Banker, Forger, Historian

Isaac Levin’s way through interesting times (1887-1945)

This book is not solely, not even primarily a biography. The biographical elements are used by the author in the sense of a route and not as goal. The main figure – Isaac Levin – is regarded in terms of his vita; this leads the reader through episodes in contemporary history, from revolutionary Russia to the Roosevelt era, from German inflation to the banking crisis, from the professional counterfeiting in the grey zones of finance to the forgery of political documents in the secret service milieu. The reader follows Isaac Levin, later named J. F. Normano, along his path, he reads about what this person is doing and what he is undergoing. This is both captivating and entertaining; in some parts it reads like a detective novel, in others like a story of escape. But this is not all the book has to offer. The biographical images are painted before their historical backgrounds, so readers go on a tour through exciting chapters of last century history.

Isaac Levin was born in Kiev as the son of a wealthy trader and grew up in the Russian/Ukrainian Jewish community. He enrolls for his academic studies at the Petersburg Polytechnic University, where there is no restricted admission for Jews. However, the institute is closed after only a few weeks; the Russian Autumn of 1905 is politically unstable. Levin moves to the University of Leipzig and returns to Petersburg only one year later – to find an unmistakably “political” university. His main teacher is Peter Struve; he was a Marxist and is now a Liberal and one of the prominent “Cadets”. Levin completes his exams, makes his first experiences with banking, teaches and publishes. His goal is to become a professor; he is awarded his doctorate in 1912 in Freiburg and continues his university career in Petersburg as a university lecturer. He is also a successful manager – on the side. Politically he is close to the Cadets, publishes a few times in Struve’s Russkaja Mysl, as well in the newspaper of the Liberals. This appears until June, 1918; one of the last issues brings a long, covertly critical article on Lenin’s way of economic thinking. The author is Levin.

He leaves Russia a few weeks later, goes to Helsinki, works in banks and involves himself in safeguarding the interests of expropriated Russian businessmen. For Russian emigrants of all classes, this country is simply a stopover. Many head on to Paris, Struve is one of them. Not just a few go to the German capital, where a “Russian Berlin” forms itself for a few years. Levin moves here in 1921 – and settles down in the “Neuer Westen”. Does he have a chance to continue his academic career? Do new institutions like the East-European-Institute in Breslau or the Russian Academic Institute in Berlin open their doors for him? How well is Levin known and how does he compete with other emigrated university economists – was Levin not only a junior lecturer in Petersburg? Will Struve, who is in the meantime influentially involved in the Russian Academic Institute, help him?

If either having an academic option or not, Levin chooses business. Helpful hereby is his membership in the B’nai B’rith Lodge. He becomes a bank director, offers capital investments for wealthy emigrants and pursues the financing of trade with eastern companies. He tries his luck as well in the battle of German provincial bankers against the policy of concentration followed by the big banks in Berlin. He does not succeed – his plan for a Central Bank, Inc. in the capital – under the participation of important provincial banks – does not work, and the bank he is in charge of must close. On the other hand, he has accumulated sufficient capital to buy the traditionally run Löwenberg Bank in 1926. Business runs well at first. As of 1927, however, the number of banking crises increases among the small and middle businesses, which is the first bad sign of collapse on a big scale. In eastern business, the established patterns of trade financing lose ground to the “Russian bills of exchange”; the big banks in the West and the state monopolies in the East become the big players. The list of insolvent institutes gets longer and longer, and Levin’s bank is added to the list in January, 1929. He can no longer discount his bills, and following the first reports of the “Löwenberg scandal” these are considered downright fakes. This case livens up the newspapers for a week, but is not one of the big ones. The scandals around Barmat, Sklarek, Raiffeisen and Stinnes are more in this category.

Forgery makes news in many areas during the wild twenties. Forgers are not only to be found in the grey zones of finance; counterfeit money is not only printed for personal enrichment but also for foreign political purposes. The same applies for the forgery of political documents; Vladimir Orlov made secret service history with this. Isaac Levin is already in Paris when the swindle around his bills is made known. The city is in the final phases of the “roaring twenties” – forgery is nothing uncommon. Top-scale affairs surround the ex-finance minister Louis Klotz and a miracle maker in financial circles: Marthe Hanau. Forgers like them are not automatically treated with disdain. This is shown in the film in the eighties about Madame Hanau, with Romy Schneider as main actress. The theme of forgery plays a central role in Orson Welles film “F for Fake”; his “film about trickery and fraud” is both fascinating and irritating.

Levin leaves Paris for Brazil, calls himself João Frederico Normano (i.e. Hans Friedrich Normanne / John Frederic Normano) and lowers his age to 40. This double passport-forgery is tailored to the position he is reaching for; junior scientist in Harvard. This great leap forward is a success, he becomes the associate director of the Harvard Bureau for Economic Research in Latin America and writes a highly acknowledged book, which some consider to this day to belong to the roots of the theory on Brazilian economic development. It also lays the foundation for the US-American developed ideology of the new Pan-Americanism – as a more politically correct form of the Monroe Doctrine. But in December, 1932, his second university career is threatened to collapse: His real identity is found out. The German General Consul in Boston takes on his case, and interest in him is awakened in Berlin following Hitler’s takeover of power. The “Normano Case” leads immediately to diplomatic and foreign political conflict. The German Foreign Office (AA) demands that he be handed over, the young Roosevelt government gets under pressure from the Jewish Community, tries to pass it on to the AA and causes irritation there. The Hitler regime does not want external political isolation and the United States plays a central role in this game of chess.

Levin is not forced to leave the United States. He is thrown out of Harvard, is , however, still respected in the circles of Latin-Americanism and concentrates, as of 1941, on research and teaching with a Pacific reference – in view of rapidly expanding fields of political consulting. However, before he can become really influential in this area, he dies in April, 1945. The New York Times writes an obituary. In the literature of the Stalin-Era, he is only shortly mentioned in a systemic ideological classification. In 2010 a book about him is published in Moscow with reprints of three of his works and reference to a biographical article from a Russian scientist, written not least with an impetus from this book’s author.