The 19th Century’s Most Consequential Jewish Philanthropist, and the Gentiles Who Hated Him

January 23, 2023 | Abigail Green
About the author:

The grandson of a Jewish financier who, against considerable odds, had been made baron by the king of Bavaria, Maurice de Hirsch would become one of the wealthiest men in Europe and perhaps the most significant Jewish philanthropist of the 19th century. In 1869, he set about building the Ottoman empire’s first railroad network, connecting it to the rest of Europe. Abigail Green reviews a new biography of Hirsch by Matthias Lehmann:

As a Jew who had inherited noble pretensions, young Maurice was caught between two worlds. His observant uncle may have been treated to a kosher banquet by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in the royal palace of Aschaffenburg, but the 1813 [law restricting Jewish rights] still limited the family’s personal and professional options, so Maurice’s parents sent him abroad to be educated. They chose Belgium, a rapidly industrializing state born out of liberal revolution and epitomizing political and economic promise. It was also a place where German Jewish banking families could be less dependent on princely favor. . . .

In 1878, Hirsch moved his company’s headquarters from Paris to Vienna. Here no one saw Hirsch as a legitimate agent of Austrian interests; he appeared instead a typically self-seeking Jew. . . . In other countries, they pushed different narratives. For the pan-German activist Paul Dehn, Hirsch represented a “ruthless, predatory, usurious capitalism,” which had betrayed German central Europe. In short, he was Jewish. In France, meanwhile, the socialist anti-Semitic publicist August Chirac did not fail to blame “a Jew called Baron de Hirsch”—tellingly (but wrongly) described as “a Prussian”—for “the constant troubles in the Balkans” that were “enriching the Jews” but causing suffering for the area’s Christian population. . . .

Hirsch’s underlying attitude toward Judaism set him apart from . . . other 19th-century Jewish leaders. Moses Montefiore was a pious Jew and a lover of Zion, while Adolphe Crémieux was a secularist and French nationalist who believed in the Jews’ monotheistic mission to humanity. Hirsch, for his part, was utterly detached from Judaism and never donated anything to Jewish religious institutions or synagogues. One of his personal secretaries summed the situation up well when he quoted him saying, “‘Let others take care of the soul, if they are so inclined, but I will occupy myself with the body.’” . . . And yet at the same time, Maurice clearly felt distinctly Jewish.

And it was to Jewish causes that Hirsch would give millions of francs.

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