The little gnomes of Zurich was a phrase famously used by prime minister Harold Wilson in 1964 to describe Swiss bankers whom he suspected of speculating against the pound. Hans Julius Baer, author of this expansive autobiography, is in the nicest possible way rather a big gnome of Zurich.
It’s Not All About Money Memoirs of a Private Banker
Hans J Baer
Review by Martin Vander Weyer
‘The little gnomes of Zurich’ was a phrase famously used by prime minister Harold Wilson in 1964 to describe Swiss bankers whom he suspected of speculating against the pound. Hans Julius Baer, author of this expansive autobiography, is in the nicest possible way rather a big gnome of Zurich: chairman of the Julius Baer Group, one of Switzerland’s most respected private wealth-management firms; cultural ambassador as president of Zurich’s Tonhalle orchestra; confidant to the rich and musically gifted on both sides of the Atlantic; and, by the look of his photographs, a large, lively presence in multiple and multinational social circles.
Born in Zurich in 1927 but educated in America, Baer descends from a line of Jewish hide traders and moneylenders at Heidelsheim in Germany; his grandfather Julius established himself as a banker, first in Basel and later in Zurich, at the end of the 19th century. Hans’s memoirs, translated ‘from my Swiss-tainted German into my Swiss-tainted English’, carry the ponderous tone and bankerish detail you might expect, given his curriculum vitae.
But they also have charm and gentle humour, and they throw shafts of light on to a business milieu so secretive that it was not thought proper either to put the name of your bank above the door or, for long-standing customers when visiting the bank, to ask Baer to convey their regards to his wife Ilse. ‘I can’t do that,’ he would tell them, lest their identity should slip out as a result of such courtesies.
If professional etiquette prevents Baer telling us who keeps their family jewels in his vault, he is happily free to name-drop on a galactic scale in relation to other compartments of his life.
Thus, in the unpromising context of his presidency of the Swiss American Chamber of Commerce, we meet on a single page the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (whom Baer describes as one of ‘the four mainstays of my life’), the former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, the Aga Khan (with whom the Baers sometimes holidayed in Sardinia), the Fiat tycoon Gianni Agnelli (who refuses to be transported in a Mercedes), and the heiress to a pencil fortune, Countess Faber-Castell, ‘by birth a Sprecher von Bernegg’, who sweeps out in umbrage at the sight of Caran d’Ache pencils on Baer’s boardroom table.
Baer rarely gives away much about his own feelings — he describes his contretemps with the countess as ‘a lesson in brand awareness’ — but he is certainly smitten by the publisher George Weidenfeld’s fourth wife, Annabelle, who turns out to be a former companion of the pianist Artur Rubinstein.
Having known her in that capacity many years earlier, he encounters her afresh in Buckingham Palace at a dinner given by that ‘most charming host… the British crown prince’ to celebrate the conductor Sir Georg Solti’s 80th birthday. ‘One of my neighbours at the table was a blonde, fine-figured woman with a large décolletage. Lady Weidenfeld. I allowed myself repeated glances at the lovely view.’
As for Solti, however, Baer is less complimentary, despite a friendship that dated back to the Second World War, when the Baer family helped Solti, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, to stay in Switzerland. In later life, says Baer, the maestro ‘took himself very seriously and was deeply impressed by his own success.
The gift of humour wasn’t placed in his cradle.’ Still, Solti sounds easier to handle than Leonard Bernstein, whom Baer once watched chew and swallow three cigarettes during a car journey from airport to hotel.
All this makes enjoyable reading, but what makes the book something more flavoursome is its subliminal portrait of the darker side of the Swiss financial establishment. The small-town politicking of Zurich is brought out in a fierce little spat over the commissioning of a new organ for the Tonhalle concert hall.
The authoritarian and xenophobic — in some quarters anti-Semitic — undercurrents of Swiss life are illuminated by an extraordinary anecdote about Pinchas Zuckerman, who in the early 1980s wanted to settle in Switzerland. Baer passed some of the great Israeli violinist’s recordings to a lawyer, who had been asked to seek a resident’s permit for him.
‘One or two weeks later, a uniformed official of the police strode into my office and said,
“Unfortunately, Mr Zuckerman cannot reside in Zurich.”
“He is not famous enough.”
“How did you come to that conclusion?”
“We asked around.”’
Then there is the question of the scruples, or lack of them, behind the veil of Swiss banking secrecy. Baer tells a joke about two financiers who hear a shout of ‘Stop that pickpocket!’ to which one responds, ‘Oh, let him go. After all, we all had to start out small.’
And he recounts the proceedings of the 1996 Volcker Commission, established as a collaboration between Jewish organisations and the Swiss Bankers Association (of which Baer was a representative) to investigate dormant accounts that might contain assets belonging to Holocaust victims. Some 54,000 possible ‘victim accounts’ were in due course identified, though relatively few claims were successfully pursued.
Baer was uncomfortable with many aspects of the commission’s work, but he recognised that it brought to light ‘all kinds of improprieties’ in the Swiss banking community, including habitual mistreatment of foreign account holders and the plundering of inactive accounts for exorbitant fees until their balances dwindled to nothing.
In mitigation, there was no evidence of pro-Nazi conspiracy, as there had been, for example, among German insurance companies that reserved blocks of policy numbers for Jewish customers who were to be robbed: ‘It was a Swiss variation — unorganised theft.’
In this parochial, set-in-its-ways society, clearly not all the money men are as civilised and well principled as the cosmopolitan Hans Julius Baer.