This Day in Jewish History

1833: The Jewish Founder of Heavy German Industry Is Born

However, by the time the Holocaust began a century later, the von Steiners were no longer Jewish.

Kilian von Steiner, ca. 1880, showing high forehead, full beard and mistache. B&W photo shows von Steiner wearing a white collar shirt, colored tie and light-colored jacket.
Wikimedia Commons

October 9, 1833, is the birthdate of Kilian von Steiner, one of the most prominent and sophisticated financial entrepreneurs of what was to become Germany. Though his name is little known today outside of Germany, he participated in the founding of such industrial powerhouses as Daimler motor works, BASF, the WMF metal works, and a number of financial institutions, including the forerunner to Deutsche Bank.

Kilian Steiner was born in Laupheim, west of Munich, in Bavaria. His father, Viktor Steiner, was a former leather merchant who established a brewery in Laupheim’s vaunted, 16th-century castle. His mother was the former Sophie Reichenbach.

Kilian was the eighth of their 12 children. He attended secondary school in Ulm and in Stuttgart; in the latter he met Clotilde Bacher, who years later would become his wife. His university years were spent in Tubingen and Heidelberg, where he studied philosophy, history and law, graduating with a law degree in 1858.

After completing his licensing exams as a lawyer, Steiner moved to Heilbronn, to the northwest of Stuttgart, to begin working as a solicitor. It was there that he was befriended by the economist Gustav Schmoller, who began introducing him to a wide circle of prominent citizens in the Wuerttemberg region of southern Germany.

Some of these new friends urged Steiner to marry Schmoller’s sister, Emma, but he demurred, explaining that he was obligated to marry within the Jewish faith.

Insisted on marrying Jewish, not living that way

One of the abiding political questions that occupied Germans was that of the nature of the unification that would bring together the countries numerous monarchies and principalities in a single state. Otto von Bismarck was the main proponent of the so-called Kleindeutsche Loesung, the Lesser German Solution, which was a plan for bringing together only the northern German states, to the exclusion of Austria.

Steiner subscribed to this vision of Germany, and was one of the founders of the National Liberal Party, in 1865, a major modernizing force in the country.

Steiner (the "von" was added to his name in 1895, when he was ennobled) was a cofounder of the Wurttembergische Vereinsbank, a precursor to Deutschebank, which was innovative in that it was owned not by financiers but by the local merchants and industrialists it was meant to serve. In this way, it was meant to guarantee the independence of Wuerttemberg's economy from the dominant banking interests of Frankfurt and Augsburg.

He was also a key player in the foundation of a number of other enterprises in Wuerttemberg that helped turn that region into an economic powerhouse. They included  Daimler, BASF, and WMF, which remains Germany's leading flatware maker.

By the time Kilian and Clotilde married, she was already a widow and the mother of two. They went on to have three more children together. Despite his insistence on marrying within the faith, he proudly raised his children as assimilated Jews, sending them to Protestant schools, and refusing to circumcise at least one of them. He also was a generous donor to church institutions.

Von Steiner was known also for his love of literature, and his support for cultural organizations. Like many other German Jews, he was partial to the poetry of Friedrich Schiller, and he was also involved in the founding of both the National Schiller Museum, in Marbach, and the Swabian Schiller Association. He was also a close friend of the poet and novelist Berthold Auerbach.

To this day, the Laupheim castle, whose original structure goes back to the 16th century, is identified with the Von Steiner family, which lived in it until 1961, when the last male descendant of Kilian sold the building and its grounds to the town.

By 1895, Von Steiner had learned that he was suffering from diabetes. Although he survived with the disease for a number of years, in 1903, he had to have one of his feet amputated. Six days later, on September 25, he died, in Stuttgart.