I did not know much about the Morgenthaus before I read “Mostly Morgenthaus”, a family biography written by Henry Morgenthau III (published in 1991), concentrating on his father Henry II, his grandfather Henry, and his great-grandfather Lazarus. What I did know before I read the book was that Robert Morgenthau had been the long time district attorney in New York City (Robert is the brother of the author), and that the author’s father, Henry II, had been the Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Regarding Secretary Morgenthau, I had known that, somewhat late in the Second World War, he had tried to push Roosevelt to support the remaining Jews of Europe, and to support the post-war de-industrialization of Germany (something that obviously did not happen). I knew that his grandfather, the original Henry, had been United States Ambassador to Turkey, and had made a trip to Palestine earlier in the century.
I knew some of these things through reading books about the actions of the United States towards the Jews during the Second World War, and because I own a copy of Henry’s 1922 memoirs “All in a Lifetime” (with a nice inscription by Henry Morganthau to a friend of his, John D. Whiting), and because I for a while owned a copy of Henry II’s book “Germany is our Problem”, written in 1945. But I certainly did not understand the Morganthau family in context.
I had assumed that the Morgenthaus were an old line, wealthy New York German Jewish family. This is true, but I now know that Lazarus Morgenthau came to the United States a little later than many of the original Germany Jewish families. He did not come in the 1840; he came in the late 1860s, after the Civil War. This may not seem important, but it appeared that it did mean that the Morgenthaus viewed themselves as parvenus when compared to the Schiffs or others of the earlier immigration.
Lazarus Morgenthau was an interesting figure. He started out in Bavaria as one of many children in a poor family, living in a small village. While he was expected to become a rabbi or other religious figure, it was clearly not in him, and at an early age, he set out by himself to make his way in the world, becoming a shoemaker, and eventually a cigar maker. His cigar business became a very successful one, enabling this poor Bavarian Jew to live very well indeed, in a mid-size Rhineland city. That is until his business failed – the failure of which led him to emigrate to the United States.
In New York, Lazarus became a rather tragic figure. He not only did not prosper, but he became mentally or emotionally unbalanced. And it appears that only one of his children, Henry, really succeeded. Henry was always a disciplined person, and after some difficult years, became a very successful New York real estate operator, able to retire from active business by the time he was 50 or so, having set the stage for not only his financial future, but the financial future of his descendents. He also became involved in politics, becoming a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson, hoping for a cabinet position during the first Wilson administration. He did not get it, perhaps because he was Jewish, but was anmed Ambassador to Turkey, which had become a Jewish position, Turkey having control over Palestine at the time. He got into trouble, however, when Wilson, during the First World War, asked him to see if Turkey might be interested in pursuing a separate peace, as neither Turkey nor America’s allies thought that possible or desirable. To Morgenthau’s chagrin, if not surprise, Wilson blamed the initiative on Morgenthau going beyond his presidential instructions, which was apparently not correct. After his ambassadorship, Morgenthau pretty well retreated from public life.
His son, Henry II, started out as a bit of a disappointment to his father, winding up working for a number of public housing authorities and then becoming a farmer (on his father’s money) on a rural estate near Fishkill, NY, where he had dairy cattle and a large apple orchard. Fishkill, however, gave him a chance to meet the Roosevelts, who lived down the street in Hyde Park, and his friendship with Roosevelt led to governmental appointments first in Albany, when Roosevelt was governor, and then Washington, where Morgenthau was first appointed to lead an agency designed to lift depression era farmers out of poverty, and then to the Treasury Secretaryship. At first, his critics claimed he had no background for the job, but he proved a surprisingly quick study, and kept the nation afloat during the Second World War, being credited with the development of the highly successful war bonds program.
The Morgenthaus were never particularly interested in Jewish affairs, per se. Henry Morgenthau was for 100% assimilation, thinking this should be the future of the Jewish people in America. He did belong for a while to Stephen Wise’s Free Synagogue (most of the wealthy German Jewish families belonged to Temple Emanuel), but even this ended with a dispute between Morgenthau and Wise. But after realizing what was happening in Europe during the war, Morgenthau became in effect the advocate for the remaining Jews in Europe to the Roosevelt administration.
He also became convinced that the Germans needed to be punished after the war, and not treated like the rest of Europe, and that the country (a) needed to be broken up, and (b) needed to have all of its industrial base destroyed so that it would no longer be a threat to the rest of Europe. Obviously, this was a very controversial position, and I had always assumed it was the position of an outlier, but it turns out that there was a lot of support for Morgenthau’s position, and that even FDR himself seemed quick favorable. Had Roosevelt lived, the post-war future of Europe might have worked itself out quite differently. Truman would have nothing about it – Truman and Morgenthau clearly did not see eye to eye, and he was replaced at Treasury almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death.
After he left government, Morgenthau maintained his interest in Jewish affairs, although he knew virtually nothing of the Jewish religion, and became the head of the United Jewish Appeal and was one of the developers of the Israel Bond program, which was based on the success of the sale of savings bonds during the Second World War.
All in all, a very interesting book that humanizes the first three generations of the Morgenthaus. Irecommend it highly.