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 his family. 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 his senior. 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.