Ferguson's biography of Siegmund Warburg will be of strong interest for readers who find financial news interesting and are looking for a broader perspective on the geopolitics of finance, in particular Britain and the European bond market. It will surely be of less interest to general readers, especially American readers, than some of Ferguson's writings on more contemporary issues, and frankly would not be selling so well were the author someone other than Mr. Ferguson.
"High Financier" can be divided into three parts based on the word "Lives" in the subtitle. The first "life" of Siegmund Warburg was his German one, from 1902-1933, covered in the first 90 pages of the book. His second "life" was his "Anglo-American" life - this runs from 1934 through the 1950s, or about page 200 in the book. The focus here is on Warburg's efforts at increasing transatlantic financial ties. The remainder of the book, slightly more than half, includes his "Anglo-German" life, or his work from the 1950s through his death in 1982 which primarily focused on European integration.
That first part will be of most interest to readers interested in German history and the interwar period. One intriguing point is what Ferguson describes as Warburg's ambivalent feelings toward the Nazi rise to power. As an educated German Jew he was of course repelled by their anti-Semitism and thuggish manner. Yet Warburg's diary and correspondence show that elements of the Nazi program appealed to him. This appears to be because as a life-long man of the political left, Warburg felt a strong attraction to collectivist policy and hostility for the decadence of the bourgeoisie, and thus hoped a coalition government including them might do some good. Ferguson's point is that if even someone like Warburg could fail to understand the Nazis' true nature until 1934, we should be more understanding of people in other countries who took even longer.
Ferguson goes to some effort to portray Warburg as an active opponent of the Nazis once he fully realized the threat, but he tries too hard. He claims Warburg to have been "an ardent opponent of the policy of appeasement," but cites no public anti-Hitler statements prior to 1939. All of the footnotes cite his diary and private correspondence. Indeed, during the 1934-1939 period Warburg traveled to Germany regularly for business, and was never bothered by the regime. All his family had left the country except two uncles who had chosen to stay to maintain the family business. Maybe it was because he didn't become a British citizen until 1939, or maybe he was concerned about his uncles. But despite all the talk about "spiritual values," it is hard not to suspect that Warburg's life priorities were no different than those of any other banker.
In regard to Warburg's "Anglo-American" life, he spent some time in the U.S. at a young age in the late 1920s, before the crash, and with part of the Warburg family firmly established in New York. He considered first going there, but after moving to London in 1934 he was heavily involved in cross-Atlantic finance before his focus moved back toward the continent.
Warburg's third life, taking up just over half the book, is his Anglo-German life. I say that - and this is a term Ferguson uses himself - because while living in the UK is business focused primarily on European finance and the need for greater integration. Whether Warburg was as important as Ferguson claims, I don't know enough about British financial history 1945-1980 to judge. But he portrays Warburg as the father of the hostile takeover in Britain, and as key to the rise of the Eurobond market and to London's revival as a financial center generally.
Warburg does seem to have been a master of business management. Ferguson devotes significant space to Warburg correspondence on the principles of a banker's work and good management practices. I won't go into that here, but readers interested in business philosophy may find these segments fruitful.
Warburg was also a strategic visionary. Ferguson consistently portrays him as being ahead of his contemporaries when it comes to business and finance. But he also presents him as being farsighted in geo-strategic terms, foreseeing the synthesis of Kennan's containment and Kissinger's détente. In 1954 Warburg wrote that the keys to victory were "building up the strength of the Western allies, second, raising the standard of living in the East (particularly in South-East Asia), and third, by a relaxation of tension..."