This chapter introduces the protagonist of this biography, the Jewish banker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831–1896), and lays out the central claim of the book, arguing that philanthropy was the principal expression of Jewish politics and the main avenue of Jewish self-emancipation, prior to the rise of Jewish nationalism, socialism, and mass politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Hirsch was known primarily for his role in building a network of railroads in the Ottoman Empire and as the founder of the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891, which was designed to facilitate the mass emigration of Russian Jews and their settlement in agricultural colonies in Argentina. The life of Baron Hirsch offers a fresh understanding of the Jewish nineteenth century from a transnational, pan-European, and transatlantic perspective.
Chapter 1 begins with the ascent of the Hirsch family to the position of court financiers and their ennoblement in Bavaria. It traces Maurice de Hirsch's career through his years in Brussels, where he married Clara Bischoffsheim, daughter of the Belgian-Jewish banker and politician Jonathan Bischoffsheim, and where he entered an unlikely business partnership with André Langrand-Dumonceau, whose declared goal it was to create a Catholic banking powerhouse. Langrand-Dumonceau's eventual downfall allowed Hirsch to scoop up the concession to build the Ottoman railroads, which would become the foundation of his enormous fortune, one of the largest in Europe. The chapter illustrates the transition from the "court Jews" of central Europe, the center of political power within the Jewish world during the era of absolutism and mercantilism, to the rise of a new Jewish political elite, the banker cum railroad magnate of the era of industrial capitalism.
The Ottoman railroad business propelled Maurice and Clara de Hirsch to the very top of European society. In the early 1870s, they established themselves in Paris, where their home on Rue de l'Elysée quickly became a point of reference for Parisian high society. Owning country estates in France, the Habsburg Empire, and England, the Hirschs would host some of the most prominent members of Europe's aristocracy for extravagant hunting parties. Chapter 2 explores the ways in which the "new Jewish aristocracy" of the Hirschs and their peers weaved networks of patronage, through aristocratic sociability and philanthropic liberality, in order to assert their place in society. However, antisemitic resentment accompanied their ascent from the outset, and the Jewish "upper ten," for all that their success said about the opportunities that Jews had gained in the age of emancipation, also confirmed their enduring outsider status as Jews in European society.
Crisscrossing the continent between homes in France, Austria, and England, and family in Belgium and Germany, the Hirschs—Maurice, Clara, and their only son, Lucien—were a pan-European family. They never articulated their "Europeanness" in any explicit way, but it was taken for granted, and a transnational European culture, increasingly interconnected thanks to the railroad age, shaped the Hirschs' experience. But what was "Jewish" about this aristocratic and cosmopolitan family? Chapter 3 pushes back against the conventional juxtaposition of "assimilation" versus Jewish "particularism," demonstrating the multifaceted and contradictory ways that Maurice, Clara, and Lucien lived and understood their Jewishness. Much of the chapter focuses on Lucien de Hirsch, his relationship with his parents, and his daughter Lucienne, a story that reveals much about the ambiguous meaning of "Jewish identity" for the cosmopolitan Jewish aristocracy of the fin de siècle.
Chapter 4 covers the beginnings of Baron Hirsch's Ottoman railroad business, from the concession in 1869 to the renegotiation of the contract in 1872. A key theme to emerge in this chapter is the political backdrop for the construction of the Ottoman railroads, an entangled web of national and imperial interests that clashed over the future of the Ottoman Balkans. In Austria, in particular, imperialist rhetoric accompanied discussions over the potential benefits of the new railroad link with the Ottoman Empire and helped promote the sale of the "Turkish lottery bonds" that Baron Hirsch launched at the Viennese stock exchange and on markets around Europe in order to raise the capital necessary for a vastly ambitious program to create an entire network of railroads in the Ottoman Balkans.
The completion of the Ottoman railroads was almost derailed by the Viennese stock market crash and ensuing economic crisis in 1873, Ottoman bankruptcy in 1875, and the disastrous Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878. At the same time, disagreements emerged between Hirsch and the Ottoman government, which accused him of substandard work and breach of contract. Chapter 5 shows how political factors, embedded in cultural assumptions about modernity, progress, and civilization, were as important in shaping the story of the Ottoman railroads as market forces of supply and demand, or the desire to maximize profits on the part of investors, and thus challenges simplistic assumptions of rational choice theory in understanding economic activity. For many contemporaries, meanwhile, Baron Hirsch was the very personification of the larger economic and political forces that continued to delay the completion of the much-anticipated railroad link between the Ottoman Empire and central Europe.
By 1888, the first direct trains were circulating between Paris, Vienna, and Constantinople, and Baron Hirsch was working to extricate himself from the business. But contemporaries would forever associate him with the drama of the Ottoman railroads, and in particular the long-delayed completion of the junctions that linked up the Ottoman with the central European railways. Chapter 6 focuses on the intersection between the railroads, Austrian and German imperialism, and the emerging political antisemitism of the late nineteenth century. Baron Hirsch became the lightning rod for the frustrated ambitions of German and Austrian imperialists who had expected the Oriental railroads to open up Ottoman markets, and even new trade routes farther east to India or China. The chapter ends with Hirsch selling his railroad business to a consortium led by Deutsche Bank, which would dominate the subsequent period of Ottoman railroad history.
Chapter 7 shifts focus to philanthropy, and in particular to Maurice and Clara de Hirsch's philanthropic involvement in the Ottoman Empire. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878, Hirsch dispatched his right-hand man Emmanuel Veneziani to distribute humanitarian aid to thousands of war refugees, emphasizing the nondenominational character of his philanthropy. Another major beneficiary was the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, with its network of modern schools throughout the Ottoman Empire and North Africa; for years, Hirsch would cover the organization's annual deficit and become its largest benefactor. The chapter argues that the goal—both in providing humanitarian assistance to Muslim, Christian, and Jewish refugees and in supporting modern Jewish education in the Ottoman Empire—was to enhance the collective reputation of Jews, thus ensuring that, in the emerging global, racialized hierarchies of the nineteenth century, Jews would be seen as modern, "civilized," and European.
Maurice de Hirsch's view on the future of the Jews was radical: he advocated what he called the "amalgamation" of the Jews with their non-Jewish neighbors. In the 1880s, Hirsch established major philanthropic initiatives to create modern schools in Galicia and Bukovina, home to the largest and most traditional Jewish communities in the Habsburg Empire, as well as in Russia. Schools would be open to Jewish and gentile children alike and would focus on vocational training. Hirsch's efforts to win over the Russian authorities to allow the creation of such mixed schools failed, but schools soon opened and expanded in Habsburg Galicia. This chapter illustrates the extent to which Hirsch and other Jewish leaders had internalized Western critiques of Jewish character, and how they put the power of philanthropy to work on a "civilizing project" to radically remake Jewish society.
In 1890–1891, Jewish public opinion across western Europe and North America was alarmed by increasingly dire reports from Russia, which appeared bent on a renewed crackdown on its Jews. As growing numbers of Russian-Jewish emigrants arrived in cities in western Europe, empathy with the fate of the Russian Jews mixed with widespread apprehension about the prospect of an anti-immigrant backlash and the rise of antisemitism in the West. Chapter 9 explores the ways that Jewish publicists, community leaders, and philanthropists responded to the crisis. In the context of European imperialism, Jewish leaders including Hirsch set their eyes on territories beyond Europe, from Central and South America to Africa to Australia, as offering a possible refuge for the Russian Jews. Hirsch himself ultimately embraced a far-reaching plan that would provide for the settlement of millions of Russian-Jewish migrants in agricultural colonies in Argentina.
Chapter 10 narrates the beginnings of Baron Hirsch's colonization project in Argentina, situating it in the wider context of the country's immigration policies and a process of nation-building that involved the promotion of European immigration and the "civilization" of the vast territories of the Argentine pampas. Under the directorship of Wilhelm Löwenthal, Hirsch's delegate in Buenos Aires, the project was off to a rough start. Employing the correspondence between Löwenthal and Hirsch, and the memoirs of an early colonist, Mordecai Alpersohn, the chapter focuses on the Jewish Colonization Association's first settlement, Mauricio, and an emerging pattern of contentious labor relations between the JCA and its colonists that would continue to embattle Baron Hirsch's Argentine project in subsequent years.
Between April 1892 and May 1893, the JCA in Buenos Aires was led by Albert Goldsmid, a famed British military hero and early supporter of Zionism. Hirsch had charged Goldsmid with getting the colonization project back on track, a process that involved the systematic removal of "undesirables"—those who failed, or refused, to adjust to the harsh life as agriculturalists. The measures further undermined trust between the JCA and Russian-Jewish colonists, and disagreements over management of colonies and proper treatment of its settlers led to tensions between Hirsch and Goldsmid. Goldsmid's complaints to Hirsch about centralizing all decision-making at headquarters in Paris point to one important reason why, by the end of Goldsmid's tenure, the colonization project remained in crisis. Still, as Mauricio resident Mordecai Alpersohn remarked in his memoirs, it was the Anglo-Jewish Goldsmid who had done more than anyone to "turn the immigrants into colonists."
Chapter 12 sketches the story of the colonization enterprise in Argentina from 1893 through the sudden death of Baron Hirsch, at age sixty-five, in 1896. After a period of consolidation and optimism, by 1895 Hirsch was increasingly worried about the possible failure of his grand philanthropic project, and others, like Theodor Herzl—the founder of political Zionism—began to call the once widely celebrated program of Jewish mass colonization in South America nothing more than a "petty solution" to the ever-more-urgent "Jewish question." The chapter analyzes how the hegemonic, technocratic, physiocratic project of the JCA ultimately proved itself unequal to a task as complex as a grand experiment in social engineering across two continents, trying to relocate large numbers of east European Jews and turning them into a society of land-tilling colonists.
The conclusion draws together several strands that have been developed over the preceding chapters. In the political economy of the modern Jewish world, philanthropy came to play a role that mimicked that of the European state, engaging in projects of social engineering through education and colonization. With its emphasis on its civilizing mission and on colonization overseas, Jewish philanthropy becomes legible in the context of imperialism; the habits of thought wrought by empire produced modern Jewish philanthropy's particular outlook. It was the rise of industrial capitalism that first created opportunities for this new Jewish politics of philanthropy, led by the capitalist entrepreneurs of the age of globalization. This capitalist aristocracy, the cosmopolitan class of which Baron Hirsch was a prominent example, combined economic resources and aristocratic sociability to forge new patterns of patronage, and eventually built a veritable empire of philanthropy that transformed the Jewish world forever.