donors to whom he extended cultural respectability and commercial opportunities. The idea of belonging to a specific category of “Jewish patron” would have been abhorrent to these men. (Historians, of course, may well conclude that this is precisely what they were.)

Nowadays, of course, we share these sensibilities: first because the liberal project of citizenship supposedly renders Jewishness irrelevant, and second because, in a post-Holocaust Europe, the idea of publicly flagging an individual as Jewish seems distasteful, to say the least—a return to 1941, as one French museum administrator once memorably told me. But while this desire to avoid “essentializing Judaism” may be understandable, it is surely out of place in a city like Berlin, where memorials to victims of the Shoah feature so prominently. By and large, this is a place where dead Jews are remembered precisely because they are dead Jews.

There is a more fundamental point here, however. If we celebrate the German patriot but not the German Jew, we miss the essence of James Simon as a man and as a philanthropist. He was a social philanthropist as well as a donor to Berlin’s museums and a sponsor of archaeology in what he and his contemporaries called the orient. From the 1880s onward, Simon took an active interest in a wide range of initiatives to improve the lot of Berlin’s lower classes. He regularly gave a third of his annual income to charity. Holiday camps and convalescent homes for the young, care homes for children at risk of exploitation, even a remarkably elegant swimming pool in the city center that somehow survived the war: All these were the fruits of his generosity. And like other members of his Berlin Jewish circle—Rudolf and Emilie Mosse, for instance, or Franz von Mendelssohn—Simon’s generosity was humanitarian not just in its aims but also because it explicitly benefited all Berliners. Yet this was a period when Jews faced specific challenges, particularly in Eastern Europe. Simon, an active member of the Berlin Jewish community, became a leading figure in the world of international Jewish philanthropy before and during the First World War. In this, of course, he had much in common with other members of the Jewish superelite who gave so generously both to national museums and to local social causes.

Paul Nathan in his library with the bust of Ludwig Bamberger, 1917.  (Photograph from Paul Nathan, Politik und Humanität, Ein Lebensbild, by Ernst Feder.)
Paul Nathan in his library with the bust of Ludwig Bamberger, 1917.  (Photograph from Paul Nathan, Politik und Humanität, Ein Lebensbild, by Ernst Feder.)


Jewish historians—who may never have encountered Simon—might be familiar with his close friend Paul Nathan, founder and long-serving director of the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, a Jewish solidarity organization and German counterpart to the French Alliance Israélite Universelle. Like the Anglo-Jewish activist Lucien Wolf, with whom he collaborated, Nathan was a liberal political journalist who made a second career as a Jewish diplomat. He worked behind the scenes with the German Foreign Office to foster the Hilfsverein’s agenda, negotiated with Russian ministers during the revolution of 1905, led the campaign to disprove the blood libel, and initiated humanitarian initiatives on behalf of Jews in Eastern Europe and Palestine before and, more importantly, during the First World War. But Germany’s defeat in 1918 consigned Nathan to diplomatic irrelevance at the Paris Peace Conference, and only a handful of scholars now remember his name.

I cannot recall ever coming across Simon’s name in the scholarship on Jewish internationalism. Yet he was, in fact, a cofounder of the Hilfsvereinand remained closely involved with it for even longer than Nathan. The social worker Salomon Adler-Rudler, who played a crucial role in developing welfare services for Jewish migrants in interwar Berlin, recalled, “Although both men were small, Nathan was much the sturdier of the two; Simon, by contrast, appeared almost fragile. Nathan remained the driving force until his death in 1927, whereas Simon kept himself in the background.” In short, the two men operated as a double act.

The reconstructed James Simon Kabinett in the Bode Museum, 2019. (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Antje Voigt.)
The reconstructed James Simon Kabinett in the Bode Museum, 2019. (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Antje Voigt.)

Such partnerships between members of the Jewish superelite, like Simon, and Jewish diplomats, like Nathan, were an essential structural feature of these big international Jewish philanthropic organizations: The plutocrats bankrolled the diplomats. Simon also worked with Nathan to establish the Technion in Haifa, Israel, a scientific institute in the German mold that remains a beacon of Israeli science—he contributed 100,000 marks to the cost, and the land on which it was built was purchased in his name.

But Simon was more than just a financial backer for the Hilfsverein, which raised a total of 47 million marks for Eastern European Jews in Russia and Palestine between 1901 and 1918. His wealth and social status gave him contacts with the Prussian elite, which Nathan—a campaigning liberal journalist with unrealized political ambitions—lacked. Thus, Simon cultivated a friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm, which, although too weak to elicit a public expression of support in the growing climate of antisemitism in 1914, was sufficiently warm for the exiled emperor to send a wreath to Simon’s grave in 1932. Wilhelm even suggested appointing him to the Prussian Upper House—a suggestion Simon refused for fear of stimulating antisemitism. Unsurprisingly, then, it fell to Simon to liaise with the Foreign Office over the Hilfsverein’s activities and periodically seek its support.

Perhaps it is precisely this closeness to the German establishment that explains Simon’s absence as a significant figure in studies of this period in Jewish history. Paul Nathan does appear in studies of the Hilfsverein. Paul Nathan: Publizist, Politiker und Philanthrop 1857–1927 by Christoph Jahr is the first scholarly biography of this important figure. Beforethere had been only the intimate but uncritical pen-portrait published two years after Nathan’s death by his protégé, the German Jewish journalist Ernst Feder. It seems extraordinary that Jahr’s biography of Nathan, which is admirably concise, had to be actively commissioned by the James Simon Stiftung at very considerable cost as part of its campaign to revive the memory of Simon’s friend. For it is clear that Nathan led an important and amply documented life.

Jahr consulted both parts of Nathan’s extensive personal archive—not just the half in Berlin, but the other, much less accessible half in Moscow. This enabled him to bring the man to life in a way I would have thought impossible, at once admiring of his very considerable humanitarian achievements but aware that he was difficult, nervy, and by no means always likable.

Nathan was devoted to his mother, with whom he continued to live as an adult. He also had a long relationship with Hedwig Böbel, a woman of lower social status. After his mother’s death, he saw Böbel almost daily. At first, Nathan hid her from his acquaintances; then, once she began to visit his home, he resisted her attempts to extract money from him. Finally, he dropped her altogether after she caught a sexually transmitted disease from one of her other (secret) lovers.

Paul Nathan is divided into five sections: “Time and the Man,” “Journalist,” “Politician,” “Philanthropist,” and “Legacy.” This thematic approach might have reinforced the tendency to situate Nathan within two entirely separate historiographies: on the one hand, the literature on international Jewish relief before, during, and after the First World War; and on the other hand, the literature on the decline of German liberalism in the postunification era. Instead, it brings them together, for Nathan was a pivotal figure in both international Jewish relief and German liberalism as it declined.

He played a key part in the international struggle against antisemitism and internationally coordinated efforts to relieve the crisis faced by Russian and Polish Jews in an age of pogroms, war, and revolution. Yet he was also a central player in the left-liberal milieu of Wilhelmine Germany. A close collaborator of Theodor Barth, a leading figure on the Berlin city council, and one of the founding members of the German Democratic Party in 1918, Nathan eventually switched his allegiance to the Socialists and died—like many other members of his circle—a disappointed man in 1927. The sense that a generation of brilliant liberal talents had been blocked from fulfilling their potential was widespread at the time; Jews like Nathan felt it particularly acutely.

Nowadays, historians are aware principally of his humanitarian activities, and in the long term, they were much more significant. But the truth is that Nathan’s liberal activism came first: Only once he recognized that a parliamentary career was impossible and that the political journal to which he had dedicated his life was failing did he devote himself full time to Jewish activism and diplomacy. Jahr’s portrait of Nathan bridges both dimensions of his life and allows us to see the connections between them. It is precisely these connections that are missing from the one-sided picture of James Simon presented at the gallery that bears his name.

Jahr notes that Nathan is a forgotten figure in Israel, although he did much to shape the emerging Yishuv, not just through the Technion but also through a network of Jewish schools that, although they taught German, were instrumental in spreading Hebrew as a language for everyday use. This is a country forever building, yet not a single street carries Paul Nathan’s name. As a German Jew who opposed Zionism, his memory sank without a trace. The same was, until recently, true of Simon in Germany. The James Simon Galerie may have transformed this situation, but it still tells less than half the story. Simon was a German patriot, but he was also a German Jew—and, in a way absolutely typical of his milieu, he was as profoundly Jewish as he was German. In the early 20th century, it was possible for Jews such as Simon and Nathan to be both passionately committed to the German nation-state and Jewish internationalists in the modern sense of the word. In failing to recognize this fundamental truth, the James Simon Galerie is simultaneously a very high-profile official act of commemoration and an act of erasure.

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