Jul 08 2009

Gold and Iron, by Fritz Stern

“This is a book about Germans and Jews, about power and money. It is a book focused on Bismarck and Bleichröder, Junker and Jew, statesman and banker, collaborators for over thirty years. The setting is that of a Germany where two worlds clashed: the new world of capitalism and an earlier world with its ancient feudal ethos; gradually a new and broadened elite emerged, and Bismarck’s tie with Bleichröder epitomized that regrouping. It is the story of the founding of the new German Empire, in whose midst a Jewish minority rose to embattled prominence. It is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record largely told by contemporaries, in thousands of hitherto unused letters and documents. It is also the story of the fragility of that Empire and its ruler, of its hidden conflicts, and of the hypocrisy which allowed a glittering facade to cover the harsh and brutal facts below. The ambiguity of wealth — its threat to tradition and its promise of mobility — is part of this record, and so is the anguished ambiguity of Jewish success, so striking, so visible, so delusive. It is a study of a society in motion, and mobility was its essence and its trauma. …”

“The two men and the form of their collaboration also symbolized the anachronistic forms of Germany’s modernization. The great themes of the nineteenth century — the impact of capitalism, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, nationalism and imperialism, the rise of Jewry and of its nemesis, the new anti-Semitism — were reflected in their work. It is the intersection of their lives that affords a new perspective on their era and a view of a living society to set against the generalities and abstractions of received opinion.
“Bismarck’s work is known — or thought to be known. A monumental hero, a brooding presence to generations of Germans, Bismarck has been studied many times, but his relations with Bleichröder have, until recently, been excised. Bleichröder was a household word to his contemporaries, connoting enormous wealth, power, and mysterious influence. But Bleichröder faded from consciousness with his death, although his career had a decisive bearing on Bismarck’s life and on the course of German history. …
“Gerson Bleichröder, the chancellor’s banker, rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of German society; often called the German Rothschild, he was the first Prussian Jew to be ennobled without converting to Christianity. His rise dramatized the power of money and the limits of that power; it showed the hostility that money and mobility engendered. …
“Bleichröder’s career mirrored the pervasiveness of capital: its influence on policy and public opinion and it attractiveness to an elite that seemed to forswear it. As his confidant, Bleichröder had immediate access to Bismarck. He was in charge of the chancellor’s fortune, and he was given, and he sought, political assignments requiring his particular mixture of expertise and discretion. Europe knew him as Bismarck’s secret agent, and his diverse roles give us a new view of Bismarck’s reign and of the governing class of Germany at a time when the Reich became the dominant power of the continent. …
“Bleichröder’s career illuminates those aspects of Bismarck’s role previously slighted or ignored. It shows that Bismarck in the public and private realm fully understood the magnitude of money and that even in his much-vaunted and much-studied diplomacy economic weapons as instruments of policy were nver far from his mind. He had learned his lesson early: he needed funds to wage the first two wars of unification, funds that the parliament he defied refused him and that Bleichröder helped to raise.”

Fritz Stern’s book delivers everything promised in his introduction.

“For all his importance and prominence, Bleichröder has remained an ‘un-person’ in German historiography. Bismarck loomed in superhuman dimension; at recent [Gold and Iron was first published in 1977] reckoning, over 7,000 works have appeared about him. This is the first study of Bleichröder. It may be pardonable exaggeration to say that Bleichröder is everything that has been left out of German history.
“For a long time the memory of Bleichröder was an embarrassment. He represented so many lingering taboos — money-grubbing, influence-peddling, Jewish-ness. Even in his lifetime, it was his vilifiers who magnified his role and power; the elite whom he served preserved a decorous silence. The Bismarcks pointed the way: after thirty years of collaboration, after countless conversations and a voluminous correspondence, Bismarck omitted Bleichröder’s name from the first two volumes of his memoirs. In the third volume, slated for publication only after William II’s death, Bleichröder’s name is mentioned once, as somebody’s emissary.
“Of course there was a vast inequality between Bismarck and Bleichröder in life, but that inequality was greatly magnified after their deaths. German historians lifted one man to apotheosis and consigned the other to oblivion — and the two processes were linked. The editors of Bismarck’s collected works published not a letter of Bismarck’s to his banker; mention of him was rare and aseptic. The editors seem to have been restrained in their efforts to uncover the traces of Bismarck’s tie to Bleichröder. This process of excision persisted until 1945.
Historians — whatever their persuasion or intention — reflect the values of the society in which they write, and German historians for the half century after Bismarck’s death had every incentive to neglect Bleichröder. The favorite historiographical focus in those decades was narrowly political or intellectual; social and economic history was long a stepchild of German scholarship. The Jewish question was hardly ever touched by German historians. If Bismarck had a Jewish banker and confidant, then it was something that belonged to his private realm, marginal to the public figure. The will to neglect was easily satisfied: the record of Bleichröder’s role was hard to find and hence could respectably be overlooked.”

The field has of course changed since 1977, in no small part thanks to Stern’s book and others like it. German historians and historians of Germany now look into the gaps left by previous generations. The great opening of German universities that was just getting underway as Stern was writing in the early and mid-1970s (though he first started working on the Bleichröder Archive in 1960) brought with it a much broader spirit of inquiry into Germany’s recent past. Gold and Iron is a monumental work today; it must have appeared a nearly Olympian edifice when it was initially published.

Even the asides are interesting and challenging: “In sum, Berlin was a raw and changing city. It neither was nor became a bourgeois city — just as the Empire was not a bourgeois country. The bourgeoisie proved unable, to some degree unwilling, to set up their own code of values or their own style of life; they aped their impoverished betters. In imperial Berlin, not the black coat of the bourgeois but the king’s uniform became the mask of distinction; even Bismarck always appeared in parliament in his cuirassier coat. … For reasons of politics and history, the German bourgeoisie, even in its decades of unsurpassed economic power, paid obeisance to the values of its earlier aristocratic antagonists, now economically insecure and often dependent upon bourgeois wealth and assistance for adequate survival.
“Germany’s failure at embourgeoisement had a special bearing on the condition of its Jews. Perhaps it facilitated their rise, which under the Empire was spectacular. It also facilitated their vilification. A Germany that half-denied its capitalistic-bourgeois self proved spiritually less tolerant of the rise of Jewry than did some of its bourgeois neighbors.”

There’s lots to unpack in those two paragraphs: Germany as a belated nation, the relative power of the social and economic classes, comparative development among European nations and states, the status of Jews across Europe, and more. Much of the book is concerned with the details of Bismarck and Bleichröder, but asides like the one above show that Stern has the big picture in mind at all times.

Gold and Iron not perfect, and it is not for every reader. Five hundred and fifty pages of very serious history, even with as generally a graceful author as Stern, may be more than one wants to know about how money and power and personality worked together in Bismarckian Germany. I found the Romania chapter (though Stern uses the older-style spelling, Rumania) tedious, which is too bad because railroad financial shenanigans would appear to offer good material. These complaints are small scratches compared with the masterpiece of the historian’s art that Stern has delivered.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/07/08/gold-and-iron-by-fritz-stern/

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