This Day in Jewish History / The Man Who Would Bankroll Prussia’s Wars Is Born

Gerson von Bleichroeder, the first unconverted Jewish Prussian noble, worked with the Prussian elites - and labored to free eastern European Jews.

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A portrait of Gerson von Bleichroeder by Emile Wauters.
A portrait of Gerson von Bleichroeder by Emile Wauters.Credit: Suedwester93 / Wikimedia Commons

December 22, 1822, is the birthdate of Gerson von Bleichroeder, the German-Jewish banker who was a close adviser and confidant to Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor who engineered the unification of Germany in the 1870s. Bleichroeder, who also served as an adviser to the emperor, Wilhelm I, managed to attain and maintain his lofty office without converting to Christianity.

Not only that, he also used his position to lobby behind the scenes for the protection of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Gerson Bleichroeder was the eldest son of Samuel Bleichroeder (1799-1855), who in 1803 founded the family bank that bore his name. Gerson began working for the bank in 1830, at the age of 16, and became its head after his father’s death, in 1855.

Bismarck was referred to Bleichroeder by Mayer Carl von Rothschild, who, as banker to the Austrian throne, was not in a position to serve the Prussian empire. Instead, the Rothschilds used the Bleichroeder bank to represent their interests in Berlin.

Between 1864 and 1870, Prussia, led by Bismarck, fought three campaigns (the Second Schleswig, the Austro-Prussian and the Franco-Prussian wars), at the end of which it was able to consolidate the different parts of Germany under the Prussian crown.

Bismarck relied on Bleichroeder for a number of delicate tasks, both financial and diplomatic. Bleichroeder devised a plan to raise money for the 1864 Second Schleswig War, against Denmark, by which the Rothschild Bank underwrote a sale of bonds that were guaranteed by the imperial Prussian bank.

It was Bleichroeder too who devised the plan for selling the throne’s shares in the Cologne-Minden Railroad, of which he happened to be the banker.

Intimate with Gentile Prussia

In 1871, Bleichroeder came to the aid of several prominent Prussian families, led by the converted Jew Bethel Henry Strussberg, who had invested in a Romanian railroad that went bust. Bleichroeder arranged for a German company aligned with an Austrian railway builder to take over construction of the Romanian line.

This intimate financial involvement with members of Gentile Prussian society was unusual, but Bleichroeder had the support and even friendship of the chancellor, who publicly acknowledged his counsel and refused to indulge in the expressions of anti-Semitism – Bismarck’s own son, Herbert, for example, openly referred to Bleichroeder as “that filthy Jew” – that were so commonplace at the time.

The most dramatic sign of Bleichroeder’s lofty position was his being elevated to the nobility in 1872. In becoming Gerson von Bleichroeder, he was the first Prussian Jew to receive this honor without having converted.

Bleichroeder used his influence to try and assist the Jews of Romania, who in the 1870s faced unprecedented discrimination and persecution. At the Congress of Berlin, in 1878, which was charged with reorganizing the political order of the Balkans, Bleichroeder, together with France’s Adolph Cremieux and England’s Moses Montefiore, the most influential Jews in their respective countries, worked tirelessly to force Romania to emancipate its Jews in return for its desire to have its independence recognized. On paper, Romania was obligated to provide equal rights to its Jews, but in fact, it refused to implement that policy.

After Gerson von Bleichroeder’s death, on February 18, 1893, the operation of his bank was taken over by Paul von Schwabach, although Bleichroeder’s three sons, all of whom had converted, continued in name as its owners. By the 1920s, the family had been pushed out of its ownership altogether, and the bank was shut down by the Nazis in 1938.

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