Review: Dragon’s Teeth

Dragon’s Teeth (The Lanny Budd Novels #3), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1942).

Summary: As Irma’s fortune wanes, Lanny uses his art dealings both for income and to secure release of the Robins, who are swept up in the anti-Semitism of pre-war Nazi Germany.]

This is the third of eleven books Upton Sinclair wrote around young, well-connected Lanny Budd, set in the years between the two wars and World War 2. In my review of book #2, I noted a Matthew Arnold quote about “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.” and hoping the wandering would end with this book. If anything, Lanny and Irma’s wanderings around Europe seem more pronounced with yacht trips and migrations from Bienvenu on the Riviera to Paris, Berlin, and Munich.

If there is a plot line, it revolves around the Robin family, a Jewish financier and his sons, Hansi and Freddi and their spouses. Hansi and Freddi were swept up into Lanny’s “pink” socialism, while Johannes had cultivated a business relationship with Lanny’s father, a gun manufacturer. Johannes thinks his affluence protects him and his family. It turned out otherwise. Lanny negotiates the family’s freedom with Hermann Goring, at the cost of the Robin fortune. But Freddi is left behind, and eventually reported in Dachau. Much of the story revolves Lanny’s efforts to get him out of Germany.

Under his trade as an art dealer, he goes in and out of Germany, holding shows of his step father, Marcel Detaze’s paintings. He mutes his socialism and cultivates ties with Goebbels, Goring, and even Hitler, who he meets twice. Throughout, the question is really who is using who, but a significant part of the narrative is an expose’ of the growing persecution of the Jews, the “disappearings,” and the ambitions of the Fuhrer.

Lanny and Irma make a glamour couple with her fortune and his looks, though that fortune is “declining” due to the crash of the market. In this book, one senses increasing tension between the daughter of capitalists and the socialist Lanny. Each indulge to a point the wishes of others, but Lanny’s efforts to rescue his Jewish, socialist friends at the risk of his life clearly strains the relationship as Irma sees more clearly who she married, and Lanny wrestles with the circuits around Europe, seeing and being seen. Irma wants to host a salon. Lanny wants to find some greater purpose, preferably resisting the rising Nazi threat, whose measure he has accurately taken.

This book won a Pulitzer in 1943. I personally wonder what this says about other published works of that year. Most of the action and excitement happens in the last 100 pages of a 600 page book. The rest is hundreds of pages of wanderings around Europe whose main purpose is to show Western society’s last flurry’s as Nazism arose–the dissolution of the French government against the backdrop of a German society buying order and prosperity at the cost of the suppression of the Jews and the rise of tyranny. I do think Sinclair could have cut at least 200 pages out of this book without harm either to the plot or Sinclair’s polemic purposes.

Reviews of previous books in the series:

World’s End

Between Two Worlds

Review: The Warburgs

the warburgs

The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish FamilyRon Chernow. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Summary: The story of a prosperous and sprawling Jewish banking family who eventually established banking and philanthropic efforts in Germany, England, and the U.S., experiencing both great success and influence, and stunning disillusionment with the rise of Nazi Germany.

The Warburgs. It sounds like the title of a serialized TV drama chronicling a wealthy, influential, family with its own inner struggles, eccentric and driven characters, triumphs, tragedies and affairs. This wouldn’t be far off of the truth about this Jewish banking family whose rise began with the founding of M.M. Warburg & Co. in 1798.

I picked this up because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Grant (review). This is a much earlier work, and in many ways far more complicated, in telling the story of several generations of a family from the turn of the nineteenth century into the 1990’s. It was a family with two major and rival branches, the Alsterufer and Mittelweg Warburgs, and a family that became established on both sides of the Atlantic.

For much of the story, the Mittelweg side of the family was in the ascendent. The five sons of Moritz Warburg, exercised great influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Max Warburg stands out in the development of M.M. Warburg as a power house private bank in Hamburg before the rise of Nazi Germany. His elder brother Aby relinquished his place in banking for intellectual pursuits, amassing a unique library that reflected his synthesis of knowledge, bankrolled by his prosperous brothers, who stay by him during periods where his genius descended into insanity. Brothers Paul and Felix emigrated to the U.S. Paul was an economic genius who outlined the framework for our Federal Reserve System while Felix married into the Schiff banking family and became an influential partner in Kuhn, Loeb, in New York City and engaged in extensive Jewish philanthropy. Fritz fled Germany for Sweden.  Max remained and struggled to maintain his banking house’s clients in an increasingly hostile atmosphere and held out the hope that some accommodation could be reached with the Nazis. In the end, he turned the bank over to the Aryan Brinckmann, supposedly a caretaker for the Warburg interest, but who fought to retain control after the war.

The later part of the book chronicles the post-war trajectory of Warburg interests and the rise of the Alsterufer branch in the person of Siegmund Warburg, who established S.G. Warburg in England in 1946 and built it into a major investment banking firm before his death. Chernow’s portrayal of this financial genius was fascinating. We observe a leader who exercised perfectionist control over the firm while delivering excellence of customer service to both small and large investor, a man of both towering rages and refinement, one as much inclined to the philosopher’s retreat as to the hurley-burley of the financial world. The tense alliance/rivalry between him and Eric, Max’s son, over the re-establishment of the Warburg name in Germany accentuates the continued competition between the two branches of the family.

One of the themes is the tension the Warburgs struggled with over their German and Jewish identities, a tension many Jews in Germany faced. They, with other Germans, took great pride in the rise of Germany as a power, and saw their own efforts as part of this. Max even served as a pre-war director on the board of I.G. Farben, the chemical concern that manufactured Zyklon B, used to exterminate Jews in the concentration camps. We follow the gradual opening of the eyes of Max and other family members to the unfolding tragedy of Nazism and how a nation would willingly participate in the elimination of some of its greatest fellow citizens. Max both tried to encourage Jews to wait it out, and yet also helped bankroll and facilitate the flight of many others and was one of the last to leave while Jews could.

Another theme is the dissipation of Jewish identity through wealth and marriage outside the faith. Each generation was increasingly less observant, and the main thing that marked them out was philanthropic efforts. Some became secular, others married Christians, allowing children to be baptized and raised in Christian faith.

What is striking at the same time is a family marked by financial and intellectual genius, whether it was Moritz, the first of the Mittelwegs or Max, or his son Eric, who eventually succeeded in restoring the M.M. Warburg & Co. name in Hamburg. Jimmy, Paul’s son advised Franklin Roosevelt for a time, and flip flops between progressive and conservative stances, alienating him from most of those in power until he came back in favor during the Kennedy administration. One could go on and discuss the varied careers of the Warburg women, including Max’s four daughters.

One of the challenges was keeping all the names and family relationships straight! Chernow provides a family tree in the front matter and it’s good to keep it marked. What is striking is that he spins a fascinating narrative of this sprawling family, its hopes, its genius, its outliers, it’s impact and the cost of wealth over the generations. Even today, the Warburg name remains on Warburg, Pincus and M.M. Warburg & Co.  S.G. Warburg was bought out by Swiss Bank, became Warburg Dillon Read and later UBS Warburg before the Warburg name gave way to UBS Investment Bank. Chernow helps us understand the drive and the significant actors behind this enduring legacy of influence in the worlds of banking, philanthropy, and culture.


Is It Time for a New Declaration of Barmen?


Karl Barth

The Declaration of Barmen. No, this isn’t the drunken bloviations of a bunch of good old boys who have had a few too many at the local pub. Rather, this was a serious statement formulated by Karl Barth and agreed to by representatives of Germany’s Confessional Churches to address the rising threat of Nazi tyranny and the usurpation of the place of Christ by the state in the life of the church. It basically argued that the church cannot and would not give to the state what belongs to Christ alone and spoke out against the idolatry of the “great leader”

In its various articles it confessed:

  • There was no other power beside Christ who reveals God’s salvation.
  • That there was no area of life not under the Lordship of Christ.
  • That the church could not abandon its order or message to conform to prevailing ideological or political convictions.
  • The church could not allow special leaders, particular instruments of the state, to rule over its life.
  • The church could not and would not become an organ of the state.
  • The church could not subordinate the Word and work of Christ to any state agenda.

A friend of mine wondered whether it is time for another such declaration. I wonder particularly if it is time for such a declaration among the churches of America.

It seems to me that for too long we have looked to the political powers-that-be, whether on the right or the left, as our source of hope and have made of government an idol.

It seems to me that for too long the church in America has been politically captive to the left or the right rather than focusing on its distinctive message of the in-breaking rule of God.

It seems to me that for too long we have been infatuated with electing the “right” political leader into office and have lodged far too great a hope in fallible human beings and governments.

Karl Barth and the German leaders who signed this Declaration were prescient in recognizing the political captivity and the idolatry of power that was gaining a foothold in the German churches and compromising the Christian message with a gospel of power and hate that destroyed six million Jews, and countless others in the World War that followed. Unfortunately, much of the German church did not heed this declaration, and sadly, a deeply compromised church lost its power to speak into the life of a Germany re-building after the war.

I wonder if we have reached a critical juncture in the life of the church in America where we need to clearly choose between politics and the gospel of the kingdom of Jesus. And I say this across the spectrum from liberal to conservative in both the political and theological senses. Will the church in America simply mirror the political divides of this country, which we have done through so much of our national history (think of the debates on slavery)? Or will we seize this moment, which might be our last, to repent of our idolatry, and political captivity, and divisions among ourselves?

Is it time for a new Declaration of Barmen? Time and past time, I would say.