Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chapter 3 - The victim

Who were these antagonists – Ludwig Haber, the victim, and Hidechika Tazaki, the assassin? What can we discover about them, 130 years after their deaths? Comparatively little about the man Haber – far less than we know about his murderer. This may seem surprising, at first sight, since some memory of the man and several documents about him have been preserved by his family. For Hidechika Tazaki, on the other hand, we have detailed records of interrogations of his grandfather, his stepmother, his teachers, his school mates and even the women he slept with in ‘pleasure houses’. Moreover he himself gave the police several statements and an explanation of his thinking written the morning before the murder.

Of Ludwig Haber we know less. We have to make do with the limited insight we get from a series of travel articles he contributed to a newspaper in his hometown. We shall come back to these.

The milieu he came from is better known. He came from a middleclass Jewish family from Brieg, a small provincial town in what was then German Silesia - not far from the important city of Breslau (Wroclaw). After 1945 Brieg was incorporated into Poland and is now called Brzeg.

Two or so generations before him, Jews had been liberated from the confines of ghettos. Even more harmful than the physical confines had been the occupational ones. Most avenues of educational, social and professional advancement had been closed to them for centuries. However, once liberated their advances were staggeringly rapid.

Ludwig’s father was a merchant who imported wool from Poland and grain from Russia. He often travelled on business and it was on such a journey that he contracted cholera or possibly typhoid and died at Brody in Poland in 1846.
He left behind six children – four boys, and two girls. The youngest, Ida, was born after his death. Sudden impoverishment may explain why only one of the four Haber sons received a university education – even though this was the aspiration of most middle class Jewish males. But there may have been another reason: Ludwig’s brother Siegfried - who became a wealthy dye merchant at Breslau and a city councillor – discouraged his own son Fritz from studying at a university. [28] He thought the prevalent antisemitism would bar his son’s academic advancement. Normally Jews could not aspire to a professorship without first converting to Protestantism. Fortunately Siegfried failed to convince his son. Fritz became one of the most prominent scientists of his era and won the Nobel Prize. He had, however, converted to Protestantism. But Fritz was part of the generation after Ludwig. He comes into this story much later.

Ludwig’s brother who did manage to get a university education was his younger brother Julius. He studied jurisprudence. He, too, chose conversion to Protestantism. He became a judge in Provinz Posen (now Wielkopolska) which had been annexed to Prussia in the previous century. It was to him that the German ambassador in Japan addressed his letter of condolence. Later Julius became a prominent barrister – one of the small legal elite admitted to practise at the country’s highest appeal court, the Reichsgericht at Leipzig..[29]

Of the Jews who accepted baptism in that period, it has been said that most had been non-practicing Jews before and they became non-practicing Protestant after ‘conversion’. It was a conversion of convenience. But Ludwig Haber was not among the converts. He remained – at least formally – a Jew and his name appears on the register of the Brieg community. A plaque commemorating him was fixed to the wall of the Brieg Jewish cemetery after his death.[30]

Of the majority who held on to the faith of their ancestors, many in Germany opted for a reform of Judaism. Some urban synagogues came to hold services in the German language, others partly in German, partly in the traditional Hebrew. Some moved the weekly day of rest from Saturday to Sunday to keep in step with their Christian neighbours. Most abandoned the traditional Jewish dietary laws.

A third group, however, retained the strict orthodoxy of earlier centuries. The youngest of the Haber siblings, Ida, married such an orthodox Jew, Simon Spiro, a grain merchant. Probably he also traded in cattle. Spiro’s extreme orthodoxy – he marched his sons to synagogue at six in the morning every day – did not have the hoped-for effect: it alienated these sons from Jewish orthodoxy.

In his travel articles Ludwig never refers directly to his own religion but his general attitude emerges when he writes about the religion of others. He denounces certain Hindus for their “inability to break with ancient usages, even if one knows that these are neither salutary nor in keeping with the times”. Presumably he was not thinking of Hindus only. Elsewhere he denounces superstition and the hypocrisy and obscurantism of many ‘men of God.’ The rule of priests, he writes, “has always meant the enslavement of the masses”

He would probably have described himself as a freethinker. He appears not to have been a practising Jew. Problems of religious antagonisms, he believed, would fade away under the bright light of education. Like many in his milieu he believed optimistically in the inevitable march of progress and especially in the beneficial effects of world trade.

As a German patriot, he was enthusiastic about the unification of Germany in 1871 – the year he set out for the Orient. With the unification of Germany came an emancipation law abolishing all restrictions on civil and political rights derived from religious differences. In fact this was not fully implemented until nearly 50 years later. However, in his will – written in the year of unification – Ludwig Haber echoes this law almost verbatim. He left money for various good causes to be allocated “irrespective of confession”.

What more can we discover about him?

Little about him survives in the archives of the German Foreign Office. Most relevant Auswaertige Amt documents were burnt in an Anglo-American air raid on Potsdam in early 1945. Only two documents about him have been found.[31] One of these is an extremely formal letter from Max von Brandt, the German ambassador at Edo (Tokyo) addressed to Herr von Bülow, Secretary of State,** at Berlin dated 17th February 1874. The manuscript is written by a scribe in the old German Sütterlin script and requests approval for the appointment of Ludwig Haber to act as consul at Hakodate, following the death of a German citizen which required some claims against the Japanese authorities. Haber is described as “independently established in Japan and in London” and as the brother of vice-consul Haber at La Libertad in Central America.

As far as I am aware the said Haber is a reliable and conscientious man to whom the representation of our interests in Hakodate may be entrusted without disquiet. [32]


Attached is a protocol dated Hamburg 21st May 1874 confirming that the proposed Haber was “a person worthy of respect” and “personally perfectly capable of filling this post. His commercial standing is, however, only insignificant.”

This protocol is signed “Kirchenpauer”. Dr. Gustav Heinrich Kirchenpauer was, for many years, the mayor of the Free City of Hamburg and its plenipotentiary in the German Upper House. He was a lawyer and a journalist by profession. The Hamburg city archives contain nothing to explain how he came to be acquainted with Haber.[33]

Kirchenpauer’s assessment of Haber’s modest commercial position is puzzling because it is in direct contradiction to the assessment of his finances in the memoirs of the German ambassador to Japan.[34]

I declined to demand any financial compensation [for the assassination] since the Japanese authorities had acted entirely correctly and since the murdered man had left no dependants in need of support and his brothers had been freed of all care by his very considerable estate. This was the only such case in Japan in which no financial compensation was demanded.

What was Haber’s business? The City of London Directory lists his as ‘merchant’ in 1871 and again in 1874. He appears to have lived and worked in London several years. The first entry gives his business address as New City Chambers, 121 Bishopsgate Street Within, E.C. In the later entry he is listed as operating in both London and Yokohama. There is, however, no indication what business he was pursuing. Nor does his long series of travel articles make any mention of his own commercial interests.

The American doctor Eldridge, who supervised the Haber autopsy, recorded that he had known Haber when alive and had traded konbu with him. Konbu is the seaweed kelp which is used in Japanese and Chinese cooking. Seven chests were loaded ‘in Mr. Haber’s sail boat Amaita for export to Shanghai’. Japanese Foreign Office archives on the winding up of Haber’s affairs do not mention selling this ship. Haber had probably only chartered it for one journey. The same files show that some five months before his death Haber had sold 500 tons of coal to the Island Reclamation Agency for heating – the second such consignment he had supplied. From Captain H.J. Snow’s “Notes on the Kurile Islands” we also learn that the captain sold sea otter furs to Haber.[35]

These frustratingly brief glimpses into Haber’s business affairs appear to show that he was a general trader who bought and sold whatever happened to be available and in demand. Trading in coal could have been a business with a potential for growth. The fairly recent arrival of coal-fired steam ships in Far Eastern waters was changing the economy of Hakodate. The town had an excellent harbour almost surrounded by land. It was so well sheltered that ships at anchor weathered typhoons without significant damage. However sailing vessels had always found it difficult to enter the harbour because of a strong current at the entrance. They had to wait until winds were favourable and strong enough to carry them in against the current. This had sometimes required waits of 30 or even 40 days.[36] Coal-fired ships, however, were not dependent on winds and could travel against the current. The harbour thus came to be more frequently used.

Could Haber have acquired a ‘very considerable estate’ in the few months he traded at Hakodate? It seems very unlikely. British Embassy statistics for imports and exports for the various open ports in Japan show Hakodate to have been the least significant:

At Hakodate the direct import trade fell from the insignificant sum of $21,988 in 1872 to $15,936 in 1873.[37]


Possibly Haber had earned well on earlier ventures in West Africa or while working in England or, possibly, in Holland. Who was right in assessing his commercial standing – von Brandt or Kirchenpauer? Perhaps a German civil servant would have had ideas about what constituted riches different from those of a leading luminary of the great trading city of Hamburg.

Haber’s will – which has been preserved in the author’s family – provides some clues. Four of his five siblings are nominated as equal heirs to his estate. He excluded Edouard, the brother who was a merchant and German consul in San Salvador. Why? Had the brothers quarreled? It seems unlikely. A family tree – prepared half a century later – carries occasional brief annotations. For Edouard there is a one word entry: “Rich!” If true one can guess that Ludwig had decided that his older brother had no need of his largesse. In his will he put his four named heirs under an obligation to make certain charitable and personal donations before sharing out his inheritance. Among these are 400 Taler willed to the German Hospital at Dalston, London – perhaps they had treated him for his bouts of malaria; 1,000 Taler for a bursary for a poor, talented student in his hometown; another 1,000 Taler to be invested and the interest to be distributed annually among poor women of Brieg. These and several other personal donations add up to 10,400 Taler. If Ludwig regarded these as ‘marginal’ gifts, the bulk of his estate must have been much larger.

It is not easy to calculate what 10,400 Taler in 1871 would be worth in today’s currencies. An unskilled labourer earned no more than 30 Taler a year. The Oderblatt in 1871 carried an advert for a national lottery with a first prize of 25,000 Taler. This suggests that Haber’s ‘marginal’ gifts – if indeed they were only marginal – would have added up to a sizable sum and his total estate might have been – as the ambassador wrote - ‘very considerable’.

** Later chancellor, i.e. premier of Germany, 1900-1909.

1 comment:

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