Imperial Germany’s Jewish Banker

Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire

by Fritz Stern
Knopf, 620 pp., $17.95

Bleichröder; drawing by David Levine

Gerson Bleichröder rose highest of all Jews in Imperial Germany. He was the Rothschild of Berlin, his wealth second only to Alfred Krupp’s. He was the first Prussian Jew to become a “von” without conversion to Christianity. What carried him to greatness was his association with Bismarck. Bleichröder was Bismarck’s financial agent and adviser for more than thirty years—from the early days when Bismarck was Prussian representative at the Frankfurt Diet until his own death in 1893. He handled Bismarck’s private accounts and directed Bismarck’s investments on a basis profitable to both. Throughout these thirty years Bismarck saw more of Bleichröder than of any minister or diplomat, perhaps more even than of Emperor William I.

To outward appearance Bleichröder enjoyed a political position of incomparable power and a social position of incomparable grandeur. This position had a fatal flaw. Bleichröder was a Jew. Like most German Jews he anticipated that he would be gradually accepted as an equal citizen without abandoning his Jewish faith or character. This did not happen. Prussian noblemen and still more Prussian officers were traditionally anti-Semitic. Even the aristocrats who sought Bleichröder’s financial assistance when they were in trouble spoke contemptuously of him. Even Bismarck’s son Herbert referred to him always as “the filthy Jew.”

In the 1880s a new demagogic anti-Semitism developed and Bleichröder was among its principal targets. Despite his wealth and the power it brought, he remained always a Hausjude—providing essential services but admitted only by the back door. Bismarck alone was above such feelings. There is a characteristic exchange in the period just before Bismarck’s fall. Bleichröder had for once gone against Bismarck’s direction and promoted a Russian loan. Herbert Bismarck wrote indignantly, “When this money-grubbing Semite can earn a few million, then he could not care less what happened to Papa or the Fatherland.” Bismarck scribbled in the margin, “Who would?”

Yet even Bismarck treated Bleichröder as a Hausjude when he came to write his memoirs. There is no mention of Bleichröder in the two volumes of memoirs which were published during Bismarck’s lifetime and only a single casual one in the volume published after his death. Nor did the editors of Bismarck’s letters include any to Bleichröder. It seemed that Bleichröder’s story could never be told. Now rich sources have been revealed. The private archives of the family firm found a refuge in New York. They contain thousands of letters to Bleichröder throughout his career—letters from William I and Leopold II, from German ministers and officials, from the Rothschilds, from Disraeli, and from countless political informants. There were also letters from Bismarck’s wife, from his sons and from his secretaries. Bismarck preferred to communicate his views and wishes only in conversation.

This was only a beginning. David S. Landes and Fritz Stern had access to Bleichröder’s correspondence with the House of Rothschild in Paris and particularly his personal letters to Baron James de…

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