Prophets

From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage, and Power, 1600-1800 1996-January 19, 1997.

An exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, September 8,. Catalog of the exhibition, edited by Vivian B. Mann, edited by Richard I. Cohen
The Jewish Museum/Prestel, 252 pp., $40.00 (paper)

Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time

by Amos Elon
Viking, 208 pp., $24.95

In March 1841, commenting on his acquaintance with the Paris banker James Rothschild, Heinrich Heine wrote that he liked to visit him in the office of his countinghouse, because it afforded the best view of the exaggerated forms of respect that his person elicited from his visitors, “a wriggling and twisting of the backbone that would be difficult for even the best of acrobats.” Heine wrote:

Some years ago, just as I was making my way to Herr von Rothschild, a servant in livery carried his chamber pot across the corridor, and a stock market speculator, who was passing at the same time, removed his hat respectfully before the mighty utensil…. I noted the name of this devout person, and I am convinced that, in the course of time, he will become a millionaire.

All in all, Heine said, Rothschild’s private office was a remarkable place, which, like the sight of the ocean or the starry heavens, aroused sublime thoughts and passions and revealed the triviality of man and the greatness of God. “For money is the God of our time and Rothschild is its prophet.”

The Rothschild whom Heine visited was the youngest of the five sons of Meyer Amschel Rothschild, who, starting as a humble moneychanger in Frankfurt am Main, had, before his death in 1812, laid the foundations of the international bank whose branches they directed—Amschel Meyer in Frankfurt, Nathan in London, Salomon in Vienna, Calmann in Naples, and James in Paris. Linked in governance and with balance sheets that were consolidated each year in a single account, the Rothschild branches represented a financial empire that was unequaled in Europe for most of the nineteenth century, and whose undeniable economic strength led to much speculation about its supposed political influence. As the civilization that they had helped to shape was caught up in the deadly tensions of the first decade of the twentieth century, there were people—Amos Elon mentions the liberal publicist A.J. Hobson as one of them—who wondered wistfully whether a great war might not be prevented if the Rothschilds set their faces against it. This testifies to the myth of omnipotence that attached itself to the Rothschild name, but it had nothing to do with the realities of 1914, or for that matter of history, in which bankers, the Rothschilds among them, had always done more to support wars than to prevent them.

The Rothschilds had their beginnings in the tradition of Hofjuden, or Court Jews, an institution peculiar to the states which had emerged from the progressive dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire during the Reformation and the wars of the seventeenth century. With the dawn of the age of commercial capitalism, the states of Western Europe and such entrepÌ«ts as Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg were quicker in devising the credit infrastructure appropriate for international trade than the 250 princely territories that replaced the old Reich. These principalities had neither a common currency nor the kind of …

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