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Book Review: ‘The Money Kings,’ by Daniel Schulman



THE MONEY KINGS: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America, by Daniel Schulman

On Feb. 6, 1904, a group of powerful Jewish men met at the Fifth Avenue mansion of Jacob Schiff. Largely forgotten today (except by antisemitic conspiracy theorists), Schiff was a German immigrant who became one of the most powerful bankers on the planet, “a colossus in finance and Jewish life,” Daniel Schulman writes in “The Money Kings.”

That night, Schiff’s guests — who included Adolph Ochs, the publisher of The New York Times, and Oscar Straus, President Theodore Roosevelt’s minister to The Hague — were talking about the looming war between Japan and Russia. Schiff knocked on the table for silence and announced that he had been approached about arranging a loan to the Japanese government to help fund the war. Then he asked the same question my grandfather used to ask: What does it mean for the Jews?

That question recurs throughout “The Money Kings,” a sprawling history of the German Jews who came to the United States in the 19th century and helped create the modern economy while navigating their own identities as Jews, bankers and Americans.

Schiff is the book’s central figure, and by the early 20th century, on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, his influence had spread beyond Wall Street. At the time, Jews were being raped and murdered in yet another series of pogroms in imperial Russia. These attacks burned such a lasting scar on the Jewish psyche that, earlier this year, an Israeli major general was moved to compare the slaughter of Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 to “a pogrom from our grandparents’ time.”

Schiff thought financing Japan’s war effort might help bring down the Russian czar and, hopefully, end the pogroms taking place under his rule. On the other hand, Schulman suggests, a Jewish banker taking sides in the war might also engender even more antisemitism in Russia.

Schiff decided it was a risk worth taking. He arranged the loan to Japan and wrote to the British banker Nathaniel Rothschild. He hoped that “Jewish bankers of influence” would “work with all their might against any Russian loans so long as existing conditions continue.”

Rothschild replied to Schiff’s letter: “There is absolutely no chance of Russia getting a loan in England.”

Japan won the war. Russia lost. For Schiff, who also bankrolled anti-czarist propaganda aimed at Russian P.O.W.s, it was a story of Jews rallying to oppose a brutally antisemitic Russian regime.

For antisemites, it quickly became a story of Jewish bankers conspiring to shape world events to the Jews’ advantage. Around the time the war ended, in 1905, the first full version of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the canonical work of Jew-hating conspiracy theory, was published in Russia. It purported to reveal a Jewish plot to take over the world, and it would prove to be a deadly book.

“The Money Kings” shows how antisemitism was also a force that bound Schiff and his fellow Jewish bankers together. Shut out of much of society, they worked in the same offices and summered in the same towns and intermarried like European royalty.

Over the course of the book, the relationships become more and more convoluted. In 1875, Schiff married Therese Loeb, the daughter of a partner at Kuhn Loeb, the investment firm he went on to run. (A Goldman was a bridesmaid at the wedding.) Their daughter Frieda married into the powerful Warburg banking family in 1895. Later that year, when yet another Warburg married yet another Loeb, Schulman dryly informs us, the groom “became a brother-in-law to his brother’s father-in-law,” and “Frieda’s aunt now became her sister-in-law.”

There are many heroes in this book, and many journeys, and the journeys sometimes feel pretty similar to one another. It’s compelling the first time an ambitious young man leaves Bavaria to become an itinerant peddler, carrying his wares on his back through rural America, bringing his brothers over to the New World and rising to become a famous financier. It’s less compelling the second time.

The book occasionally drags, but Schulman, a senior editor at Mother Jones, is a thorough reporter with an eye for delightful details. The banker Solomon Loeb was so obsessed with work, Schulman writes, that he once concluded a letter to his son with, “Your Loving Kuhn Loeb & Company.” Long before Marcus Goldman went into business with Samuel Sachs, he was so poor that he gave his bride-to-be a bouquet of radishes because he couldn’t afford flowers.

There is a lot of finance in “The Money Kings.” Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers bring a new era of I.P.O.s to Wall Street in the early 1900s; around the same time, Schiff and J.P. Morgan battle for control of the Northern Pacific railroad. (In the end, they work it out like gentlemen and engineer a monopolistic merger.) Perhaps most significantly for the U.S. economy, Paul Warburg helps create the Federal Reserve in 1913.

But such events play as isolated episodes, and the book does not deliver a coherent narrative of the emerging American economy. Instead, the thread that binds is the Jewish experience in America. This is a story about Jews who happen to be bankers, not about bankers who happen to be Jews.

Near the end of the book, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” re-emerges from the muck to inspire an American wave of antisemitic conspiracy theorizing bankrolled by Henry Ford, the great industrial innovator and classic Jew hater.

In May 1920, The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper that was owned by Ford and circulated via Ford dealers around the country, launched a series titled “The International Jew.” It cited “The Protocols,” and advanced the plot: Schiff and the Warburgs, in this telling, had not just brought down the Russian Empire; they had also conspired to bring the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. (Unsurprisingly, these rich bankers did not in fact support the Bolsheviks.) International Jews, Ford’s paper said, were the “conscious enemies of all that Anglo-Saxons mean by civilization.”

The newspaper series was a crisis for American Jews. But Schiff, uncharacteristically, advised restraint. “If we get into a controversy we shall light a fire, which no one can foretell how it will become extinguished,” he wrote to a group of Jewish leaders in June. “I would strongly advise therefore that no notice be taken of these articles and the attack will soon be forgotten.”

Schiff died that September, so he did not live to see himself proved catastrophically wrong.

Ford turned “The International Jew” into a book (subtitle: “The World’s Foremost Problem”) and printed millions of copies. In 1922, The New York Times reported that Adolf Hitler, the leader of a growing group of Bavarian reactionaries, had a portrait of Ford on his office wall in Munich. On a table in Hitler’s anteroom, Schulman writes, there was a stack of copies of “The International Jew,” translated into German.

THE MONEY KINGS: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America | By Daniel Schulman | Knopf | 570 pp. | $35