Emile Ullmann, the banker who was too German

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BNP Paribas Historical Archives

BNP Paribas Historical Archives

A brilliant banker with the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris, Emile Ullmann was forced to resign from the bank in 1916 because of his German origins.

An exemplary career…

Emile Ullmann was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany on 26 February 1854. In 1873 he obtained employment at the Banque Belge du Commerce et de l’Industrie, before moving to the Brussels branch of Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris as an auxiliary. In 1875 he requested and was granted a move to Paris where he became an arbitrager, the equivalent of a dealer in today’s financial world. His knowledge of financial markets led to his appointment as Head of the Foreign Department in 1882. He became Secretary-General of the bank in 1890, and then in 1902 was promoted to Manager in charge of the Comptoir’s ‘financial affairs and general operations’. Alongside Paul Boyer, who was responsible for running the Paris headquarters, he assisted the General Manager Alexis Rostand, who had got the Comptoir back on its feet from 1889 onwards. Among other duties, Ullmann took part in negotiations regarding issuance of foreign governments’ sovereign bonds and travelled widely throughout Europe.

He finally received recognition for his efforts in 1905 when he was elected a member of the bank’s Board of Directors, while retaining his salaried post as Manager. Rostand believed him to be “the most able financier in Paris”, and in the book on French banks that German writer Eugen Kaufmann published in 1914, Ullmann is described as the most influential person at the Comptoir and the architect of its recent success.

 …Halted by the First World War

Emile Ullmann became Vice-Chairman of the Comptoir National d’Escompte in 1908 and was in line to succeed Alexis Rostand, who had in the meantime become Chairman. However war broke out in 1914. France was seized by spy phobia, and public opinion was violently anti-German. At a time when many businessmen and industrialists of German origin were being singled out for opprobrium, a violent slander campaign, orchestrated by French nationalist movement Action française and the parliamentarian and polemicist Léon Daudet, targeted Emile Ullmann in 1915, accusing him of serving German interests. Ullmann and the Comptoir tried to defend themselves but nothing could be done. Neither Ullmann’s status as a naturalised Frenchman dating back to 1884, his decoration as an officer of the Légion d’Honneur pinned on him by Rostand in 1909, nor his son’s enlistment in the French Army fighting against Germany made the slightest difference.
Ullmann was forced to resign from his post as Manager in October 1915, then to give up his seat on the Board of Directors in April 1916. The Comptoir published a tribute to him in its Markets Report of 29 October 1915 and conferred on him the title of Honorary Director. An application to overturn Ullmann’s French naturalisation which was submitted by a prosecutor in 1918 was rejected by the Seine civil court in 1920.

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