In 1908, Albert Ballin commissioned a villa designed by Werner Lundt and Georg Kallmorgen to be built on Feldbrunnenstraße. The architects, who were considered particularly modern at the time, designed a residence ornamented with columns combining early 20th century Reform Architecture with motives from classicist country house architecture. In 1914, the English journal Daily Graphic dubbed his villa “Little Potsdam.” Lamar Cecil, Albert Ballin. Wirtschaft und Politik im deutschen Kaiserreich 1888-1918, Hamburg 1969, pp. 103 This name illustrates what Ballin intended with this building: the HAPAG general director’s private residence was meant to have a representative ambience. Ballin wanted a building which lived up to the highest standards—and the Ballin villa offered him the perfect setting for the social gatherings and dinners he hosted for HAPAG. In a most lavish manner, the villa was turned into the setting of a vivid social life creating opportunities to forge political and economic contacts.
The list of names written in the notebook is long and comprises ruling princes, noblemen from the fields of diplomacy and the military, mostly middle-class navy officers, high-ranking civil servants, Silesian magnates, manufacturers from the Rhineland, bankers and journalists—and three visits by the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage. There are hardly any artists on the list though—in striking contrast to the Berlin salons of Aniela Fürstenberg, wife of banker Carl Fürstenberg, who was friends with Ballin. Many members of Hamburg society were frequent visitors to Ballin’s residence, too. Among these were mayors Johann Georg Mönckeberg, Johann Heinrich Burchard, Johann Otto Stammann, William Henry O’Swald, Max Predöhl, and Carl August Schröder as well as shipping company owners Richard C. Krogmann, Adolph and Eduard Woermann, shipyard owner Hermann Blohm, merchant Heinrich Freiherr von Ohlendorff, banker Max Schinckel—chairman of HAPAG’s board since 1910—and Johannes Merck—one of Ballin’s fellow board members at HAPAG since 1896.
During the Kaiser’s first visit to the house on Feldbrunnenstraße on June 22, 1910, the following persons were present: from the Kaiser’s entourage, Chief Lord Stewart August Count Eulenberg, Adjutant General Hans von Plessen, Chief of the Imperial Naval Cabinet Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, Chief of the Civil Cabinet Rudolf von Valentini, Aides-de-Camp Leo von Caprivi and Captain Friedrich von Bülow as well as the Kaiser’s personal physician, Friedrich von Ilberg, furthermore the Prussian envoys Karl Georg von Treutler and Gustav Adolf von Götzen (former governor of German East Africa), as well as Legation Councilor Count Bassewitz; from Hamburg, the abovementioned mayors Burchard, Predöhl, O’Swald and Schröder along with Ohlendorff, Schinckel, and Witt; and finally Ballin’s daughter Irmgard and her fiancée Heinz Bielfeld.
It is controversial whether Ballin – who stemmed from a poor Jewish Hamburg family and had climbed the social ladder – remained an outsider in Hamburg’s high society who “constantly met with a lot of suspicion and rejection.” Susanne Wiborg, Albert Ballin (Hamburger Köpfe), Hamburg 2013, p. 55; see also Johannes Gerhardt, Albert Ballin (Mäzene für Wissenschaft, 6), Hamburg 2009, p. 74. Contradicting this view is Olaf matthes, Aus Albert Ballins Gästebuch, in: Ortwin Pelc (ed.), Mythen der Vergangenheit. Realität und Fiktion in der Geschichte. Jörgen Bracker zum 75. Geburtstag, Göttingen 2012. Ballin’s notebook provides some important yet insufficient clues for answering this question: who did – and who didn’t – visit the Ballin villa? Further clues can be found in memoirs. Johannes Merck, for example, writes about Ballin in his memoir: “But he was a Jew, business was always his main priority, German interests were essentially secondary to him. [...] A major character flaw of Ballin’s, perhaps a racial flaw, meaning something purely Jewish and thus in his case excusable to a certain degree, was his absolute lack of objectivity.” see Gerhardt, Albert Ballin, pp. 117.
One argument for Ballin’s role as an outsider is that his economic basis—in contrast to the typical Hamburg merchant or shipping company owner (such as Adolph Woermann, for example)—lay not in his own family business. Ballin was an employee of HAPAG and personified a new type of entrepreneur: the manager. Among Hamburg’s long-established merchants, who for the most part still thought in traditional economic patterns, this didn’t count for much. At the same time, they must have been irritated at Ballin’s success since HAPAG rose to become the world’s largest shipping company under his leadership.
The social gatherings and dinners hosted at Feldbrunnenstraße offered HAPAG’s general director the opportunity to present himself as a successful manager and to communicate his views on political and economic issues. Outside of the government, he mainly sought to influence members of two groups: bankers on the one hand and journalists on the other. It is characteristic for Ballin to have sought to exert his influence as a private person, since he regarded the interest groups so ubiquitous in Imperial Germany with some skepticism, rather than seeking power in the form of political offic—especially not in his native Hamburg, whose limits he had long outgrown.
Among the leading bankers of the time was Max Warburg, with whom Ballin shared a close friendship and who is listed in the notebook on at least 43 occasions. Although Warburg was not present for the Kaiser’s first visit to Ballin’s villa in 1910, he was invited to these prestigious visits beginning in 1912.
The name of the influential journalist Felix von Eckardt, chief editor of the newspaper Hamburgischer Correspondent, appears at least 27 times on Ballin’s guest lists. Bernhard Huldermann, editor of the newspaper’s business section, who later became director of HAPAG, was mentioned 11 times. Ballin was a master at using the press in order to advance HAPAG’s goals. In the 19th century, companies were essentially synonymous with their owners, and a company’s character was largely represented by its founder or owner. A long-established Hamburg merchant had to run his business discreetly—contacts with journalists were considered inappropriate. In contrast, Ballin was one of the first to recognize the potential of the press, and in 1900 he was among the first to open a press department in a German company. The task of the “literary office” Literarisches Büro was to communicate a positive image of HAPAG and to cooperate with the press in order to promote the company’s interests. Ballin himself deftly forwarded information to the press, such as the slide show on HAPAG’s new ship models presented to the Kaiser he mentions in his notebook. The next day, on June 23, 1910, the abovementioned Hamburgischer Correspondent ran an extensive article on it.
According to Theodor Wolff, chief editor of the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt, Albert Ballin “surrounded HAPAG with an unprecedented glamour of representation.” Theodor Wolff, Der Marsch durch zwei Jahrzehnte, Amsterdam 1936, p. 245. It greatly impressed Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had a weakness for pomp. The first personal meeting between Ballin and the monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II took place at Cuxhaven on the occasion of the express steamer “Augusta Victoria’s” maiden voyage in January 1891. A closer personal relationship developed after Ballin sat next to the Kaiser at HAPAG’s annual gala dinner on the occasion of the Unterelbe-Regatta in 1899. Beginning in 1910, Wilhelm II and his entourage visited the villa on Feldbrunnenstraße once a year for a “fork luncheon.” The notebook registers visits by the Kaiser on June 22, 1910, June 19, 1911 and June 17, 1912. The monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II also visited Ballin on June 23, 1913 and June 18, 1914. Following the outbreak of the First World War, their relationship cooled noticeably.
During his first visit in 1910, the planned program had to be modified due to a furuncle in the Kaiser’s knee. Ballin wrote: “The Kaiser, who had announced his presence for Monday, June 20 at our house for breakfast and to receive a slide show on the new ship the “Imperator” commissioned by HAPAG in 1913 (Vulcan model 880-896), fell ill with a knee injury. Therefore cancellation of his entire Hamburg visit. The Kaiserin [empress] came for the race on the 19th as well as the crown prince, with whom longer conversation. [...] Monday, June 20 received message the Kaiser would visit after all. Wednesday, June 22 10 the Kaiser came, who, because of the more conveniently located perrons platform staircases traveled to Altona, from Altona by car to our house.”
The Kaiser’s visits doubtless were a special honor for Ballin, as they represented a break with the tradition of Prussian kings not to visit the homes of private individuals. After 1910, a fixed schedule emerged, which included among other things: Unterelbe-Regatta and gala dinner, the “Kaiserin Auguste Victoria Race” on the Horner race track, fork luncheon at Ballin’s villa followed by a journey to the “Kieler Woche” sailing event in Kiel. Since 1902, HAPAG steamers regularly moored there as swimming grand hotels for the Kaiser and his guests; in 1910 this was the “Oceana,” as we learn from the notebook.
Looking at the relationship between Ballin and Wilhelm II more closely, it becomes evident that it was a very odd one. Ballin was among those German Jews who were closest to the German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II, in fact, he was the first and the most important of the so-called “Kaiser’s Jews” [“Kaiserjuden”]. Werner Mosse, Wilhelm II and the Kaiserjuden. A Problematical Encounter, in: Jehuad Reinharz / Walter Schatzberg (eds.), The Jewish Response to German Culture. From the Enlightenment to the Second World War, Hannover / London 1985, p. 170. – The term “Kaiserjude” was coined by Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann (ibid.). To Wilhelm II, whose world view clearly had antisemitic traits, they “weren’t real Jews.” In his mind, “real Jews” were only those who were critical of him, ibid., pp. 180. a point which illustrates the way antisemitic views are usually constructed.
Ballin was one of the few businessmen who saw the Kaiser regularly. Up until 1914, he saw him about every two months at social gatherings and about as often for business and political meetings. As Ballin did not cultivate any contacts with the nobles who dominated Berlin’s court society, his position depended solely on his personal relationship with the monarch. Kaiser Wilhelm II Thus he found himself in an outsider position in Berlin—just as in Hamburg. For Wilhelm, Ballin was an important source of information (as were the other “Kaiser’s Jews” [“Kaiserjuden”], all of whom belonged to the Jewish business elite, such as entrepreneur James Simon, manufacturer Walther Rathenau, and bankers Ernst von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Max Warburg). For when it came to matters of business and shipping, Ballin had the kind of knowledge none of the court nobles did. Moreover, despite his role as an outsider, he did have a close-knit network of contacts, and he helped Wilhelm II establish contact with people in Berlin, Hamburg, and Kiel who otherwise never would have managed to meet him.
Overall, Ballin’s influence on the Kaiser was limited, however, and it has often been overestimated. On this point, Theodor Wolff writes in his memoir: “Ballin did not exert any influence on the Kaiser on any major issue, in any important moment. [...] During no major campaign [...] did Ballin learn what was taking place; Wilhelm II never asked his opinion in such moments [...]. Wolff, Der Marsch durch zwei Jahrzehnte, p. 256.
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Johannes C. F. Gerhardt, Dr. phil., studied history, political science and economic studies in Hamburg, earned his Ph.D. in 2005. Various publications in the field of history of German conservatism, parliamentary history of the 19th century, economic and cultural history of Hamburg as well as history of the Hamburg system of public and private foundations. Since 2007 he serves as executive secretary of the Hamburgische Wissenschaftliche Stiftung.
Johannes Gerhardt, The Kaiser, Dignitaries, and the Press as Guests of Albert Ballin (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-17.en.v1> [September 23, 2023].