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High Financier

Niall Ferguson examines a German life of privilege, lived through a significant swath of European history.

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Ferguson meanders through Warburg’s childhood and into the rise of Hitler, noting Warburg’s early conclusion that the Austrian possessed the capacity for greater evil than most people then realized. This prescient observation exemplified Warburg’s unique ability to understand others’ motivations, a skill that served him very well in future business dealings.

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Unfortunately, Ferguson’s latest work is much less impressive than its precursor, the informative and meticulous “The Ascent of Money.” Siegmund Warburg’s life is interesting, but there is never a moment in this book when the protagonist does not do exactly what has been expected of him. There is no bucking of the elitist Warburg yoke, and the use of the word “lives” in the subtitle seems misleading.

Warburg was a banker for the entire duration of his professional career. Somehow Ferguson finds it worth his, and our, time to spend dozens of pages detailing the minutiae of Warburg’s financial transactions throughout the 1930s and ’40s. The creation of shell companies, the negotiation of deals, and the impressive avoidance of taxes are all stories so dull that they merit some tremendous denouement of achievement or legendary conquest. Unfortunately, this moment arrives in the form of the first modern hostile takeover, Warburg’s usurpation of British Aluminum, well over halfway through the book.

Thankfully, somewhere around page 200, Ferguson sheds the tactic of sharing with the reader every financial transaction exacted by Warburg. Warburg’s bold grab of British Aluminum begins to ingratiate him in London’s patrician power circles. He becomes an economic adviser to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and, in the process, oversees the success of his firm S.G. Warburg & Co.

Finishing this book may leave the reader more perplexed about Niall Ferguson than Siegmund Warburg. In many ways Warburg led the life of a smart, successful, generous, and wealthy man. He served his adopted country, England, while never fully divesting himself of his German heritage and accompanying pride. And while Warburg was a fine man who deserves great praise for his philanthropy and even admiration for his tactful entrepreneurship, what “High Financier” never delivers to readers is a singular compelling reason, action, experience or unifying theme in Warburg’s story that would merit this biography.

Jackson Holahan is freelance writer in Columbus, Ga.

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