The Baron: Mau­rice de Hirsch and the Jew­ish Nine­teenth Century

  • From the Publisher
January 4, 2022

A sweep­ing biog­ra­phy that opens a win­dow onto the gild­ed age of Jew­ish philanthropy.

Baron Mau­rice de Hirsch was one of the emblem­at­ic fig­ures of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Above all, he was the most influ­en­tial Jew­ish phil­an­thropist of his time. Today Hirsch is less well known than the Roth­schilds, or his gen­tile coun­ter­part Andrew Carnegie, yet he was, to his con­tem­po­raries, the very embod­i­ment of the gild­ed age of Jew­ish phil­an­thropy. Hirsch’s life pro­vides a sin­gu­lar entry point for under­stand­ing Jew­ish phil­an­thropy and pol­i­tics in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, a peri­od when, as now, pri­vate bene­fac­tors played an out­size role in shap­ing the col­lec­tive fate of Jew­ish communities.

Hirsch’s vast for­tune derived from his role in cre­at­ing the first rail line link­ing West­ern Europe with the Ottoman Empire, what came to be known as the Ori­ent Express. Social­iz­ing with the likes of the Aus­tri­an crown prince Rudolph and Bertie,” Prince of Wales, Hirsch rose to the pin­na­cle of Euro­pean aris­to­crat­ic soci­ety, but also found him­self the fre­quent tar­get of vicious anti­semitism. This was an era when what it meant to be Jewish―and what it meant to be European―were under­go­ing dra­mat­ic changes. Baron Hirsch was at the cen­ter of these his­toric shifts.

While in his time Baron Hirsch was the sub­ject of wide­spread praise, enraged polit­i­cal com­men­tary, and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries alike, his lega­cy is often over­looked. Respond­ing to the cri­sis wrought by the mass depar­ture of Jews from the Russ­ian Empire at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, Hirsch estab­lished the Jew­ish Col­o­niza­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, with the goal of cre­at­ing a refuge for the Jews in Argenti­na. When Theodor Her­zl, the founder of Zion­ism, adver­tised his plan to cre­ate a Jew­ish state (not with­out inspi­ra­tion from Hirsch), he still won­dered whether to do so in Pales­tine or in Argentina―and left the ques­tion open. In The Baron, Matthias Lehmann tells the sto­ry of this remark­able fig­ure whose life and lega­cy pro­vide a key to under­stand­ing the forces that shaped mod­ern Jew­ish history.

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