The Art and Diplomacy of the German-Jewish Elite of a Century Ago

January 8, 2020 | Abigail Green
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Reviewing a new Berlin museum named after the industrialist, philanthropist, and art collector James Simon (1851-1932), along with a biography of his friend, the Jewish activist Paul Nathan (1857-1927), Abigail Green considers both their careers and the elite segment of Germany Jewry to which they belonged. Simon acquired a vast collection of Renaissance art and German art from all periods and brought some of the most celebrated artifacts of ancient Babylonia and Egypt to his country, turning Germany’s museums, the recipients of his benefactions, into major centers of European culture. As Green notes, the Rothschilds did something similar for France, as did Ludwig Mond, another Jewish industrialist, for Britain. This raises a relevant question:

Did the Jewishness of these men matter? They would undoubtedly have hated to think that it did. Men like Simon, Mond, and Edmond de Rothschild chose to give to great national museums because they identified with Germany, Britain, and France—and because they valued the prestige that came through association with these institutions: it symbolized, among other things, a precious kind of acceptance.

Nor was their generosity uncontroversial. Back in the early 1900s, anti-Semitic voices did not hesitate to denounce Wilhelm von Bode, the Berlin museum director with whom Simon worked closely for decades, for cultivating a clique of Jewish donors to whom he extended cultural respectability and commercial opportunities. The idea of belonging to a specific category of “Jewish patron” would have been abhorrent to these men. (Historians, of course, may well conclude that this is precisely what they were.)

Yet Simon was also not indifferent to Jewish causes, helping to finance the now-distinguished technical university in Haifa and the Aid Organization of German Jews, which he picked Nathan to lead. And Nathan, too, like his patron, was reluctant to think of himself as a Jew above all else:

Nathan was a liberal political journalist who made a second career as a Jewish diplomat. . . . He played a key part in the international struggle against anti-Semitism and internationally coordinated efforts to relieve the crisis faced by Russian and Polish Jews in an age of pogroms, war, and revolution. Yet he was also a central player in the left-liberal milieu of Wilhelmine Germany.

Nowadays, historians are aware principally of his humanitarian activities. . . . But the truth is that Nathan’s liberal activism came first: only once he recognized that a parliamentary career was impossible and that the political journal to which he had dedicated his life was failing did he devote himself full time to Jewish activism and diplomacy.

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