Henry Morgenthau


Photo: Library of Congress; LC-B2- 2886-8 [P&P]

American lawyer, businessman and diplomat. He was born in Mannheim into a family of German Jews – Lazarus and Babette Morgenthau. His father owned a cigar factory and, in order to gain access to the American market, ­he moved with his family to the United States in 1866. ­Henry Morgenthau graduated in law from Columbia University, after which he began practicing law while achieving financial success in the ­real estate market­. He also became involved in social activities within the Reform Judaism movement. In 1882 he married Josephine Sykes, with whom he had four children.

In 1912 he supported Woodrow Wilson’s bid for the presidential election, taking a prominent position related to the financing of the ­Democratic Party candidate’s election campaign. In recognition of his merits, he was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a position he held from 1913 to 1916. In 1917 he was again sent to Turkey, with a mission to ­get the ­government there to break its alliance with the Central Powers.

During the , he represented the interests of ­the anti-Zionist-oriented section of the Jewish community, advising ­President Wilson on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In 1919 he led an American to Poland to investigate the situation of the Jewish minority. The results of the investigation were published on ­October­ 3, ­1919 as the so-called Morgenthau ­Report. In 1933 ­he again ­became involved in diplomatic activities, as the American representative to the disarmament conference in Geneva.

He published a number of books, including Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story (1918) – which was one of the first ­accounts of ­the Armenian Genocide – and All in a Life-time (1922).


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Early 1920s: Henry Morgenthau Sr. Photo: Bain News Service, Library of Congress; LC-B2-3958-14 [P&P]

In the maze of contradictory rationales

Meanwhile, excesses had occurred in Poland and Jews had suffered cruelly. There was genuine resentment coupled with real fear […]. There was the feeling that Poland, who had just emerged from her yoke of tyranny, should be reminded of the world’s expectation that she should grant to her minorities the same privileges which her centuries of oppression had taught her to value for herself. […]

The Jews emphasized their expectations by holding mass meetings, parades, and demonstrations in the United States and England. […]

That was in May, 1919. In early June, Hugh Gibson, who had been our Minister at Warsaw for a few weeks only, was asked for a report. He made a necessarily hasty investigation. The conclusions he arrived at in his report were greatly resented by some Jews, who charged him with unduly favouring the Poles. […]

The Versailles Conference was over. President Wilson, to whom the world still looked for leadership, was starting home within an hour, taking with him the Covenant of the League of Nations. The Treaty had just been signed; the ink was scarcely dry on the signatures to that document containing Article 93: “Poland accepts and agrees to embody in a Treaty with the Principal Allied and Associated Powers such provisions as may be deemed necessary by the said Powers to protect the interests of inhabitants of Poland who differ from the majority of the population in race, language, or religion”. […]

Our Commission arrived in Warsaw on the 13th of July [1919], and we were immediately immersed in the vortex of Polish affairs. […] As no enduring benefit was likely to be accomplished unless we won the good will of all concerned, we saw at once that to secure this was only secondary to our discovering the truth. […]

Our quarters were flooded with visitors. To our first sitting came representatives of the Zionists to state their case, and then the picturesque Rabbi Perlmutter, with his white, patriarchal beard, who, accompanied by two other rabbis, called to extend the welcome of the Orthodox Jews. That was the beginning of a full fortnight of Warsaw hearings. […]

Then there were the Assimilators, whose attitude was the extreme opposite of the Zionists. They invited us to a reception, and we found them very intelligent and deeply interested in the future of Poland – distinct in no detail of dress or speech, and holding membership in political parties on purely Polish principles, just as a Jew in America may be a Democrat or a Republican […] without reference to his religion. They regarded Judaism as a matter of faith. They were prosperous, many of them were professional men, and all of them mingled on a footing of social equality with the Christians. […]

Very impressive was our visit to the chief synagogue of Warsaw. There must have been 25,000 people present. Outside the building, those clamouring for entrance literally jammed the square, and the streets for several blocks surrounding it, from house wall to house wall; inside, the crowd was so dense that every man’s shoulder overlapped his neighbour’s. The cries from the street made it imperative for us to show ourselves there, after the services, when we were almost mobbed. Some of the crowd wanted to pull our automobile to our home; others clamoured to carry us there on their shoulders, and something close to good-natured force had to be used to enable us to reach our car. […]

“Pogroms?” Pilsudski had thundered when I first called on him. It was in the Czar’s summer palace near Warsaw [Belvedere] that he was living, and he received me in the “library” where there was not a book to be seen. “There have been no pogroms in Poland! – nothing but unavoidable accidents.” I asked the difference. “A pogrom,” he explained reluctantly, “is a massacre ordered by the government, or not prevented by it when prevention is possible. Among us no wholesale killings of Jews have been permitted. Our trouble isn’t religious, it is economic. Our petty dealers are Jews. Many of them have been war-profiteers, some have had dealings with the Germans or the Bolsheviki, or both, and this has created a prejudice against Jews in general.” […]

The time now approached for our Commission’s departure. Our investigations were ended, our work was done. We considered our final decision.

There was no question whatever but that the Jews had suffered; there had been shocking outrages of at least a sporadic character resulting in many deaths, and still more woundings and robberies, and there was a general disposition, not to say plot, of long standing, the purpose of which was to make the Jews uncomfortable in many ways: there was a deliberate conspiracy to boycott them economically and socially. Yet there was also no question but that some of the Jewish leaders had exaggerated these evils. There, too, were malevolent, self-seeking mischief makers both in the Jewish and Polish press and among the politicians of every stripe. Jews and non-Jews alike started out with the presumption that there could be no reconciliation.

source: Morgenthau, Henry. “All in a Life-time”, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page&Company, 1922.