The Washington Post

Reading ‘High Financier’

This panoramic biography of Siegmund Warburg reveals a complex man who built international banking in response to the great turbulence of the 20th century. Given access to previously unavailable personal letters and diaries, Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard, spent 12 years profiling this singular man, who was shaped by early-20th-century Prussian Europe and lived through World War I, the rise of Nazism, the dark years of the Holocaust and post-World War II reconstruction. The book's title aptly describes Warburg's "lives," since he reinvented himself in the face of world and personal events. Ferguson artfully weaves Warburg's motives, business environment and family intrigues into the political evolution of Western Europe and the US. getAbstract highly recommends this detailed, readable biography of an extraordinary man.

Family fortunes
Siegmund Warburg (1902-1982) was born into a wealthy family that could trace its heritage to the money-changing and banking businesses of the 1640s. Family tradition held that male members should pool a portion of their wealth and use it as capital for the family business. Thus, family relationships remained cordial as relatives settled in the U.S., Sweden and England. Brothers, cousins and, occasionally, uncles shared power through the generations. A similar structure governed other Jewish family banking empires, including the Rothschilds', a banking dynasty where five brothers built a family fortune two generations before Siegmund's formative years.

The Warburg family entered the banking business in 1798. Around 1900, Siegmund's uncle Max Warburg expanded into international and German industrial bonds to supplement the firm's existing arbitrage and commercial-paper trading business. The branch of the Warburg's bank in Hamburg prospered from 1890 to 1914, the "first age of globalization," during which manufacturing, commodity markets, capital and labor forged new worldwide networks. Hamburg thrived as the largest harbor in the world's fastest growing economy, much to the bank's benefit.

Siegmund's father, Georges Warburg, studied agriculture and was not involved in the family business. In 1901, Georges married Lucie Kaulla, who was from a leading Jewish family. Siegmund was born in Tubingen, 400 miles from Hamburg. Lucie always remained close to her son. She taught Siegmund the German humanism and Jewish beliefs that shaped his career and outlook. Foremost was: "Happiness in life consists in the fulfillment of duties and not desires." Lucie believed in Judaism's traditions and its moral elements, but she was not religiously observant. She stressed attention to detail, and thinking a problem through to ascertain its consequences; she believed in pursuing identified goals relentlessly. Lucie, who died in 1955, instilled in her son a sense of self-discipline and self-examination.

World War I adversely affected the family business, even though Max Warburg--Siegmund's uncle and eventual mentor--helped Germany's financial and diplomatic efforts. Max understood that Germany would be defeated when its submarines attacked neutral shipping, thus bringing the U.S. into the war. Siegmund later wrote that post-World War I events cascaded into "the First World Revolution," which spelled the end of the Romanov, Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and the rise of Bolshevism in Russia. Siegmund came to admire liberal sociologist Max Weber and industrialist Walther Rathenau...

Click here to read on and receive a free summary of this book courtesy of getAbstract, the world's largest online library of business book summaries. (Available through February 23, 2011.)


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