Bismarck’s Banker: Gerson von Bleichröder
In 1871, German unification was accomplished by “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck famously said that “the great questions of the day will be decided … by blood and iron.”
But as Fritz Stern’s dual biography showed, blood and iron required a third ingredient — gold — provided by a Jewish banker, Gerson von Bleichröder. Bleichröder exemplified the tragic success of the German Jews during a century when they achieved everything except social acceptance and political security.
In 1858, Mayer Carl von Rothschild advised Bismarck that Bleichröder could best represent his financial interests and those of Prussia. Bleichröder’s financial strategies made it possible for Bismarck to raise the money to finance three wars without parliamentary funding.
Bleichröder became “Germany’s Rothschild,” an international banking powerhouse, and Germany’s richest man. Yet he remained Bismarck’s Hofjude or Court Jew. Proximity to power was not the same thing.
He acted as the great patron of Jews both within Germany and beyond its borders. In 1869, German Jews were granted full civil rights. Their political rise was rapid, though contested. Bleichröder represented wealthy conservative Jews aligned with Bismarck and the monarchy. But he was soon challenged by Jewish socialists.
Internationally, Bleichröder looked to the East, particularly to Romania, where in the 1880s, he achieved a tenuous agreement to protect Romanian Jews — but at the same time, his own position in Germany was under assault by a growing antisemitic movement led by Court Chaplain Adolph Stoecker and by historian Heinrich von Treitschke who warned that “the Jews are our misfortune.”
The Jews were scapegoated for everything: the excesses of industrial capitalism, the poverty of the masses, the decline of German morals and religion, the corruption of the German press and politics, and the alleged traitorous sellout of Germany to its enemies.
First pilloried as a symbol of Germany’s degradation, Bleichröder then became a substitute for criticism of his patron, Bismarck, who was still too powerful to be attacked directly. Bleichröder’s ennoblement made him more visible and vulnerable — not less.
When young Wilhelm II became emperor in 1888, Bismarck faced an impetuous monarch who disliked France while loathing Russia. At the same time, Wilhelm II’s court was honeycombed with antisemites whose favorite pastime was plotting against both Bleichröder and Bismarck.
Bleichröder vainly pleaded with Bismarck and Wilhelm II to denounce the antisemitic movement, which had become entrenched in the imperial court. Ever devious, Bismarck preferred to play rich Jews against the court’s antisemitic cabal, while the emperor seemed to believe that Germany’s Jews had brought their misfortunes on themselves. He dismissed Bismarck as chief minister.
Even at this early period, the stage was set for the fulfillment of Heinrich Heine’s prophecy: “The thought precedes the deed as the lightning the thunder. German thunder rumbles along. … There will be played in Germany a drama compared to which the French Revolution will seem an innocent idyll.”
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).