Book Review | Biography of a Baron

By | Oct 17, 2022
Book Review, Highlights, Latest
A portrait of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a balding man with graying head hair and a magnificent mustache.

The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century

By Matthias B. Lehmann

Stanford University Press, 360 pp., $35

Baron Maurice de Hirsch was one of Europe’s wealthiest men, a daring entrepreneur who built the railroad connecting Constantinople and central Europe. He was also a leading philanthropist whose generosity extended to four continents. During his lifetime, American publications, airing his views on charity, compared him to Andrew Carnegie. France’s chief rabbi, officiating at the baron’s funeral in 1896, echoed Jewish leaders in several countries when he equated Hirsch, whose Hebrew name was Moses, with his biblical namesake. Meanwhile, rightists peddling the political brand of antisemitism then gaining traction condemned him as a power-hungry Jew. Socialists held him in contempt as one of the new breed of international capitalists taking commerce global.

Yet Hirsch has largely faded from popular memory, less well known than some of his contemporaries—the Rothschilds and Sir Moses Montefiore, for instance—whose names still resonate. Hirsch, whose only offspring died young, sired no dynasty. His biggest philanthropic enterprise faltered. His radical theory that antisemitism would go extinct only when Jews converted en masse to Christianity flamed out.

Now Matthias B. Lehmann, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, gives Hirsch’s story new life with The Baron. The biography evokes both a charismatic character and a tumultuous era in Jewish history. And readers will savor a poignant paradox: Although Baron de Hirsch renounced involvement in the Zionist movement, aspects of his legacy benefited pioneers in Palestine for decades after his death.

Born Moritz Hirsch in 1831, he was the son and grandson of Bavarian court Jews, the tiny cohort serving as advisers—and lenders—to royalty. Though the king awarded Moritz’s father a hereditary barony, the Jewish emancipation that had started with the French Revolution was moving slowly in central Europe. So the teenaged Moritz was sent west, to Brussels. There he finished his education, changed his name to Maurice and found a wife. Clara Bischoffsheim’s family was wealthy and politically connected. His in-laws helped launch him on an international banking career in which he mastered both finance and diplomacy.

Court Jews of the previous generation were insular operators, each dependent on the goodwill of one sovereign. Hirsch and his peers became transnational figures, able to deal with either an Ottoman grand vizier or a Habsburg cabinet minister as necessary. They could also leverage major philanthropy to the benefit of fellow Jews in less hospitable societies.

In 1869, serendipity prompted Hirsch to evolve from financier to entrepreneur. A consortium assigned to build a railroad from Constantinople through the Balkans to Vienna had gone bust. Hirsch hastened to Turkey and won the concession. Constructing the eastern half of what became the Orient Express would take two turmoil-filled decades. The Turkish officials who started the project had sought modernization through commercial ties with the West. But regime changes, ballooning government debt and loss of a war against Russia combined to tilt the Ottoman Empire eastward.

Meanwhile, market crashes in Vienna and Berlin devalued the railroad bonds Hirsch had sold, mostly in Austria and Germany. Hirsch became a scapegoat for the years of hard times that followed. He had changed from Bavarian to Austrian citizenship to demonstrate a continuing bond with the Habsburgs, but enemies charged him with betraying Austrian interests to the advantage of the French and British. Hirsch was accused of bribing newspapers and public officials to hide his malfeasance. Yet he weathered the controversy. Rail construction progressed and his wealth grew apace.

His riches allowed a lavish lifestyle. The Hirsches and their son Lucian settled in Paris in 1871. The grand fetes they staged attracted both Jewish and Christian gentry. Invitations to Clara’s more intimate salons, and to hunting parties at one of Maurice’s country estates, were much sought after. They acquired another mansion in London, and friendship with the future Edward VII was solidified when Hirsch quietly settled the profligate prince’s debts. Habsburg royals also benefited from Hirsch largess. Such hush-hush support was good for business as well as social standing.

Though constant defenders of Jewish causes, the family was avowedly secular. The welfare of Jews concerned him, Hirsch said, but not Judaism itself. He even urged Lucian to seek a wife among London’s Protestant aristocracy. Instead, the son had a lengthy affair with the young wife of an elderly baronet. After Lucian died suddenly of pneumonia at age 30, his parents learned that they had a two-year-old granddaughter, Lucienne: Their son had conducted a liaison with a French singer. She relinquished custody in exchange for a lifetime annuity, and the Hirsches adopted Lucienne, but she ended up living with relatives in Belgium.

Lucian’s death, in 1887, was a pivot point in Hirsch’s life. “My son I have lost, but not my heir,” he wrote to a friend. “Humanity is my heir.”  He began to extricate himself from the railroad project and focus on good works. He and Clara had always donated to causes large and small, including Christian and Muslim institutions. Now, in the century’s waning years, the plight of Eastern European Jews—those disdained as primitives and “Orientals” even by co-religionists—became his primary concern. The Habsburg provinces of Galicia and Bukovina were home to the empire’s most backward Jewish populations. So Hirsch proposed to underwrite a network of schools that would train Jews and Christians alike in vocational skills, including farming. The offer ignited opposition from all sides: Christians feared gentile farmers would lose their land to Jews, Hasidic rabbis fretted that yeshiva students would abandon the Talmud. Despite the opposition, a version of the plan eventually went ahead.

Russia presented a harder challenge. In January 1889 Hirsch gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Herald, reprinted in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. In it, he amplified his belief that “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.” That process would unfold over generations, starting with enabling oppressed Jews to deal with modernity. Millions in Russia, he said, speak only “a sort of Hebraic jargon of their own. They are frightfully handicapped in … making their way in life.” Hirsch’s solution: a huge expansion of his Galicia scheme. But the Russian Orthodox Church said nyet.

Meanwhile, though, rising turmoil in Russia was sparking new pogroms in cities and shtetls. By 1890, well-founded reports predicted that St. Petersburg would impose further restrictions on all aspects of Jewish life. This would spur increased emigration, which in turn would evoke more antisemitism in Western Europe and America. Jewish philanthropists groped for ways to ameliorate conditions for refugees. Already Baron Edmund de Rothschild had set up an agricultural colony in Palestine. Hirsch, by contrast, sponsored a settlement in Woodbine, New Jersey, starting with 50 prospective farmers.

Much of the Jewish elite, European and American, viewed agriculture as the promised land for their “Oriental” brethren. Ultimately Hirsch decided that only a uniquely large venture would serve, something that, in his words, “might appear fantastic at first sight.” The enterprise would involve acquiring land in a hospitable environment. It would attract large numbers of colonists—perhaps two million over 25 years—who were fleeing oppression and eager to learn farming. They would own their own farms after a transition period. In 1891 Hirsch created the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) with an endowment Lehmann estimates as equivalent to 1.19 billion pounds today. As to venue, Hirsch settled on Argentina, which had ample land and hungered for immigrants.

The difficulties besetting the project were as huge as Hirsch’s hopes for it. He had to replace one chief administrator after another because no one had experience in this unique operation. Drought and locusts diminished crops. JCA recruiters sometimes failed to filter out criminals. Micromanagement from Europe hurt rather than helped. Italian immigrants elsewhere in Argentina were doing relatively well, but they had been farmers in Italy; most of the Russian Jews had not.

By early 1896, there were just 6,757 residents divided among four settlements in Argentina. Many would stay, but recruitment halted for a time. Acknowledging defeat, Hirsch requested that the JCA board revise the terms of the endowment. Instead of being restricted to colonization, the funds could be used broadly “for the benefit of Jewish communities or individuals.” On April 29, the JCA approved the amendment. But nine days earlier, in Hungary, Hirsch had died of a stroke.

Much of the Hirsch philanthropic legacy survived for decades. Clara, until her death in 1900, carried on their tradition in innovative ways. One project, much in her husband’s spirit, was a million-dollar program to assist immigrants in New York City, helping many to relocate to rural areas. The JCA, learning from earlier blunders, used the endowment for focused training projects of modest scope in several countries, and eventually it managed small projects in Russia.

More ironically, despite its patron’s skepticism about Zionism, the JCA recognized the needs of an increasing number of settlers—mostly from eastern Europe—who were striving for new lives in Palestine. The organization set up an experimental farm in the Galilee, pumped fresh resources into an existing agricultural school in Tel Aviv and eventually assumed management of the struggling Rothschild settlements. In the end, Hirsch could claim credit for raising up at least some of his “coreligionists”—if not at the scale or in the venue he had imagined.


 Laurence I. Barrett, formerly Time Magazine’s White House and national political correspondent, is a freelance writer. 

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