The (Railroad) Baron

From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses. For centuries, this saying described the historical arc from the biblical Moses to the medieval Maimonides. In the late eighteenth century, Mendelssohn was added to the list of incomparable Moseses, then, in the next century, came the great philanthropists Montefiore and Baron Maurice de Hirsch.

What does it tell us about the Jewish nineteenth century that an idiom originally coined to celebrate the prophet who received the Torah and the legal philosopher who reconceived it was adopted to praise an English gentleman and a cosmopolitan Bavarian aristocrat?  This question is the pivot around which Matthias B. Lehmann’s impressive study of the latter Moses, Maurice (Moses) de Hirsch (1831–1896), turns.

Hirsch’s background was rooted in the old order. His mother, Caroline, was descended from Rabbi Samson Wertheimer, a famous Viennese Court Jew. By contrast, the Hirsches were relative upstarts. Maurice’s grandfather, Jacob, had started out in the cattle trade before moving to high finance. Lehmann retells a famous anecdote in which the king of Bavaria expressed some astonishment at the transition, and the elder Hirsch is said to have replied that it was easy because he “dealt in cattle, but with cattle.” The king was, apparently, amused by the response. In 1818, Jacob even acquired noble status. But it took two decades for the man who now styled himself “von Hirsch auf Gereuth” to secure the rights that came with noble land ownership—and fifty years for his descendants to secure a hereditary title.

As a Jew who had inherited noble pretensions, young Maurice was caught between two worlds. His observant uncle may have been treated to a kosher banquet by Ludwig I in the royal palace of Aschaffenburg, but the 1813 Judenedikt still limited the family’s personal and professional options, so Maurice’s parents sent him abroad to be educated. They chose Belgium, a rapidly industrializing state born out of liberal revolution and epitomizing political and economic promise. It was also a place where German Jewish banking families could be less dependent on princely favor.

In 1855, Maurice married into one of Europe’s leading Jewish banking dynasties. Clara Bischoffsheim had served as her father’s chief secretary; now, she assumed this role for her husband as he blazed a meteoric trail through the Belgian financial world. Hirsch began at Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt but soon struck out independently in partnership with Clara’s brother. Within a decade, he was investing in railroads and negotiating with Bismarck.

Bizarrely, Hirsch also formed an intermittent business relationship with a notorious antisemite. His partner, the financier André Langrand-Dumonceau, was a now-forgotten Belgian who mounted a disastrous attempt to construct a Catholic “financial empire” to counter the “financial power of the Jews.” Both sides approached this relationship with cynicism, but only Hirsch emerged unscathed. (The episode inspired Money, one of Émile Zola’s better novels.) In 1869, with Langrand-Dumonceau under investigation for fraud and extortion, Baron de Hirsch (as he now was) signed an agreement to build the first two thousand kilometers of railroads in the Ottoman Empire. The concession to link Constantinople and Salonika with the Central European railway network had originally been won by his former business partner. It made Hirsch one of the richest men in the world.

In January 1871, massive crowds assembled in the Ottoman capital to witness the departure of Hirsch’s first train. “Five sheep were slaughtered, their blood sprinkled on the rail tracks” as the “highest-ranking Muslim dignitary in the empire . . . offered a prayer.” The baron was waiting proudly at the other end of the line to greet the head of the Ottoman government and introduce him to the railroad staff.

This triumph was far from inevitable. In the world of European finance, Hirsch was still a relatively unknown quantity. Vested interests like the Viennese Rothschilds refused to work with him, perhaps because the line threatened their own railroad undertakings, or perhaps because the massively indebted Ottoman state seemed an unreliable partner. Undaunted, Hirsch set up his own Turkish railroad company, headquartered in Paris, and placed nearly two million Ottoman railroad bonds simultaneously on twenty-eight different stock exchanges.

Baron Maurice de Hirsch in 1888. Abdullah Frères, Constantinople. (Courtesy of Archives Générales du Royaume, Brussels.)

At first, he marketed the bonds aggressively to small investors; later he resorted to so-called lottery bonds, which enabled a few randomly selected bondholders to receive full repayment every two months, plus the chance of a larger prize—all publicized with great fanfare. This form of investment gambling was strictly off limits in Britain and France. It might have been banned in Austria, too, if the chancellor, who knew Hirsch’s father, had not seen the strategic benefits of the new connection with Constantinople. Excluded from Bismarck’s Germany and lacking a colonial empire, the Habsburg state now looked to the Balkans to fulfill its territorial ambitions and what many saw as its historic, civilizing mission.

For the Ottomans, these railroads were a tool in the constant struggle to compete with Christian Europe and maintain centralized control over the Balkan provinces, which were always in danger of slipping away from them. In 1873, when Constantinople celebrated the opening of a further 560 kilometers of track, the Sultan’s new train was the star exhibit. Originally commissioned by Napoleon III and “lavishly decorated with silk and damask,” it featured a unique “harem carriage” for a pair of the Sultan’s wives. The locomotive was “painted in red and white, festooned with . . . pennants bearing the Ottoman crescent.”

Behind the scenes, relations between Hirsch and his clients were less harmonious. There were complaints of shoddy work and the “splendid curves which Baron Hirsch has invented to swell the number of his kilomètres.” Worse still, the Ottoman government began to see Hirsch’s enterprise as a Trojan horse for German interests. Others saw his connections as a sign of competence. In the view of two (German) engineering experts commissioned by Hirsch to counter the government’s negative assessment, “German diligence, German reliability, and German prudence had ensured the project’s success.” But the Ottomans maintained that most of the workers should have been Turks. Hirsch could not be said to have met his obligations to the Sultan simply by painting a crescent on his trains.

The 1870s were catastrophic for the Ottoman Empire. During these years the government repeatedly defaulted on its debts, failed to suppress a series of Balkan uprisings, ineffectually flirted with constitutional liberalism, and entered into a disastrous war that resulted in the loss of vast swaths of European territory. Costly railway lines once designed to shore up Ottoman power now appeared to be a foothold of foreign aggression.

In 1878, the Congress of Berlin approved Austria’s occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That year, Hirsch moved his company’s headquarters from Paris to Vienna. Here no one saw Hirsch as a legitimate agent of Austrian interests; he appeared instead a typically self-seeking Jew.

Locomotive from the Orient Express on display in front of the Sirkeci station in Istanbul. (Photo by Martin Dürrschnabel.)

Looking back in 1890 to the heyday of Austrian economic influence in the Balkans, the Deutsches Volksblatt newspaper lamented the passing of the era before the Crimean War when “Vienna was the most important trading post and intermediary between Occident and Orient: the middle class . . . lived in prosperous comfort, and the employees had their good livelihood.” But the Austrian dream of a railway from Vienna to Constantinople and Salonika had taken too long to reach fruition. Hirsch was hardly to blame for the Ottomans’ loss of enthusiasm. Yet to unsympathetic observers, it seemed that he had seduced the Austrians with his Turkish lottery bonds, while delivering the lucrative Ottoman markets to the British. The Viennese middle class had become impoverished, they maintained, while Hirsch and his Jewish “partners in corruption” became millionaires.

In other countries, they pushed different narratives. For the pan-German activist Paul Dehn, Hirsch represented a “ruthless, predatory, usurious capitalism,” which had betrayed German central Europe. In short, he was Jewish. In France, meanwhile, the socialist antisemitic publicist August Chirac did not fail to blame “a Jew called Baron de Hirsch”—tellingly (but wrongly) described as “a Prussian”—for “the constant troubles in the Balkans” that were “enriching the Jews” but causing suffering for the area’s Christian population.

That Hirsch, a Jew of Bavarian origin whose fortune had been made in Belgium, figured so centrally in the antisemitic discourse of three of the five Great Powers speaks to the European context in which he operated and to the role of imperialism in the emergence of modern political antisemitism. For as Lehmann emphasizes, “it was in the Habsburg Empire—not a nation state at all—and subsequently in Germany, that antisemitic attacks on Baron Hirsch were cast in terms of a betrayal, not so much of the nation, but of the nation’s imperial destiny.”

Hirsch’s own imperialism was—like his life— both cosmopolitan and pan-European. He and his wife belonged to a transnational family, but most of their relatives embraced particular national identities: Belgian, in the case of Clara’s father; French, in the case of Hirsch’s sister Amalia Bamberger, Amalia’s German-born husband Henri, and their children; German, in the case of Henri Bamberger’s brothers Rudolph and Ludwig. The Hirsches, however, enjoyed a truly international existence, moving—by railway—from country to country as they pursued business, pleasure, and prestigious social connections. In this, they mirrored the class they aspired to join, which was never the bourgeoisie of this or that nation but rather the international aristocracy.

And yet at the same time, Maurice clearly felt distinctly Jewish. This became more apparent with the unexpected death of Hirsch’s sole offspring, his bachelor son, Lucien, in 1887. Before then, he had dabbled in philanthropy; now it became his life’s work. “‘My son I have lost,’ Baron Hirsch reportedly declared, ‘but not my heir, humanity is my heir.’”

Here we see perhaps the most striking parallel between Hirsch and Sir Moses Montefiore, the man often called the “fourth Moses.” For both men, the decision to retire from the relentless quest for wealth and embark on a second career in philanthropy coincided with the realization that they would effectively die childless. Nor did the similarities end there. Both men took a deliberately transdenominational approach to giving. This style of Jewish politics had been pioneered in the 1860s by Montefiore and his French contemporary Adolphe Crémieux, best remembered now for his leadership of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

In 1876, for example, the baron dispatched Emmanuel Veneziani, a leading member of the Alliance,to organize humanitarian assistance for the victims of war in the Balkans regardless of religion or nationality. Reporting back to Paris, Veneziani underlined the benefits of this inclusive approach, which had “elevated the Israelite name and given it renewed splendor.” This theoretical impartiality often gave way, in practice, to Veneziani’s natural “sentiment of partiality” toward Jewish refugees, but, of course, the same was true of Christian humanitarians as well.

In any case, Hirsch’s underlying attitude toward Judaism set him apart from those other nineteenth-century Jewish leaders. Montefiore was a pious Jew and a lover of Zion, while Crémieux was a secularist and French nationalist who believed in the Jews’ monotheistic mission to humanity. Hirsch, for his part, was utterly detached from Judaism and never donated anything to Jewish religious institutions or synagogues. One of his personal secretaries summed the situation up well when he quoted him saying, “‘Let others take care of the soul, if they are so inclined, but I will occupy myself with the body.’”

Hirsch made the rationale for this approach clear to an interviewer for the New York Herald in 1889, frankly declaring:

I am a bitter enemy of fanaticism, bigotry and exclusive theology. The Jewish question can only be solved by the disappearance of the Jewish race, which will inevitably be accomplished by the amalgamation of Christians and Jews.

This attitude manifested itself even within his own family. Before Lucien’s death, Hirsch had happily contemplated marrying him into a Christian branch of the British aristocracy. Afterward, he and Clara adopted Lucien’s illegitimate daughter, Lily, and two boys, likely also Lucien’s children. At no point did they seek to raise any of them as Jews—though they apparently favored Protestant over Catholic Christianity.

Hirsch’s early philanthropy had been focused on the Ottoman world so central to his business interests. In 1873, he and Clara made a massive, one-million-franc donation designed to support the educational work of the Alliance Israélite Universellein the Ottoman empire and North Africa—an enterprise that was shaped by perceptions of eastern backwardness and partly driven by French cultural imperialism.

Hirsch certainly believed in European civilization. Yet he came to regret the Alliance’s tendency to prioritize French culture over vocational training. “Every day I see youngsters between 16 and 20 years of age, speaking French very well, who come up to me on the street to ask me for a job,” he wrote from Constantinople in 1888, “and how many of them regret that, rather than knowing foreign languages, they did not learn a manual trade that would afford them a living.”

That experience may have guided Hirsch’s next major undertaking: a twelve-million-franc educational foundation, focused on the Jewish heartlands of Galicia and Bukovina. The foundation was focused on vocational education, with a distinctively Hirschian interfaith agenda. As the baron repeatedly emphasized, the aim of all his humanitarian efforts was “to fight against separatist trends and tendencies among my coreligionists and to prepare the ground for their assimilation with their Christian fellow citizens” by creating “an industrious and physically healthy generation of Israelites in Galicia and Bukovina.”

Interfaith schools like these were a radical proposition: they faced opposition both from higher Hapsburg echelons (mostly for bureaucratic reasons) and from Orthodox Jewish circles. “One Hasidic rebbe,” Lehmann reports, “allegedly decided to uproot and move his entire community of followers to another town when confronted with the opening of one of the Hirsch schools.” Such opposition was not powerful enough to derail the project, but, unfortunately, Lehmann does not explore how effective and widespread it was.

For Hirsch, these schools were, in any case, merely one prong in a larger strategy. In parallel, he had begun, in 1888, to lay the groundwork for an eye-popping fifty-million-franc donation to support a similar educational enterprise in Russia, which would “facilitate a social fusion, which after some generations can lead to a religious fusion.” This was a step too far for the Russian authorities, for whom the idea that Jews and Christians were different and should be educated separately was axiomatic; Hirsch’s utopian plan for radical assimilation in Russia collapsed.

Two years later, the harsh realities of Russian Jewish life prompted Hirsch to change his mind about the European Jewish future, influenced by well-publicized rumors that the imperial government intended to intensify its persecution. In 1891, as the authorities began to expel thousands of Jews from Moscow, Hirsch announced that the moment had come to tackle the Jewish question once and for all. To this end he launched the Jewish Colonization Association. It was to become the largest philanthropic organization in the Jewish world. As Lehmann rightly notes, “European colonialism loomed large over this chapter in the story of nineteenth century Jewish philanthropy.” Hirsch was no Zionist, but he still contemplated purchasing “an entire country, which meets all desirable conditions and where the colonists would become the uncontested owners.” He settled on Argentina. At first, he imagined “a big project,” and by the early twentieth century, Argentina had indeed become, thanks to his largesse, one of the prime destinations for Jewish migrants, less popular than the US and Britain but seemingly far more attractive than Palestine. And yet, the numbers involved were ultimately trivial: by Hirsch’s death in 1896, there were just 6,757 Jews living on 910 Argentinian farms.

What, then, did Hirsch mean for the Jewish nineteenth century of Lehman’s subtitle? To Theodor Herzl, with whom Hirsch famously clashed in 1895, he represented the old world. “A curious day,” Herzl noted in his diary when learning of the baron’s unexpected death. “Hirsch dies, and I establish contact with princes. . . . A new book in Jewish affairs begins.” Lehmann is a subtle thinker, but he does not really dissent from this assessment. Yet he is keen for us to understand that “Jewish philanthropy was not only a private initiative that complemented the actions of the state: increasingly, it took on the role of the state—acted, perhaps, like a state—to reshape the future of the Jews.” Building on the work of Jaclyn Granick and others, that insight helps to explain why Jews in the nineteenth century began to look to rich men like Hirsch and Montefiore as models of Jewish leadership. From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses.

What Lehmann fails to consider is how and why this approach to leadership proved so much less effective than an organization like the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which, like the later Zionist movement, relied on collective action. It is an odd omission, because Lehmann generally depicts Hirsch as a strangely powerless figure, riding waves of history that are driven not by great men but by that triad of abstract nouns—capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism.

Hirsch certainly never saw his life that way (and it is, one should note, a somewhat unusual view for a biographer). Plainly, Hirsch regarded the Ottoman railroads as more than simply a product of broader economic and political forces: they were his personal achievement. And, surely, he understood his philanthropic activity as more than simply a matter of “managing and enhancing the reputation of the Jews.” After all, Hirsch’s own reputation was rather problematic, and if he became a focus for antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews, then it is curious that he appears to have seen the Jewish question in quite different terms than his critics—and to have overlooked entirely the vitriol directed at him in cities like Vienna and Paris where he built his life.

These paradoxes are left largely unexplored in a biographical study filled with brilliant and arresting insights, but ultimately less interested in the baron—that would-be fifth Moses—than the Jewish nineteenth century.


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