The Baron: Mau­rice de Hirsch and the Jew­ish Nine­teenth Century

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.

Discussion Questions

The Baron is a fas­ci­nat­ing biog­ra­phy of the once-famed indus­tri­al­ist and phil­an­thropist who, over the years, has become much less well-known than some of his sim­i­lar­ly influ­en­tial con­tem­po­raries. Draw­ing on pri­vate papers as well as oth­er archival mate­r­i­al, Lehmann doc­u­ments, in a live­ly and read­able fash­ion, de Hirsch’s remark­able life, includ­ing his build­ing of the Ottoman Express, the first rail line link­ing West­ern Europe with the Ottoman Empire, and his attempt to estab­lish a refuge in Argenti­na for Jews flee­ing Russia. 

The Baron, while an excel­lent biog­ra­phy with cameo appear­ances by his­tor­i­cal fig­ures rang­ing from roy­al­ty to Theodor Her­zl, tran­scends the genre by rais­ing and address­ing issues that are still time­ly more than a cen­tu­ry after De Hirsch’s death. The Jew­ish Ques­tion,” the role of indus­tri­al­ists in com­mer­cial life, and the amount of sway major phil­an­thropists should be accord­ed are all top­ics that con­tin­ue to be rel­e­vant today.