Transnational Networks and Questions of Belonging. An Exchange of Letters Between Jacob Schiff and Max Warburg During World War I.

Sarah Panter

Source Description

This letter by Jacob H. Schiff of New York, who was born in Frankfurt in 1847 and had emigrated to the United States in 1865, to Max M. Warburg in Hamburg was written with the events and political constellations in mind which had formed since the outbreak of the First World War in Europe in the summer of 1914. Schiff discusses both the American perspective of neutrality in the European conflict and the different positions and options growing out of it. At the same time, the letter illustrates the divided loyalties resulting from the outbreak of the war. The machine-typed letter is dated January 28, 1915; it is part of a more extensive correspondence conducted in German between the two protagonists. This document is part of the personal papers of Jacob Schiff held at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Sarah Panter

After the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, the Jewish population in the countries now at war felt torn between different fronts both in their role as citizens and as members of a transnational Jewish community. This issue of divided loyalties had both a practical and a symbolical component, which once again revived the topos of Jewish fratricide on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, after the outbreak of the war many Jews in Germany (as in other European countries) had hoped to be able to demonstrate their patriotism by joining the war effort at the front. From a Jewish perspective, World War I generated both fears for the well-being of Jews beyond national boundaries and hopes for complete integration into their own national, i. e. non-Jewish, mainstream society.

While this was true for prominent members of the Jewish bourgeois middle class in Germany, of whose opinion in the summer of 1914 Max Warburg can indeed be considered representative, the situation in the neutral United States was a fundamentally different one. Many American Jews who, like Schiff, either hailed from Europe or were the offspring of European-Jewish immigrants, felt they might be suspected of supporting one of the warring parties. American Jews of German origin in particular – and German-Americans in general – were faced with accusations of alleged pro-German sympathies.

Background: Jacob Schiff’s alleged pro-German orientation

The wording of this letter initially suggests that Schiff intended to share information of a partly confidential nature with Warburg. This includes his hint at the apparently sympathetic view of German representatives in the USA (albeit only expressed in private) towards his perspective of neutrality. However, these “frank words from a friend” ultimately bear a strongly justifying character – a tendency which remains apparent throughout the letter.

While Max Warburg expressly emphasized his German identity at the beginning of the war on the local, national, as well as transnational level rather than understanding it in opposition to his Jewish identity, Schiff’s situation was characterized by a more complex diversity of diverging loyalties. Schiff’s specific motivation for writing his letter was the critical reaction to an interview he gave on the European constellation of war published in the New York Times in November 1914. In his statements, Schiff seemed to have given both his Jewish and non-Jewish critics in Europe and the USA a target for critical assault, for he had connected two truly contradictory positions in the interview. On the one hand, he announced his sympathy for Germany based on his origin, on the other hand he warned against the problematic consequences of a lengthy war or an unmitigated victory by one of the two main warring parties, Germany or Great Britain, since this would jeopardize both the American position and the possibility of a stable peacetime Europe.

The Schiff -Warburg correspondence as probe for transnational aspects of German-Jewish history

Jacob H. Schiff’s words to Max M. Warburg of January 28, 1915 especially bring up the tension created by the different agencies experienced by Jewish individuals in European wartime societies and in the neutral USA. Both the author and the recipient of this letter were successful entrepreneurs in the banking and finance industry and thus part of a transnational economic network. At the outbreak of the war, Warburg emphasized his loyalty as a citizen rather than his transnational connections in public, however, the more so as he had just risen to become a key figure in the centralization of German trade policy, which he was essential in promoting. On the local level, he already inhabited a prominent political position at this point in time: he had been a member of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce since 1903 and a member of Hamburg’s City Assembly  Bürgerschaft since 1904.

Although both Warburg’s and Schiff’s political and economic influence extended far beyond regional and national contexts, from a Jewish perspective, it was closely linked to the history of Jews in Hamburg and New York. In the 19th century, both cities had become key places of (Jewish) migration: New York as a center of Jewish life in the USA and Hamburg as a point of departure for the passage of migrants to North America, which was linked to the name of Albert Ballin and the Hamburg-Amerikanische-Packetfahrt-Actiengesellschaft (Hapag).

Caught between German origin, American neutrality, and transnational family ties

As a German-Jewish patriot who had openly articulated his “martial sentiment” after the war broke out, Max Warburg also went out of his way to support the German war effort financially. As an American Jew, Jacob Schiff, on the other hand, was careful to comply with the strict line of American neutrality set by President Woodrow Wilson. In this constellation, the display of patriotism grew out of different original circumstances, yet the logic underlying both their actions was the need to conform: in Warburg’s case with the German war position, in Schiff’s case with the situation of American neutrality. From this perspective, he criticizes the key “position[s]” of all European warring parties as “wrong” in his letter.

The greater agency enjoyed by Schiff as a consequence of American neutrality, which had made the interview he mentions in his letter possible in the first place, also held a potential for inner conflict, particularly for well-known Jews of German origin in the US, however. Thus it is not surprising that Schiff’s public stance towards the country of his birth was rather ambivalent. In his letter to Warburg, Schiff summed up this dilemma precisely when he writes: “Just as all my correspondents in Germany write with the greatest bitterness about the enemies opposing Germany and tell me that Germany must be victorious [] my friends on the other side write to me in a no less harsh and unbending manner [].” Another intention behind these words most likely was to elicit sympathy for his situation from Warburg.

The warring parties’ different claims at justification as well as their respective handling of difference point to the larger question to what extent diverse loyalties could coexist without conflict during the war. This included civic-political, religious, and ethnic feelings of belonging and the ideas and expectations of loyalty derived from them, which were dynamic rather than static parameters of constantly negotiable and alterable meaning. Thus Schiff’s statements made to Warburg as an American, German-American, and a Jew have to be understood against this background. In both Schiff’s and Warburg’s cases, the situation was further complicated by their family networks. Not only was Schiff’s daughter Frieda married to Warburg’s brother Felix, who had settled in New York in 1894. Felix Warburg, a fellow member of New York’s German-Jewish elite, was also a partner in the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co. headed by his father-in-law as its senior partner. These family connections, which are relevant to the interpretation of this source, are only indirectly hinted at by Schiff, however, for example in the closing words of his letter: “With cordial greetings to you, your good mother, your dear wife and with kisses to the children, all of the above from my wife as well [].”

In times of war, transatlantic connections on different levels like these counteracted the increased political and social need of wartime societies to categorize the members of its own community according to clearly defined loyalties.

“Germanness” and “Jewishness” during the war

Studying the correspondence between Jacob Schiff and Max Warburg is particularly helpful in bringing transnational and national-historical perspectives together in order to discuss the contradictory character of German-Jewish labeling and self-labeling in the early 20th century.

In contrast to the majority of Jews in a German-language context who, like Warburg, were eager to improve the compatibility of “Germanness” and “Jewishness” after the outbreak of the war, the situation for American Jews of German origin was virtually reversed. For in the American public, “Jewish” and “German” were increasingly used synonymously and considered overlapping, pejorative categories of ethnic differentiation.

Following the United States’ entry into the war in April 1917, suspicions of disloyalty among German-Americans in general and German Jews in particular grew further. The situation in Germany, too, had changed drastically in comparison to the summer of 1914: not only did many signs suggest that antisemitism in Germany had radicalized during the war years (“Jewish census” of 1916 [“Judenzählung”]). Moreover, disillusionment – albeit not always publicly articulated – was beginning to spread among many Jews who, like Max Warburg, had high hopes for improved integration at the beginning of the war. Thus Max Warburg’s “militant sentiment” of the summer of 1914 no longer existed in the same form at the end of the war – even if he continued to define himself as a German patriot of Jewish faith and, after Germany was officially defeated, became one of the Versailles delegates fighting for the future of the nascent Weimar Republic.

Select Bibliography

Frank Bajohr, Warburg, Max. M., in: Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden (ed.), Das Jüdische Hamburg. Ein historisches Nachschlagewerk, Göttingen 2006, pp. 272-273.
Sarah Panter, Jüdische Erfahrungen und Loyalitätskonflikte im Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 2014.
Egmont Zechlin, Die deutsche Politik und die Juden im Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 1969.

Selected English Titles

Ron Chernow, The Warburgs. The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family, New York 1993.
Naomi W. Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff. A Study in American Jewish Leadership, Hanover (New Hamsphire) 1999.
John Higham, Strangers in the Land. Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, New York 2007.
Edward Marshall, Jacob H. Schiff Points a Way to European Peace, in: New York Times, Magazine Section, 22.11.1914, p. SM4.

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About the Author

Sarah Panter, Dr. phil., born 1982, is research associate at the Department of Universal History at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. Her focus of research is: 19th and 20th century Jewish history in the German and Angloamerican scope, transnational history, cultural transfers and the history of interconnections, digital humanities as well as mobility research.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Sarah Panter, Transnational Networks and Questions of Belonging. An Exchange of Letters Between Jacob Schiff and Max Warburg During World War I. (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, March 07, 2017. <> [May 20, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.