Forefathers of Liberalism: Ludwig Bamberger

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Ludwig Bamberger was a German banker of Jewish descent who went down in history primarily as the founder of the national bank of the united Germany and as the main author of the currency reform, as a result of which the German mark was established. However, he was also an active liberal politician for several decades, who in his career entered – successively, at various stages of his public activity – all three currents of liberalism existing in Germany at that time.

A look at the story of his life may, therefore, provide an overview of the divisions and debates that German liberals fought among themselves in the second half of the 19th century.

Bamberger was born in 1823 in Mainz, in a fairly well-off family of bankers that did not, however, belong to the city’s financial elite. His mother came from a family of well-known financiers, and his father, a trader, eventually established his own bank.

However, the family business was to be taken over by the eldest brother, so Ludwig started looking for his own life path while studying law. He graduated with a doctorate from the University of Göttingen, but despite his excellent academic results, a legal career did not welcome him with open arms.

He did not want to become a lawyer due to health problems; there was already a lot of notaries in the region; and he was not allowed to become a judge because… he was a Jew.

Fortunately, Bamberger was writing from the age of 15, and, in addition, he had an already well-formed worldview (influenced by, among others, the economic theory of Adam Smith and the lectures of liberal criminal law theorist Carl Mittermaier, and the involvement of supporters of building a unified national German state on the systemic model of liberal France by Louis Philippe in the student fraternity known as “Walhalla” from Heidelberg), for which he wanted to fight with his pen.

So when the revolution of 1848 broke out, he became a leading columnist, and then a co-editor and editor-in-chief of the Mainzer Zeitung, which, thanks to him, became a supra-regional journal.

Behind the classic exterior of a 19th-century banker, with the characteristic pointed beard and bushy mustache, there was a rather unusual hot personality for this profession. Bamberger was shaped by the strong young years spent among the liberal democrats of “young Germany”, idealists, and dreamers. Leftist, but not socialist. Or rather radical.

They dreamed of unifying the country under the principles of a republican parliamentary system based on fair elections. It is then and there that we note Bamberger’s first political involvement – in the local Democratic Party in Mainz, and then at the nationwide congress of democratic organizations.

However, the year 1849 brought awakening. Increasingly radical manifestos, attitudes, and actions of some republicans seemed to Bamberger too far-reaching and, as a result, harmful to the basic goals of the Spring of Nations in its German version. It was all the more so the case also for the utopian ideas from the arsenal of the early socialists popping up like mushrooms.

His attitude towards the legal acts of the Frankfurt National Assembly became ambivalent: he rejected the provisions of the catalog of fundamental rights, but despite skepticism, he defended the draft constitution against resistance from the reactionary German states, and even took part in the Palatine uprising.

As a result, he was sentenced in absentia to a heavy prison, and in 1852 even to the penalty of death. Fortunately, he was already in exile (in Switzerland, London, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Paris…).

During this period, Bamberger cultivated lively contacts with the international community of emigrants, but most of all he was pursuing his professional career in his uncle’s bank, where he started trading in precious metals. He set up his first bank in the Netherlands and another one in Paris. He became an expert. With the political thaw, ten years after his escape, he was able to return to Germany.

The years 1866-68 marked Bamberger’s return to German politics. At this stage, he fell under the spell of Bismarck’s unification policy (even just before the year 1870, he tried to infect the French with this sentiment).

Although he continued to cultivate democratic and revolutionary sentiments on a rhetorical level, he became a pragmatist – reluctantly, but he accepted the monarchical system, and, more importantly, he joined that fraction of liberals who decided to accept the strategy of “unity first, then freedom” [and systemic reforms towards constitutional monarchy and parliamentarism].

In this way, he found himself among the members of the center-right National Liberal Party, which promoted this philosophy, and then was its deputy (in the parliament of the Customs Union, North Germany, and finally in the Reichstag).

The National Liberal Party belonged to the broadly understood right wing, so it was admitted to public office in the conservative system of Bismarck and subsequent emperors. Bamberger was a valued expert on financial policy.

Therefore, he carried out governmental tasks: unifying the coin, switching from silver to gold, establishing the mark as the sole common currency of Germany, centralizing the print of banknotes, and finally, in 1875, the transformation of the Bank of Prussia into the actual central bank with the monopoly of money issuance.

Additionally, Bamberger co-founded and sat on the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank.

Everything changed in 1879. For some time Bamberger had criticized Bismarck’s policy of legal persecution against socialists. The second source of the dispute was the chancellor’s turn to the policy of applying customs duties. When in 1880 the National Liberal Party supported the so-called Socialist Law and the Customs Law, Bamberger broke with it and founded the Liberal Union, known as the “Secession” (in 1884, the “Secession” merged with the German Progressive Party and a new German-Freethinkers League was created).

In the following years, further points of contention between him and the government emerged: Bamberger finally demanded progress in the liberalization of the political system and civil rights, rejected the colonial idea, and demanded a reduction in arms and military spending.

The fundamental dispute concerned social policy. Bamberger – a classic economic liberal – rejected the ideas of ever new benefits, and presented the fight against the development of the welfare state as “the fight for freedom”. Bismarck made the habit of fleeing the meeting room whenever Bamberger spoke.

Bamberger expressed his disappointment with the national-liberal period in the following statement:

“The banner of the national cause was handed over to Prussian ultras and Saxon foremen. It is a caricature of what it once was…”.

In a right-wing environment, Bamberger found it increasingly difficult to withstand the spreading anti-Semitism. Of course, he was used to it (and not only coming from right-wing circles – Karl Marx called his statements during his emigration “the Gypsy language from the Paris Stock Exchange Synagogue”), but the presence of anti-Semitism in the ranks of his own party was harder for him to accept.

In 1878-79, Bamberger entered into a sharp polemic with the representative of the right wing of the national liberals, Heinrich von Treitschke, who promoted an anti-Semitic policy of discrimination. Treitschke was, indeed, fired from the party later on, but there was more and more sympathy for his views.

Bamberger saw anti-Semitism as an element of anti-liberalism, serving to combat leading liberal politicians, often Jews. After 1884, he openly accused Bismarck of cynically using anti-Semitism for his own political ends, and at the same time increasing his influence in German society.

After ending his political career, Bamberger became involved in building the German peace movement and built a network of cooperation between pacifists of various ideological origins. He died in Berlin in 1899.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

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