Niall Ferguson examines a German life of privilege, lived through a significant swath of European history.
Even the most noted biographers choose subjects who outshine their own fame and renown. Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham selected Andrew Jackson and the relationship between Winston Churchill and FDR for his character studies. Doris Kearns Goodwin – one of the most widely read biographers in the English language – tackled Abraham Lincoln and his storied cabinet in her most recent of presidential histories.Skip to next paragraph
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While not a biographer by trade, Niall Ferguson, the prolific professor of financial history at Harvard University, has managed to write a biography about a man who is most certainly less famous than he. In High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg, Ferguson eschews the gravitational pull of the stars of the 20th century – Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, JFK, etc. – to inspect the life (or lives, as he so deftly attests) of a man whose life’s work proves to be decidedly less interesting than an eager reader would hope.
Siegmund Warburg was not an unspectacular man. In many ways, he was very impressive. Born in rural Germany into a wealthy banker’s family at the start of the 20th century, his circumstances provided him with ringside seats for World War I. Ferguson’s thorough and tireless mining of Warburg’s correspondence and personal journal illustrates the evolution of a young boy’s mind, from steadfastly patriotic at the conflict’s outset to wholly aghast at its horrific economic consequences and the way they were carried on the backs of the German people.
In many ways Warburg’s adolescence was a template of the upbringing of the German elite. He was reared as the only child on a country estate where servants greatly outnumbered his family. Upon completion of his schooling he was shipped off to Hamburg, London, and New York for an ongoing apprenticeship in the family’s financial firm. Even as a young man, his excerpted journal entries evince the compositional skill of a man much his senior. Warburg’s vocabulary and diction is sharp, and his ability to analyze and assess the relative merits, and in many cases, the lack thereof, of his fellow bankers marks a man with a refined sense of social perception.