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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 712

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This is the grave of Henry Morgenthau.

Born in 1856 in Mannheim, Grand Duchy of Baden, Morgenthau was the son of a big cigar manufacturer. The family was Jewish and despite financial success, dealt with the anti-Semitism that was all too ubiquitous at the time. The family also took a huge hit in the U.S. Civil War, when the massive reduction of tobacco exports to Germany undermined the business. In 1866, the family moved to New York. But his father was unable to reestablish his financial empire in the U.S. He basically survived by being a successful fundraiser for synagogues. This might not have led to the level of wealth the family was accustomed to, but it was good enough to ensure that Henry would have a good education and be onto a good career. Henry attended City College and then Columbia Law.

Morgenthau became a successful lawyer and then invested heavily into New York real estate, including major investment in the Lower East Side in the 1880s and in Washington Heights just before the subway was built. This made him a very wealthy man. He became a fundraiser for the Democratic Party and played the role of rich guy, funding Jewish charities.

In 1911, Morgenthau met Woodrow Wilson. They hit it off instantly. Morgenthau became a big contributor to Wilson’s presidential campaign. Now, Morgenthau had gained some pretty big political ambitions. He definitely wanted to be paid off for his work. He was hoping to be offered a Cabinet position. That didn’t happen. Instead, Wilson offered him the position of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. This wasn’t quite what Morgenthau had in mind, but he accepted it after taking a long time and in fact sailing to Europe for vacation first. It had been a frequent offer to Jewish supporters of the president in this anti-Semitic age that largely prevented Jews from being offered more prestigious positions.

However disappointed Morgenthau might have been, he entered into his new position with aplomb. When World War I began, with the U.S. a neutral, the Allies tended to use the American embassy to represent what was left of their interests. Morgenthau also ran straight into the Armenian genocide. There wasn’t really a whole lot he could do. He gathered information and sent it to Washington, demanding that the Wilson administration do something. But what? Morgenthau had conversations with Ottoman leaders, but they blew him off. Finally, he exploded at the Empire’s Interior minister, stating, “Our people will never forget these massacres.” And it is one of the horrible events of the twentieth centuries that a lot of Americans, at least educated ones, do remember today, in part of course because Turkey refused to admit it even committed these crimes. Morgenthau headed a fundraising committee to provide relief and fed stories to the New York Times, which ran them all. Disgusted, he resigned in 1916 and returned to the U.S., where he wrote a book about what he had seen.

After Morgenthau’s return, he remained heavily involved in the Jewish community, particularly around the fate of Jews in Europe. He was strongly anti-Zionist at the Paris Peace Conference at the conclusion of World War I. In fact, he remained very anti-Zionist his whole life, believing in assimilation, not nationalism. He headed a fact finding mission to Poland in 1919 to investigate pogroms there. The Morgenthau Report had the perhaps somewhat surprising finding that while there was some random violence against Jews, as well as the Pinsk Massacre, where 35 Jews had been executed by the Polish military. But he also stated there was no organized effort and that Germans were painting the Poles as uniquely anti-Semitic for political reasons. He continued in these roles through the 30s. He went to Greece to help out with a refugee crisis there, publishing another book on this experience in 1929. He also lived to see his son Henry became the powerful and long-serving Secretary of Treasury under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Morgenthau died of a brain hemorrhage in 1946, at the age of 90.

Henry Morgenthau is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored in part by LGM reader contributions. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other leading American diplomats to the Ottoman Empire, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lew Wallace, who of course also wrote Ben Hur and was stationed in Istanbul from 1881-85, is in Crawfordsville, Indiana and George Boker, who was there from 1872-75, is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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