Avraham Barkai. Oscar Wassermann und die Deutsche Bank: Bankier in schwierigen Zeiten. München: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2005. 180 S. + 45 Abb. EUR 22.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-406-52958-0.
Reviewed by Mark Spoerer (University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart)
Published on H-German (July, 2005)
Throughout the twentieth century, Deutsche Bank was the leading German commercial bank and, at the time of this writing, it still is. In 1995 it set precedent by publishing a comprehensive study of its history written by eminent scholars of the historical profession who did not ignore or whitewash the years 1933 to 1945. Encouraged by the largely positive public response to the Deutsche Bank volume, many large German firms followed and had their history in the National Socialist era researched and published by academic historians rather than journalists. Ten years later, our knowledge on the complex relations between German firms and the Nazi regime has improved extraordinarily.
Meanwhile the team of historians working for Deutsche Bank has continued to publish studies that deal with special aspects of the company history. Avraham Barkai has now submitted a concise study on Oscar Wassermann (1869-1934), who headed Deutsche Bank's managing board as primus inter pares, in a position comparable to that of a CEO, from 1923 to 1933. Barkai, born in Berlin but living in Israel, has published numerous important and influential studies both on Nazi economic history as well as on the history of German Jewry.
In contrast to other recent studies on leading executives of the time, no large archival legacy seduced Barkai to write a biography. Here, the question came first; only then did Barkai search the archives and contact relatives and contemporaries of Wassermann. Hence the evidence available for Barkai to assemble was scarce, even and especially in the archives of Deutsche Bank. The archives of Jewish associations in which Wassermann, a "Zionist non-zionist," was very active, were some of the richest sources.
As a consequence, not many sources survive that would allow historians to trace Wassermann's life. Especially his personal finances are of particular interest, as they seem to have played a role when he was more or less sacked in Spring 1933. Contrary to what one might assume, Wassermann, who was descended from a wealthy south German banking family and earned a very large salary at Deutsche Bank, apparently found himself in financial difficulties in the early 1930s. While his lavish lifestyle may have contributed to the fading of his wealth, other factors that Barkai was not able to identify probably mattered as well. The little evidence Barkai has obtained on Wassermann's character, however, offer--especially in comparison to other leading German executives of the time--a quite favorable picture (an assessment that I share with Barkai). Wassermann was, as was typical of his upper class Jewish background, very well educated and had, contrary to other bankers of the time like Jakob Goldschmidt, amiable manners. Although he was far from sympathizing with the political left, he was a pacifist. The only critical assessment of Wassermann's character which Barkai was able to find is laid down in a lengthy memorandum composed by Franz Urbig, one of Wassermann's colleagues on the managing board who played a suspicious role in Wassermann's sacking. In Urbig's view, Wassermann seems to have been too much of a philanthropic optimist, too "soft" to run Germany's leading commercial bank in times as bumpy as the early 1930s.
This document, dated late July 1933, is reproduced in full length in the appendix of the book. It is fundamental for the explanation as to why Wassermann was forced to leave the board as early as April/May 1933. The bank (after the merger of 1929 called Deutsche Bank und Disconto-Gesellschaft, until 1937) was under political pressure to replace the Jewish members of its managing board. As a consequence of unfortunate credit engagements, a number of former Deutsche Bank board members had recently been forced to resign. Hence the supervisory board was reluctant to replace another former Deutsche Bank executive as this could have been interpreted as leading to the predominance of the former Disconto-Gesellschaft. When Wassermann learned that his colleagues were discussing his withdrawal not only among themselves but with representatives of the Reich, he immediately offered his resignation, an outcome that even Urbig--according to his account of the events--found premature. Hence the bank did not initially announce Wassermann's resignation. Yet, when Wassermann, aged 64, fell seriously ill two days later, the board discussed the pros and cons of accepting Wassermann's resignation. Sooner or later he would have to be replaced anyway, either because of his age or his ethnic origin. Moreover, it seemed opportune to give in to the political pressure now rather than later as Wassermann's illness delivered a perfect argument. To the embarrassment of his board colleagues, four weeks later a convalesced Wassermann reappeared in the bank and asked whether he should resume his duties. The bank's answer was that he should continue his convalescence. A few days later, however, it communicated Wassermann's "resignation" to the public.
Barkai argues that the bank gave in to political pressures too early (vorauseilender Gehorsam). As Wassermann was not only a Jew, but even an activist in Jewish and moderate Zionist organizations, he had become a negative asset for the bank. Though Barkai was not able to find sufficient archival evidence, it seems that rivals among Wassermann's colleagues were eager to take advantage of the fact that he was Jewish--a behavior certainly not confined to the board of Deutsche Bank. A peculiar nasty detail, however, surfaces much later in the narrative when Barkai traces the means by which Deutsche Bank rejected the financial claims of Wassermann's daughters in the 1950s. While Barkai did not find documents that could clarify whether their claims were justified or not, the bank's quibbling representatives falsely claimed that Wassermann had resigned deliberately and primarily for health reasons.
Fortunately, today's Deutsche Bank seems to have taken a very open-minded approach towards its company history. It remains to be seen whether the series of impressive historical monographs will be continued. Barkai's cautiously sympathetic yet well-balanced account of Deutsche Bank's last CEO before and during the advent of National Socialism meets these high quality standards.
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Mark Spoerer. Review of Barkai, Avraham, Oscar Wassermann und die Deutsche Bank: Bankier in schwierigen Zeiten.
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