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Subscriber: University of Groningen; date: 20 October 2019

Hirsch, Maurice de [formerly Moritz von Hirsch], Baron de Hirsch in the Bavarian nobilityunlocked

(1831–1896)
  • Pat Thane

Hirsch, Maurice de [formerly Moritz von Hirsch], Baron de Hirsch in the Bavarian nobility (1831–1896), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 9 December 1831 in Munich, the third child and oldest son of Joseph von Hirsch (1805–1885) and his wife, Karoline Wertheimer. His grandfather Jacob had established the family as one of the first Jewish families to acquire great wealth and social acceptability in Bavaria, and had become a court banker and substantial landowner. He received patents of hereditary nobility in 1818. Moritz's father Joseph carried on these business activities which became centred in Munich. His mother came from an Orthodox Frankfurt family and ensured that the children were properly instructed in Jewish matters.

After attending school in Munich, at the age of thirteen Moritz was sent to Brussels for schooling, receiving, according to his obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, a 'plain but sound education'. Though bright he was disinclined to undertake prolonged formal education. At seventeen he joined the banking house of Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt in Brussels. He was soon regarded as a financial genius with a special interest in railway promotion. Speculation in sugar and cotton shares also brought him rapidly accumulated wealth and promotion. In 1855 he married Clara Bischoffsheim (1833–1899) [see Hirsch, Clara de], daughter of the senior partner, Senator Jonathan Bischoffsheim. After his marriage he moved to Paris to join the board of the branch of Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt there. The heads of the firm followed his speculations with a certain amount of trepidation, and refrained from making him a partner, though they allowed him to use the firm's facilities for making transactions. The main foundation of his vast fortune came when he purchased the bankrupt firm of Langrand Demonceau. This possessed valuable assets including the rights to construct railways in Turkey and the land upon which to do so. Hirsch then focused his energies upon constructing railways through the Balkans and Turkey, and in particular that linking Vienna and Constantinople—the Orient Express line, as it came to be known—which he eventually completed despite much opposition in Austria.

Hirsch's methods of raising finance were often daring and imaginative and gave rise to accusations of dubious practice, though this was never proved. For example, a section of the Orient Express line was financed by floating a popular loan of 792 million francs in the form of 3 per cent Turkish lottery bonds, for which 1,980,000 tickets at 400 francs each were issued in 1870. There was to be a draw every two months enabling small investors to make quick gains. They were popular in France and Germany. The bankruptcy of the Turkish state, following the international financial crisis of 1873, led to suspension of payment in 1875 and many of the gamblers lost their stakes. Hirsch was rumoured to have made a fortune from the transaction, though he denied it.

Despite occasional setbacks, by 1890, besides his huge railway interests, banking houses, and a number of industrial firms, Hirsch owned vast estates in Austria–Hungary and France, and was one of the wealthiest men of his day with assets whose worth was estimated at between £16 million and £30 million. That estimates were so much at variance indicates the scale and complexity of his operations, which probably no one but himself could fully comprehend. He worked sometimes in association with other financiers, including, in Britain, Sir Ernest Cassel, whose early career he appears to have nurtured, but the details of such associations remain mysterious. His personal financial activities in Britain appear to have been few and no information is known about them. He attributed his success to mastery of detail, economy in small things, and close personal watch over his transactions, which he combined with undeniable financial flair, and inexhaustible energy and industry. His working day typically began at 5 a.m. and lasted far into the night.

Hirsch was a good-looking man, slim in his younger days, later described by Wolf as 'portly and robust' (Wolf). He was a well-known and ubiquitous member of the smart set in Paris, the south of France, and London. Although a lavish host, he and his wife were frugal in their domestic life. His London address was Bath House, Piccadilly. In France he owned what his obituary in the Jewish Chronicle described as a 'princely house' in the rue de l'Élysée palace in Paris and the Château de Beauregard near Chesnay; in Moravia he owned a picturesque castle near Brünn (Brno) and 'enormous property' (Jewish Chronicle, 24 April 1896) in Hungary. He supervised the most minute household details of each residence, directing them personally as he did his businesses.

His Times obituary commented that 'he carried the same coolness and system [of his business dealings] into his amusements'. Every year he went to London for the season. He belonged to the circle of the prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and shared his interest in horse-racing. His racing-stables, Grafton House at Newmarket, were famous, and his colours were often successful. He just missed winning the Grand Prix with Matchbox in 1894 but with La Flèche won the One Thousand Guineas, the Oaks, and the St Leger, all in 1892, and the Ascot Cup in 1894. It was a source of great disappointment and surprise to him that La Flèche did not win the Derby. He was elected as a foreign member of the Turf Club. This followed his rejection by the Jockey Club in Paris, and he thereafter lived more in London than in Paris. It was not well known that his winnings on the English turf were always donated to London hospitals, but his Jewish Chronicle obituary retailed that he liked to tell friends that his horses 'raced for charity'. Substantial sums were involved, amounting to £7000 in 1891, and £35,000 in 1892. When in 1893 his horses won only £7500 he doubled the amount before giving to the hospitals, saying that they should not suffer for the poor performance of his stable. Over the years he gave some £100,000 in total. He loved hunting and was a good shot, and he frequently entertained the prince of Wales, the duke of Devonshire, Lord Curzon, Earl Grey, and other members of the English nobility in Hungary during the hunting season.

Hirsch's wife, Clara de Hirsch, took little pleasure in the social scene, though she often travelled with him. She had more interest in philanthropic activity, especially after the death of their only son Lucien (b. 1856) in 1887, of pneumonia. They had previously lost their only other child, a daughter, in infancy. Lucien had been studious and little interested in finance though he appears to have been popular in London society. The parents were inconsolable. Shortly thereafter Hirsch retired from business and both he and his wife devoted themselves to humanitarian causes. He later wrote in response to a letter of condolence: 'My son I have lost, but not my heir, humanity is my heir' (Adler-Rudel, 39).

Hirsch had become active in humane causes even before his son's death, however, probably because of his wife's influence and also as a result of observing the poverty of the Jews of Turkey and the Balkans as he travelled in connection with his railway transactions. He primarily exerted himself to relieve the poverty and persecution suffered by Jews in Turkey and the Balkans, and later in Russia and Galicia. Clara had been secretary to her father when he was a member of the general committee of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which was the major channel for assistance from rich Jews of prosperous parts of the world to the poor and persecuted. Hirsch also became a committee member, in 1876. In December 1873 he donated a million francs to the Alliance for the furtherance of education in Turkey. From 1879 he contributed an annual 50,000 francs to the training scheme of the Alliance for artisans. From 1882 he underwrote its large annual deficit, keeping it in independent existence. In 1882 he contributed a million francs to an emergency fund for refugees from the Russian pogroms. By the time of his death he had donated at least 12 million francs to the Alliance. An equivalent amount went primarily for the education and training of Jews in Austria against resistance from the government of Austria. In 1889 he opened welfare agencies in towns in central and eastern Europe dispensing aid to those in need, and he supervised these agencies closely. His policy was to give relief only in such a way as positively to assist people to become self-supporting, for example through acquiring training or the tools of a trade. He refused also to give to communities which had other substantial sources of relief, such as the poor of London and Paris.

Hirsch sought to introduce similar schemes in Russia, but faced with the resolute opposition of the government sought instead to assist mass emigration of Jews. He gave large sums to poor Jews arriving in America through the Baron de Hirsch Fund, established in 1891. His agent in Russia from 1890, enquiring about the condition of the Jews and the most effective ways to assist, was the British campaigner against Jewish immigration Arnold White. White believed that immigration of poor Jews was exacerbating poverty in Britain and that Russian Jews should be supported in their native country or in colonies elsewhere, where they could be self-sufficient. Hirsch did not find this objectionable. Above all he wished to establish and endow a safe Jewish colony. He initially expected this to be located somewhere in the Americas, through the instrument of the Jewish Colonization Society which he established in 1891 with headquarters in London to raise money for this enterprise and make it a reality. It was floated with a capital of £2 million issued in shares of £100 each. He held 19,993 of these, the others being taken up by prominent London Jews. He distributed his shares around prominent European Jewish organizations, and invested at least £38 million in this enterprise before his death. He had high hopes of establishing a colony in Argentina, where a large amount of land was purchased and where Jews settled. Smaller colonies were funded elsewhere including, after Hirsch's death, Palestine.

Jewish colonization had become the centre of Hirsch's life and of his incessant work (though his financial dealings never ceased) by the time of his sudden death on 21 April 1896, on the estate of his friend Anton Ehrenfeld in the small village of Ogyalla near Komorn in Hungary. He was having a hunting lodge built nearby. According to his Jewish Chronicle obituary an autopsy led to the pronouncement that the cause of death was apoplexy; according to The Times he died of heart disease. He was interred in the family vault at the Montmartre cemetery, amid, according to the Jewish Chronicle, 'demonstrations of sympathy from all classes of society, from the Head of State and the bearers of the proudest names in the old French aristocracy, down to the meanest Christian ouvrier and the poorest Polish Jewish immigrant'. His wife was his main heir and she carried on the philanthropic and colonizing work on which they had previously worked jointly until her death in 1899. He also left a million francs for various charities, and a million to his adopted daughter (probably the illegitimate daughter of his son) Luciena Premelie. The Hirsches had adopted two boys who were still under age at his death. In his later years he signed himself Maurice de Hirsch, baron, by which time his father, a baron in the Bavarian nobility, had died. He was a citizen of Austria–Hungary at his death.

Arnold White wrote in the English Illustrated Magazine (reprinted in the Jewish Chronicle, 29 May 1896) after Hirsch's death:

the roses and raptures with which his wealth and hospitality surrounded him always seemed to me to cover a deep and sterling character of which the gay world knew very little. If he was a little too fond of playing the young man it was only in the hours of relaxation. How many of his censors and traducers, who sneer at what they do not understand, have devoted several hours a day, all the year round over a series of years to remedy the wrongs and lightening the burdens of men, women and children whom they have never seen.

With regard to the allegations then current as to Hirsch's being an 'upstart', White noted that he was born rich:

Except that he became richer as his life developed and expanded, there was no sudden leap from poverty to riches which could turn his head. In his youth there was a theological tutor who presented to the future millionaire so vivid a contrast between precept and practice that for ever after the dogmas of creed ceased to exercise any effect on his mind. He told me that he had never entered a synagogue for worship.

Like his contemporaries historians have barely grasped the many-sidedness of Hirsch's character and career.

Sources

  • Jewish Chronicle (24 April 1896)
  • The Times (22 April 1896)
  • Jewish Chronicle (1 May 1896)
  • Jewish Chronicle (15 May 1896)
  • A. White, Jewish Chronicle (24 April 1896)
  • L. Wolf, ‘Glimpses of Baron De Hirsch’, Jewish Chronicle (6 May 1896)
  • S. Adler-Rudel, ‘Moritz Baron Hirsch: profile of a great philanthropist’, Leo Baeck Yearbook (1971), 29–69
  • Jewish Chronicle (7 April 1899)
  • C. Roth, ed., Encyclopaedia Judaica, 16 vols. (Jerusalem, 1971–2)

Archives

  • Archive of the Jewish Colonization Society

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1875, priv. coll.; repro. in Roth, ed., Encyclopaedia Judaica

Wealth at Death

£1,372,163 10s. 10d.: administration with will, 7 Aug 1896, CGPLA Eng. & Wales