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A Family and Its Fortunes

Baron James: The Rise of the French Rothschilds

by Anka Muhlstein
Vendome Press, 223 pp., $17.95

The earliest history of the Rothschild family has a simple, legendary quality, like the story of Dick Whittington multiplied by five. In the second half of the eighteenth century, a money changer from the Frankfurt ghetto became banker to the richest of all the German princes, the landgrave and later elector of Hesse. The Jew was called Mayer Amschel Rothschild, and he grew rich too. He sent his five sons out into the world like arrows (and later, when they were ennobled, they chose five arrows for their coat of arms). Salomon went to Vienna, Nathan to London, Karl to Naples, and Jacob to Paris. The eldest, Amschel, stayed behind in Frankfurt. They threw a network of banks across Europe and, bound together by the terms of their father’s will when he died, they grew richer and richer until they were as rich as Rothschilds. By 1863 they were worth 558 million francs.

Money values in Anka Muhlstein’s book are expressed in francs because it was originally written in French. She is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Frankfurt Mayer Amschel, and the great-great-granddaughter of her subject, Mayer Amschel’s youngest son Jacob, who changed his name to James and founded the French branch of the family. She manages to be both filial and lively, like a favorite child: respectful but allowed an occasional joke or tease. She is also as informative as it is probably possible to be, considering that much early Rothschild material has not yet been deciphered and that secretiveness seems to be a hereditary trait in the family.

Jacob arrived in Paris in 1811. He was nineteen years old. Nathan, the second brother and nearly twenty years older, had already been established in England for several years and become a British subject. In 1811, he was busy transferring funds to Britain’s Continental allies on behalf of the British government. Why he was the man to do it and exactly how he did it is described in the present Lord Rothschild’s memoir of his ancestor, The Shadow of a Great Man.1 He was also supplying money to Wellington in Spain so that he could pay his army: as Wellington pointed out, if soldiers are not paid punctually they cannot be expected not to loot. Nathan shipped gold pieces across the Channel to Dunkirk. James and Salomon smuggled them to Paris where French banks converted them into drafts on Spanish banks; Karl, temporarily planted in southwestern France, saw the funds across the Pyrenees. “So tricky and dangerous was the mission in Paris that it justified the assignment of James, not only in recognition of his boldness and good sense in matters of business, but also because of his curiosity and openness of mind. Nathan found him, of all his brothers, the one with the greatest aptitude for mixing easily in society, a quality indispensable for anyone intent upon becoming established in France.”

Anka Muhlstein deals clearly and competently with James’s financial activities under the Restoration Bourbons, Louis Philippe, and Napoleon III. He supported and financed all of them in turn from positions of varying intimacy—closest in the case of Louis Philippe. What distinguishes her from countless other writers about the Rothschilds is that she makes the reader aware of the immense cultural distance covered by a man born in the ghetto who ended up receiving the emperor of France in his own unprecedentedly palatial palace. She knows about social gradation: the title of her last chapter, “The Parvenu Is Always Someone Else,” deserves a place in the next edition of the Oxford Book of Aphorisms. It also establishes her angle: Proustian, not sociological.

James’s career is not simply a rags-to-riches story. He had never known poverty. Mayer Amschel was already a rich man when his youngest son was born, and a man of consequence in the ghetto. But only in the ghetto: the family moved to a “fine new house” there, but the street was still squalid, crowded, airless, and locked from dusk till dawn at either end, with the Jews penned inside. The house itself would have been considered impossibly cramped by the upper-middle-class Goethe family, who were living in the same city at the same time on about the same income.

At the Rothschilds’, business and family life were conducted under the same narrow roof. Ten out of eighteen children survived and slept in one room. They never went out to play because Jewish children were not allowed in the city parks; and from the age of twelve they went to work for their father—enthusiastically, it seems. The only formal education they got was a little Hebrew learned at the synagogue school. They spoke Yiddish. Mayer Amschel himself never learned to write German or Latin script, but his children taught themselves, and taught themselves French and English as well. Nevertheless, throughout their lives the five brothers continued to use the Hebrew alphabet in their letters to one another. It was a ready-made secret code and remains a deterrent to scholars.

It is common now for a boy from an underdeveloped country, brought up in a non-Christian tradition, to be translated to a Western environment, educated, sent to a university, and to finish up as a nuclear scientist, a business tycoon, or even a writer in his new tongue. Autobiographies (Ved Mehta’s, for instance) dealing with such violent transitions fascinate Western readers. Culture shock is a fascinating experience. It is even more vivid to read how someone made himself over into a new pattern with the inherent danger of betraying his soul and splitting his personality.

The divided self has haunted Western thinking since the Romantic age—which coincided neatly with the exodus of the five Rothschild brothers. Their experience can be read as a fable—an optimistic fable—for our times, if we take our times to begin with the early nineteenth century. Poor Jews the world over certainly regarded them as a race of prototypal heroes, and perhaps still do. If you look at them with David Riesman’s categories in mind they are remarkable because they not merely moved from the medieval, “tradition-directed” world of the ghetto into the age of capitalism and steam (James Rothschild financed the first French railways). They actually helped to make this new age while themselves deliberately choosing to remain “tradition-directed” to a significant extent.

Of all the Rothschild brothers James was the one who adapted most fully and quickly to life outside the ghetto, but he never thought of abandoning his religion or even of becoming a naturalized Frenchman; nor did he ever lose his heavy German-Jewish accent. Except for Amschel, the eldest, all the brothers gave up the Orthodox caftan and hat which their father wore, but James was the only one who was delighted (being greedy) to give up kosher food. It was easier for him to be more relaxed since, unlike his brothers, he married late and during his early years in France had no family to set an example to.

The problem of assimilation in France was quite different from the same problem in England on the one hand or in Central Europe on the other, and Anka Muhlstein is very enlightening about it. At the time of the French Revolution, there were scarcely any Jews in Paris, but large communities existed in Bordeaux, Provence, and Alsace. The former two were Sephardic, spoke, respectively, Ladino and Chuadit, got on well with their Christian neighbors, and “constituted an intellectual elite,” especially in medicine. The Jews of Alsace, on the other hand, were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi, and like their fellows all over Central and Eastern Europe, they were persecuted, poor, and forced to live in wretched settlements.

In 1791 the French Jews were given equal rights with other citizens, and the Napoleonic armies carried civil rights for Jews to the countries they occupied. As soon as Napoleon was driven back, many of these countries repealed the laws of Jewish emancipation. In Germany conversion became common, perhaps because those who had tasted freedom could not bear to lose it. Karl Rothschild complained that he could not find a girl to marry in Berlin “because…if she herself has not been converted, then a brother or sister-in-law has.” Conversion was something the Rothschilds could not stomach even at a remove.

As for England, the Jews had been expelled in the Middle Ages, but when they began to trickle back in the seventeenth century they were not persecuted. They had no vote and could not send their children to the universities which required membership of the Church of England. But apart from these disabilities, which they shared with Catholics and Nonconformists, they had equal rights with other citizens. By the end of the eighteenth century there were several rich and well-established Jewish families in London, and after six years as a cotton broker in Manchester, Nathan moved to the capital and married into one of them.

When James set up an office in Paris there were about three thousand Jews there divided among several different synagogues using different rites and different languages. There was no close-knit group to claim him and so he remained aloof. “In Paris, James had no trouble keeping his friends separate from his business since he had no friends.” His life was all work until he realized that his work would profit from social contacts. This was the moment at which he changed his name to the English James (“during the Restoration everything fashionable was à l’anglaise“), ordered his clothes from London, and took lessons in riding and dancing. He was aiming at the Balzacian salons of the new money, “the stupefying dullness of which almost outweighed the value of the information available there.” Nevertheless, they attracted James, “vulgar, ignorant, but quick to learn.”

He seems to have had no intention of lingering at this level. The Restoration was the period in which the Rothschilds’ fortune took the biggest lurch forward: between 1815 and 1818 their capital increased from 3 million to 42 million francs. Largely because of Nathan’s enterprise, they were no longer merely merchant bankers, but international financiers acting on behalf of governments. In Vienna Salomon had gained access to Metternich by financing the latter’s adviser Friedrich von Gentz, who needed a lot of money for his love life. In exchange for a loan to the Austrian government Metternich elevated all five brothers to the rank of baron.

Now the difference in style between the various branches of the family begins to emerge. Nathan declined to use his foreign title which would not cut much ice in England; the rest were delighted with the new appendage. “The pious Amschel rejoiced particularly because he felt certain that the Rothschilds’ elevation would check those opportunists among the Jews who sought conversion to Christianity.” James, for his part, took off socially: he invited Wellington to dinner, and moved to a grand house which was to remain the bank’s Paris address until it was nationalized by Mitterrand.

  1. 1

    Published privately by Victor Rothschild, London, 1982.

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