Family and Enterprise in the Age of Industry

The Arnholds, 1808-2000

Simone Lässig

Spanning four generations and three continents, “Family and Enterprise in the Age of Industry” takes as its subject the Arnholds, a family of German Jewish bankers who gradually translated local success into national prominence. The case of the Arnholds’ extended family network provides the opportunity to analyze the social, cultural, and economic meanings attached to the idea of family over an extended period of time and against the backdrop of recurring political and economic upheaval. Max (1845-1908) and Georg Arnhold (1859-1926) were the sons of a Jewish doctor who was a respected though not wealthy member of the middle class in his hometown of Dessau. In 1864 Max Arnhold started their own banking house in Dresden. They focused initially – and very successfully – on industrial finance at the regional level. After Georg’s four sons joined the firm in the early twentieth century (Max died in 1908 without having biological children), Gebr. Arnhold [Arnhold Brothers] began to broaden the scope of its business activities on the national and, more tentatively, international levels. The family had also become well-known by then for its philanthropy in the fields of science, culture and social welfare. 

The Arnhold bank weathered World War I and Germany’s postwar economic disruptions; having taken over the internationally renowned banking house S. Bleichroeder in 1931, Gebr. Arnhold was considered one of the five most important Jewish-owned private banks in Germany. And it was the first of the five targeted by the Nazis for “Aryanization.” Under intense pressure from the regime, the Arnholds sold their main office in Dresden in 1935 and their Berlin subsidiary in 1938. During this period, most members of the family emigrated to the United States or Latin America, often by circuitous routes with numerous stops along the way. In their new homelands, they sought new business opportunities. Though widely dispersed, the Arnholds continued to operate as a family in business matters. During World War II, the FBI became suspicious of the Arnhold family networks. A bureau report from 1943/44 described those transcontinental networks as kind of a corporate group. After further surveillance, the FBI came to the conclusion that the principal aim of this “concern” was to stabilize the family and to reestablish their social and economic status after having been uprooted and scattered across the world. Since the war, Arnholds have lived in a dozen different countries, but, a few exceptions aside, not in Germany. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, however, several family members unexpectedly became active – and visible – as philanthropists in Dresden and Berlin (the American Academy has its home in the Arnhold villa on the Wannsee). The Arnholds have thereby attained a measure of the unusual local prominence their forebears once enjoyed.

Taking  a micro-historical approach offers the opportunity to analyze the relevance of kin and family not only against the backdrop of sweeping social, economic, and cultural change but also from the perspectives of different actors – daughters and sons, spouses, and siblings, for example, as well as business partners, personnel (white- and blue-collar), and household staffemployed by the Arnholds and their firms. By foregrounding the multiplicity of perspectives, I will try to work around what Pierre Bourdieu has termed the “biographical illusion” and to write transnational lives not, as most family biographies do, as a story with a clear narrative thread. Rather, I want to write a history that takes the uncertainties of individuals’ lives life and the factor of chance into account and can thereby offer nuanced insights into the varied historical spaces of action and experience.