The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I

  • By Steven Ujifusa
  • Harper
  • 384 pp.

How a German shipping magnate tried to rescue his people.

The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I

It’s a grand, epic story. During America’s classic age of immigration, from 1880 until the 1914 start of World War I, almost 20 million people left their homes in Europe seeking a better life. They crossed hostile frontiers, then the Atlantic Ocean, facing risks and hardships. Once here, they fundamentally changed the complexion of the United States.

For Jews, who represented about 1.5 million of those immigrants, the story has special poignance. The Jewish migration was a product of the era’s violent antisemitism, particularly in Russia, and a fleeting promise of shelter in America.

This is the story Steven Ujifusa relates in his new book, The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I. The subtitle is a mouthful, but Ujifusa is an expert on historical vessels and shipping firms, giving him a unique wheelhouse: the business side of very big boats. Through a wealth of research and skillful storytelling, he has managed to weave together a business tale and a classic-era American immigration tale to create a compelling, character-driven drama.

The story begins in 1881, with the Russian Empire, which then included Poland and much of Eastern Europe, responding to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by launching waves of government-backed pogroms. Ultimately, tens of thousands of Jews would die in the violence as it escalated over ensuing decades — and long before the Holocaust. Emigration for Jews became a matter of life or death, and they began to move in vast numbers.

Ujifusa builds his story primarily around a small circle of financiers who stood to profit from this resulting dislocation of people, including New York’s J.P. Morgan and Jacob Schiff. But at its heart is a lesser-known German figure, Albert Ballin, then the managing director of the Hamburg-American shipping firm. In Ujifusa’s telling, Ballin emerges as far more consequential, both as a financial wizard and as a shaper of history, than either of his better-known contemporaries.

Ballin’s role, too, has special poignance. Because he was Jewish, his memory and record were deliberately smeared and erased by the Nazi generation of World War II. At his height, Ballin stood as a preeminent figure in the Germany of the 1890s-1910s and as an intimate of its emperor, Wilhelm II. He considered himself a German patriot and took pride in developing his Hamburg-American Line (known in German as the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft or HAPAG) into a flagship enterprise for his rising country. Yet Ballin, as a Jew, had to navigate a Germany whose prejudicial laws excluded him from government posts, elite society, and even an ownership share in his own company.

Ballin, seeing opportunity, took the initiative to transform his Hamburg-American Line into the primary mechanism for moving Jewish refugees from hostile Russia to America during this period. Altruism aside, he recognized mass immigration as smart business. Carrying large numbers of America-bound emigrants in low-cost, densely packed steerage generated enormous cashflow. As Ujifusa explains, this revenue then subsidized both the luxurious first-class accommodations of the era’s most glamorous vessels and the eye-popping profits for the company itself.

Cornering the market on Jewish refugees took brilliance and stamina. To sell tickets to Jews in Russia and get them to his German-ported ships, Ballin had to conquer a host of logistical nightmares. We learn how he arranged for his company to handle the German government’s border crossings with that country. Then, to house those thousands of Jews while keeping them separated from antisemitic locals, Ballin built large barracks — complete with medical care and kosher food — in isolated sections near his Hamburg docks.

Ballin confronted cholera outbreaks, political crises, and competitive raids. Through it all, he kept his eye on the bottom line. When Russia launched its disastrous 1905 war against Japan, he made a fortune winning contracts to service the Russian fleet. When Russia’s eventual defeat sparked new rounds of government-sanctioned pogroms, he stood ready to profit from the new waves of Jewish refugees. Nonetheless, Ballin had no hesitation about using his control over German-Russian border crossings to block passage for anyone holding tickets on competitors’ shipping lines like the British Cunard.

Some critics saw Ballin as a ruthless capitalist exploiting his own people’s misery to make a buck. But, as Ujifusa tells us, Ballin responded tactfully by allowing Jewish aid groups better access to his border crossings and ceasing holdups for refugees carrying other lines’ tickets. It all paid off. By 1908, Ballin was seeing over 100,000 immigrants each year pass through his villages. Of the estimated 1.5 million Jews who left Russia for America between 1881 and 1914, as many as 1 million crossed the ocean on Ballin’s ships. It was an awesome accomplishment.

To keep up with booming business, Ballin built bigger and better vessels designed with every luxury and the most modern technologies; Ujifusa delights in telling us about all their flourishes. Ballin’s final ship, the Vaterland, was the largest passenger ship of its time, measuring 950 feet stem-to-stern. No bigger ship would be launched for the next 20 years.

Notably, as a ship designer, Ballin saw the April 1912 sinking of the Titanic not as a grand parable on man’s hubris but as something more prosaic: poor management by the White Star Line. In his estimation, reports Ujifusa, White Star had cut corners, making its ships’ outer hulls too weak to withstand a simple bump from an iceberg (which hardly would’ve been unexpected along the frigid, well-traveled North Atlantic shipping lanes).

Sadly, World War I was a disaster for Ballin. He saw his life’s work destroyed along with his standing in Germany. Starting in 1914, naval blockades and U-boat attacks shut down virtually all civilian travel across the Atlantic. Within Germany, Ballin’s grand ships found themselves increasingly commandeered by the military. When the United States entered the conflict in 1917, all Hamburg-American ships docked in U.S. ports were immediately seized as prizes of war.

Personally, Ballin’s dovish views on the conflict — he’d urged German officials against provoking a war — placed him on the outs with his country’s ruling circles. When Germany faced military defeat in late 1918 and angry mobs overthrew the emperor’s government, crowds also ransacked Ballin’s offices and home, vilifying him along with the warmongers. Despondent, he died a few days later from a self-administered overdose of sleeping pills.

(Recently, Ballin’s reputation has undergone a restoration. A white marble bust of the man stands today at the former Hamburg-American immigration center at Ballinstadt, now a museum.)

Ujifusa’s other key characters, including Jacob Schiff and J.P. Morgan, play secondary roles in the narrative but still carry plenty of heft. Schiff, like Ballin, is also largely forgotten today, but in the early 1900s, his Wall Street firm Kuhn Loeb and Company (which merged into Lehman Brothers in the 1970s) stood second only to J.P. Morgan itself. Schiff held a leadership role in the New York Jewish community; his charities were prolific; and he would leave his mark on the world stage by using his financial muscle to punish tsarist Russia for its antisemitic pogroms. This included, at the outbreak of WWI, his refusal to back loans for allies Britain and France so long as they included Russia in their alliance, a stance for which he suffered public vilification.

Morgan appears in Ujifusa’s story as Ballin’s nemesis, a rival tycoon trying to steal the trans-Atlantic shipping business. He would ultimately fail, but his attempt makes for fine corporate-backroom drama.

The classic age of American immigration came to a jarring end as a rising tide of anti-immigrant bigotry culminated in Congress enacting the notorious, overtly racist immigration-quota acts of 1921 and 1924 aimed explicitly at Eastern and southern Europe and Japan. These laws would finally slam the door shut.

Ujifusa traces this movement via the roles of politicians like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, as well as key leaders of the eugenics movement, including Madison Grant, author of the then-bestselling book The Passing of the Great Race, which laid out a theory of Nordic/Aryan racial superiority embraced by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. American academic and scientific circles, to their lasting shame, grew enamored of this new racial “science” and cited it as a basis for ending widespread immigration to the U.S.

Ujifusa has produced a good read, with new information and perspectives. Yet the book has some flaws, including a few factual glitches that hopefully will be corrected in later editions. For instance, he has the German army in 1914 cross a “Maginot line” that Monsieur Maginot would not begin building until the 1930s. He also offers occasional sweeping overstatements that deserve a good trim, such as crowning Schiff “a new Moses of the Second Exodus, who had helped to lead almost two million of his fellow Jews to the Promised Land.” Schiff was a fine person who did many admirable things, but seriously?

Still, if you’re in the market for an interesting business, German/Jewish, or immigration history, or if you just enjoy spending time with a book that tells you things you didn’t already know, The Last Ships from Hamburg is a solid choice.

Ken Ackerman is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC. His books include The Gold Ring: Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, and Black Friday 1869 and Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.

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