The Warburgs

On one hand, this massive work is a dramatic account of a powerful family that served kings and presidents, made outstanding contributions in the sciences and arts, sponsored important philanthropic projects in Palestine and the Soviet Union, and played a crucial role in international banking and industry. On the other hand, this family chronicle of more than 800 pages is also a tragic account of a great family’s decline.

What makes the decline tragic is not necessarily the personalities or character traits of the principal family members. They, to be sure, had their eccentricities. Aby Warburg, the brilliant art historian and founder of the institute that bears his name (and was moved to London with the advent of the Nazis), was an imperious and moody father. His brother Fritz, a consummate businessman, was Aby’s worldly counterpart, a man who combined a passion for social service and charity with an excessive fondness for street life. The prostitutes in Hamburg’s famous red light district “would lean from their windows and squeal excited greetings to ‘Uncle Fritz’.”

What makes this family a tragic one is its identification with international cosmopolitanism and culture at a time when the world reverted to nationalism and racism. Unlike their famous predecessors, the Rothschilds, whose power arose in the nineteenth century from the “interplay between private banks and royal courts,” the Warburgs were distinctly modern, strongly democratic, and politically identified with the new industrial classes. These traits would have earned them the enmity of the Facists even if the Warburgs had not been Jewish. The truth is that the Warburgs, as Chernow maintains, tried to reconcile the contradictions of being Jewish and German, nationalist and internationalist, traditional and modern. Nevertheless, the world would not “allow them the luxury of this tolerant cosmopolitanism.”

Readers will be intrigued by the American Warburgs: Paul Warburg, who was appointed (but not reappointed) by Woodrow Wilson to the first Federal Reserve Board—an institution Paul actually helped bring into being; and Jimmy Warburg, (his wife, Kate, became George Gershwin’s lover), who helped Franklin Roosevelt smooth tensions between Wall Street and the Federal government at the time of the New Deal.