By Jackson Holahan
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.
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 career 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 family members. 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 older. 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.
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.
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, whose 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.