In Frankfurt, Merton Strasse, the Mertonviertel district, a vocational college, a translation prize, and a university institute all commemorate the life of a citizen of Frankfurt with Jewish roots, a man to whom the city owes so much. So who was Wilhelm Merton, who was born in 1848 into a Jewish family in Frankfurt?
(Photo above: Fritz Klimsch, portrait bust of Wilhelm Merton. © UAF Dept. 812 No. 104)
Founding the Metallgesellschaft
When Wilhelm Merton founded Metallgesellschaft AG in Frankfurt in 1881, it was the time of the Second Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the modern age. Today, the private bank Julius Baer Germany resides in the company’s former head office on the corner of Bockenheimer Anlage and Reuterweg. In the space of only a few years, Metallgesellschaft evolved into one of the world’s most successful companies in its field. Merton’s main business—the mining and trading of non-ferrous metals, particularly copper, lead, and zinc—boomed during the years of the electrical and technological revolution especially given the rapid spread of telegraph and overhead power lines grids.
Branches and subsidiaries were established on five continents, including the American Metal Company in New York, the Australian Metal Company in Melbourne, and the Compañía de Minerales y Metales in Mexico. An English branch, headed by Merton’s brother Henry R. Merton, established a lucrative connection to the prestigious London Metal Exchange.
Philipp Stein (Frankfurt lawyer, local politician and from 1903 director of the "Institut für Gemeinwohl"), 1917
"He followed the poor into their homes and families, and thus through the poor he encountered poverty, which led him to the question of social welfare."
The “Welfare Capitalist”
Merton became a multi-millionaire; by the end of the 19th century, he was one of the ten richest individuals in Frankfurt. Despite or precisely because of his wealth, the metal magnate campaigned tirelessly for issues that were still unpopular at the time, such as company pensions, health and safety at work, and to improve the miserable living conditions of many industrial workers. The “social welfare question” that had become ever ore acute during the Industrial Revolution and the catastrophic living conditions of the proletariat left Merton no peace. In retrospect, because of his extraordinary commitment to the poor and vulnerable in society, historian Werner Mosse called him a “welfare capitalist.”
Merton’s striving for both the rule of law and justice led him to found an extensive network of non-denominational educational and social institutions in Frankfurt: between 1890 and 1914, he established the Institut für Gemeinwohl (Institute of Public Welfare), the Centrale für private Fürsorge (Center for Private Welfare), the Akademie für Sozial- und Handelswissenschaften (Academy of Social and Commercial Sciences), the Soziale Museum (Social Museum), and finally the Frankfurter Stiftungsuniversität (the privately endowed Frankfurt University). Among the university’s benefactors, Merton topped the list with a contribution of 2.3 million Reichsmarks to the endowment capital. The Frankfurt University became the first non-governmental, in other words independent university in the Reich, and at the same time the only university in the State of Prussia where academics of Jewish descent could be appointed professors.
In 1877, Merton married Emma Ladenburg, the daughter of a banker. The couple had five children: Alfred, Richard, Adolf, Walter Henry, and Gerda. Merton and his wife converted to the Protestant faith in 1899; they’d had the children baptized long before that. In his autobiographical fragments, Merton wrote that he had renounced Judaism early on, namely while attending Municipal High School. As a young man, he especially disliked his grandmother’s strict adherence to the orthodox faith. With the exception of Adolf Merton, who had a doctorate in art history and died while serving at the front in 1914, all his sons worked at Metallgeschäft. Following World War II, Richard Merton returned to Frankfurt from English exile and set about rebuilding Metallgesellschaft; he was Chairman of the Supervisory Board from 1950 to 1955.
Merton and Corporate Social Responsibility
In commemoration of the 175th anniversary of his birth, the aim of the exhibition and the accompanying program is to critically appreciate Wilhelm Merton against the background of his day and native city and to make him, his family, and his colleagues from the fields of politics, business, and society better known to a contemporary audience. Particularly since some of Merton’s foundations still exist and remain active today—for instance, Goethe University and the Bürgerinstitut e.V., (Merton founded the latter in 1899 as the Centrale für soziale Fürsorge [Center for Social Welfare]). These institutions, however, are only rarely associated with the great industrialist.
The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, Article 14 (2)
"Property entails obligations. Its use should also serve the common good."
Merton was a visionary and a pioneer. From an early point onwards, his tireless ardor led him to address the question of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, which is particularly important today in view of rising social and economic inequality in Germany and around the world.
Themes of the exhibition
- The metals magnate
- The social reformer: “Be rich with decency”
- The family patriarch: Merton in private
- The obliteration of Merton’s legacy from the city’s memory 1933–1945
- His corporate social legacy
A publication edited by Christoph Sachße will accompany the exhibition.
The exhibition in the atrium of the Jewish Museum is enhanced with photographs by Lena Bils and Johanna Schlegel. In their projects, the two artists from Prof. Martin Liebscher’s photography class at HfG Offenbach address the visual reception of the portrait of Wilhelm Merton, painted by Walter Petersen in 1906, and the legacies of ore mining in the Australian mining town of Broken Hill. The photo exhibition focuses on the environmental impact of industrial mining on the part of Metallgesellschaft and its subsidiaries. exhibition location: basis e. v. , Gutleutstraße 8-12 (Juli 20 to August 27, 2023).
Curator: Heike Drummer
Co-Curator: Fedor Besseler
Project Support: Reinhard Oswalt
Education and Communication Team: Dr. Türkân Kanbiçak, Arwin Mahdavi Naraghi, Schima Memarpuri, Wassili Brassat
Design: Karl-Heinz Best, mind the gap! design, Meike Schermelleh, Studio Schermelleh
Media partner: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
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