High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg

Dominic Sandbrook fails to be charmed by a pioneering banker

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Reviewed by: Dominic Sandbrook
Author: Niall Ferguson
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30

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It is easy to forget just how archaic the City of London was half a century ago. As late as the 1960s, bankers, brokers, jobbers and clerks still dressed and thought much as their predecessors before the war had, an army of men with bowler hats and black umbrellas. It was a world in which bankers were forbidden to call on stockbrokers in their offices and could not even communicate with the Treasury without going through the Governor of the Bank of England first.

Yet this was a world that was poised on the brink of enormous change, thanks to such innovations as the launch of the Eurobond market, which transformed the City into one of the handmaidens of globalisation. And in the vanguard was a man who often seemed to be the soul of conservatism: a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany called Siegmund Warburg.

Now that Warburg’s firm has long since been absorbed by the banking giant UBS, his name has gradually begun to fade from history. One of Niall Ferguson’s great services in this fine biography is to remind us just how important Warburg was.

The product of a German financial dynasty who modelled themselves on the Rothschilds, he fled to London in 1934 and opened his own merchant bank, the New Trading Company, which later became SG Warburg and Co. Though an outsider and a pronounced critic of the old boy network, he rapidly became one of the City’s leading lights, a staunch Atlanticist and anti-Communist who nevertheless maintained excellent relations with the Labour Party leadership.

He was the mastermind behind the City’s first hostile takeover (the famous British Aluminium battle in the late 1950s), yet behind the scenes Warburg was also a passionate advocate of European integration as well as a close friend of Harold Wilson.

While Ferguson’s book is a splendid guide to the transformation of the City between the 1930s and the 1970s – the effects of which, of course, we are still struggling to cope with today – it is at its best, I think, on Warburg’s early life in Weimar Germany.

Although Jewish, Warburg was precisely the kind of temperamentally conservative German who was horrified by hyper-inflation and alarmed by street-corner Bolshevism, and as late as the spring of 1933 he felt drawn to some aspects of Nazi ideology. Even a year later, he was “still weighing up the pros and cons of fascism” and it was this kind of intellectual flexibility (he later described himself as a ‘floating voter’) that made him such an enigmatic character.

But he was not, unfortunately, a very likeable one. Ferguson does his best for Warburg, but despite a section striving manfully to depict life in the firm as a laugh-a-minute carnival, his subject comes across as a very dull dog indeed.

Warburg had his quirks – a bizarre obsession with handwriting analysis, for instance – but he was a workaholic and a perfectionist, and as time went on he became ever more cantankerous, interfering and generally disagreeable. Above all, though, he was a banker, spending most of his life hunched over papers and figures – hardly the stuff of great drama.

And although Ferguson makes a good case that bankers have been ill served by history, even a writer of his prodigious talent struggles to elicit sympathy for such a dry, monkish figure. 

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Dominic Sandbrook is the author of State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 (Allen Lane, September 2010)