Albert Kahn – A dream of world peace

I had the great pleasure of writing this article a couple of years ago. Now I have finally translated it

The Japanse section in Albert Kahn's garden
The Japanse section in Albert Kahn’s garden

Who is Albert Kahn you might ask? That’s a very good question, because considering the important person he was and still is, it is surprisingly difficult to find any information about him.  There are many websites that present a small biography of Albert Kahn, but it seems as if everyone has used the same source, and it only provides limited information. It has been even more difficult to find out something about the journey he made through the county of Telemark in Norway 100 years ago. I know that he visited Dalen, and thus I started with The Tokke Historical Society, Vest-Telemark Museum and Tokke municipal authority. No one had heard about this enigmatic man. Where the information is sparse I have tried to speculate a bit, but I don’t think it is that far from the truth.

Albert Kahn was one of the richest men in Europe and he used his fortune on two projects that people around the world still can enjoy. In 1893 he bought a large property where he created a unique garden in different styles, including an English, Japanese and French style. This garden became a meeting place for intellectuals from all over Europe, among others Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein and André Gide.

Archive de la planet
Albert Kahn launched his second project in 1912 and called it “The planet’s archive” (Archive de la planet). His goal was to create a photo archive of and for the peoples of the world. He thought the new auto chrome process could promote peace and understanding between different cultures. He probably got the idea when he had to make a business trip to Japan. Instead of traveling directly there, he traveled through China and had his driver take pictures of the trip.

Kahn eventually sent a group of photographers to more than 50 countries all over the world to document these cultures. It was important for him to do this before they were changed, for example due to war or globalization. He documented events like the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empire, the last traditional Celtic villages in Ireland and not the least the soldiers who fought in WW1. Before the project stopped he had over 72,000 photographs and more than 183 000 meters of film.  But two other Frenchmen also made this possible. The Lumière brothers invented the so-called auto chrome technology in 1907, which were the first colour photographs in the world. This invention made Albert Kahn the important person he still is. He quickly discovered that this technique was perfect for his project, and was therefore one of the first ones to use this technique on a large scale.

Albert Kahn was a “self-made man,” both in the sense that he created his own fortune, and because he was his own master. He was one of the richest men in Europe, but started out in more humble conditions, although they were not directly poor. He was born into a Jewish family as the first of five children. The father did well as a farmer and gave his son a solid education. Kahn went to a Jewish primary school, then a Jewish high school and the age of 16 he moved to Paris, where he lived at a bed sits for Jewish students. It must have been important for his parents to keep their Jewish origins in a anti-Semitic environment.  After France lost the war against Germany (1870-1871) the Alsace region of France, where the Kahn-family lived, suddenly came under German rule. In Paris he worked as a bank clerk while studying in the evenings. What made him rich were, however, fortunate investments in equities, gold and diamond mines. It made him able to start his own bank.

It is hard to say what the reason was, but he chose to distance himself from his Jewish origins. He changed his name from Abraham to Albert and never mentioned the hatred of Jews that was prevalent during this time, not even in private letters. He was a part of the majority culture. I do not think he turned his back to the Jews, but he may have decided that this benefited his project better. His project throughout his life was peace. This was also a difficult time to be Jewish, especially if you worked in banking. Anti-Jewish sentiments were strong and one of the strongest stereotypes about Jews is still that they can’t be trusted because they are greedy, stingy misers. The financial crisis at the time were blamed on Jewish bankers, so he had good reasons to keep his origin a secret. I think his lifelong friendship with the Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson suggest that Kahn didn’t really have a problem with Jews. He just didn’t want anyone to know, and as far as I can understand, that wasn’t an uncommon attitude at the time. To many Jews being a part of the majority culture probably felt like a liberation in itself.

From French Indochina 1918-1921
Autochrome comissioned by Albert Kahn from French Indochina – Edge of the moat of Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap region
wikimedia commons

If we are to judge by his willingness to spend money on his two most famous projects, he must have been a generous man. He was certainly not afraid to spend money on something that would only drain his resources, but he had an abundance of motivation. Most people dream of a world of peace where people from different cultures can live in harmony, but we know it is not likely to happen soon. No one knows this better than the Jews. This is the reality Albert Kahn was born into.

Need for harmony
In his childhood, he experienced the anger the French-Prussian War created, and anger many French felt towards their own government after the defeat against Germany. It was during this period that the Zionist movement was established. It probably played a role when Albert Kahn put his ideals into practice. He did not accept that it was impossible to live together in harmony. There must have been an interest in philanthropy all the time, because you can’t separate the garden he let the build in 1893 from the photography project.

The two projects share the principle that knowledge develops understanding
and tolerance. The garden contains species from around the world the same way as he later documented people and cultures from all over the world. He wanted to collect the world that was breaking up. Tragically enough his entire work collapsed in 1931. At that time Kahn was still one of the richest men in Europe, but the crack on the stock exchange in New York ruined him. He had to sell everything he owned, including his garden, and two years later he was forced to close down his project.

His garden was turned into a public park where he still took walks towards the end of his life. I sometimes wonder what went through his mind while he walked among ordinary people in the same place as he used to converse with some of the most famous intellectuals in Europe. Perhaps it wasn’t a personal defeat because now everyone got to take part in what he had collected in his garden of the world.

Albert Kahn in Norway
There are few sources to Kahn’s trip to Norway, which makes it difficult to reconstruct it in detail, but the Norwegian photographer Anders Beer Wilse described the trip in his book Norske menn og norsk landskap” (Norwegian men and Norwegian landscape). It was published in 1943, more than 30 years later. Wilse was Kahn’s guide during his stay in Norway. We probably can’t rely on all the details in this narration, but I think it’s worth noticing the description of Kahn as a very generous person. In his book Wilse mentions a trip from Rjukan to Møsstrandsdammen where they came across a small mountain farm. The family living there were having dinner and Kahn invited himself to sit down with them. That’s how he found himself eating bread and butter together with a Norwegian family, as if that was the most natural thing to him. Maybe he preferred this lifestyle because when he was an official guest at a Norsk Hydro banquet (probably the largest Norwegian company) in Notodden, he didn’t want the meat and wine they served him. He asked for butter, bread, milk and fish.

The next day they drove to Notodden and took the steam boat through the Bandak watercourse (a part of the Telemark’s canal). On board the boat they started talking to 3 young women from the coastal town of Risør. They were enjoying a short holiday to Dalen, and had to return home already the next day. The 3 women had dinner with Kahn and Wilse at Bandak Hotel, and he thought it was a shame they could only afford a one day holiday. Before Kahn continued his trip to Odda the following day, he payed the womens hotelbill, gave them 25 kroner each, as well as a bag of shelled walnuts and fine, French chocolate.

He cared for the animals as well. When they travelled by hourse across the mountain from Dalen to Odda, the men had to walk up hill. Kahn wouldn’t allow the horses to pull that heavy weight up the steap hills. When they arrived in Odda, he gave the horsemen 25 kroner each even though he had already payed them the price they agreed on. It seems like he had a lot of sympathy for people of different social classes and cultures. This made the loss of his fortune even more tragic. Like today, there were many rich people in Albert Kahn’s time that only had profit in mind. This man, however, wanted to spend his money helping others, because he was convinced there was a lot of good in us. He couldn’t prevent two world wars, but the legacy he left behind tells us hat we are not so different, either we grew up in China or tiny Telemark.


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