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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.”1

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 banking facilities that would have lent themselves to standardization, and their merchants were not energetic in acquiring facility in the use of bills of exchange and other instruments of capital formation. In order to promote their interests and fortunes, the rulers of these states turned, therefore, to the Jews, appointing them as their court “factors,” or agents. They did so, Michael Graetz writes in an interesting article in the catalog of the Jewish Museum’s current exhibition, because the Jews had the requisite skills and, as a tightly organized community, had European-wide connections, and because their social vulnerability assured their complete loyalty. The Jews for their part were attracted by the possibility of achieving an assured legal position for themselves and their families and perhaps even for their community.

After the Thirty Years’ War, when the lack of money and credit was particularly in evidence and Christian merchants failed to take the initiative, Jewish court factors placed their economic networks at the service of the absolutist rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. They played the role that was assumed by French financiers under Louis XIV, who in return for bills of exchange extended to the king the enormous sums needed to maintain his army.

It need hardly be said that the relationship between ruler and Court Jew was generally bereft of any mutual personal attachment. Most rulers continued to harbor their old dislike of Jews and felt no obligation to their factors when their labors in their rulers’ behalf overextended their private resources and led to bankruptcy and ruin. Graetz points out that of the hundreds of Court Jews active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only a handful were able to maintain their status and wealth for more than three generations. In all too many cases, moreover, the privileges granted them during their active careers aroused popular resentment and anger that not infrequently led to pogroms and attacks upon their persons.

The two most famous Court Jews, and the ones whose careers most clearly illustrate the combination of power and peril that characterized the occupation, were Samuel Oppenheimer in Vienna and his distant cousin Joseph (Jud SÌ?ss) Oppenheimer in the duchy of WÌ?rttemberg. The former was made court factor and supplier of the army by Emperor Leopold I in 1677. The imperial administration was at that time a shambles of inefficiency and corruption and the treasury was virtually empty, while the western frontiers of the realm were menaced by the aggressive policy of Louis XIV and Vienna itself was threatened by invading Turkish armies. From this perilous pass, Oppenheimer was able to extricate his patron by raising millions in credit from all over Europe and by using his astonishing logistical skill to get munitions and supplies to the Emperor’s troops when they needed them. He accomplished this under the constant threat of personal bankruptcy, since the Emperor never paid his bills on time, and with minimal support from the imperial bureaucracy.

Jews were not popular in Vienna (only seven years before Oppenheimer’s appointment, they had been expelled from the capital), and Oppenheimer’s eminent position outraged the Church. Moreover, his attempts to reform the financial administration struck fear into the hearts of courtiers who profited from its inefficiency. Intermittently, he was denounced for overcharging the exchequer, and in 1683, with the Turks at the city gates, he was imprisoned for six months while other trumped-up charges were investigated. In 1697, his enemies accused him and his son of plotting to kill a competitor, and in 1700 a mob plundered his Vienna house, destroying important papers that related to his claims against the state. In the face of all this, he continued to do his job, and when he died suddenly in 1703, an event that caused a major European financial crisis, he was engaged in a herculean effort to supply the Austrian armies that were then engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Less admirable as a character than Leopold I’s Hofjude was Jud SÌ?ss Oppenheimer, whose story not only fascinated his contemporaries (the exhibition in the Jewish Museum has a remarkable collection of books, graphics, and medals dealing with his life and death) but inspired a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger in 1925 and a film by the Nazi director Veidt Harlan in 1940. In 1733 SÌ?ss was appointed as Court Jew to Duke Karl Alexander of WÌ?rttemberg, a ruler whose conversion to Catholicism deeply shocked his pious Protestant subjects and whose mania for building castles kept WÌ?rttemberg in a perpetual state of financial crisis. SÌ?ss satisfied his master’s inordinate appetite for money and acquired a huge fortune of his own by extortion, the sale of state offices, and the imposition of oppressive taxes on the populace, while leading at the same time a life of open profligacy. This was clearly a prescription for disaster, and it came when the Duke died in 1737. SÌ?ss was arrested, tried for treason, and executed by hanging amid public rejoicing.

None of the hundreds of other Court Jews in Germany had careers as frustrating as that of Samuel Oppenheimer or as lurid as that of Jud SÌ?ss, although bankruptcy and untimely death were not uncommon. Many of them had long and profitable careers, establishing themselves in the societies whose rulers they served and becoming part of their culture. This was true of Alexander David of Braunschweig, who served five rulers over the course of fifty-seven years and was carried to the graveyard in a ducal hearse drawn by four horses and accompanied by servants of the court. His successor, Israel Jacobson, had an equally profitable career in German courts and, at the end, in Napoleon’s Kingdom of Westphalia, where he was court banker to the Emperor’s brother Jerome.

In Brandenburg-Prussia, where the attitude toward Jews in the seventeenth century was less hostile than it was in Austria, the Great Elector seems to have got on excellently with his banker and military provisioner, Elias Gomperz of Cleves. In her essay in the catalog of the Jewish Museum’s exhibition, Natalie Zemon Davis tells us that the Elector and Prince Maurice of Nassau actually attended the wedding of Gomperz’s son. The Great Elector had another Court Jew named Israel Aaron, who in return for his services as army supplier was given the then-rare privilege of settling in Berlin in 1663 and from then until his death supplied the court with everything from fruit and wine to carriages and mules.

Aaron’s widow Esther, a strong-minded woman whose remarkable career is described by Deborah Hertz, became a Court Jewess in her own right. She remarried, to a merchant named Jost Liebmann, with whom she worked in the jewelry and precious stone trade and visited the Leipzig fairs. Her long career reached its height under Prussia’s first king, Frederick, a ruler, Hertz tells us, who spent “a huge percentage of the court budget in the decoration of his gardens, his carriages, his food, and his body.” Esther Liebmann catered to his expensive tastes and his love of display until his debt to her rose to over a quarter of a million talers, part of which she recouped from the management of the mint, which had been vested in her in 1700. This arrangement lasted until her patron died and was succeeded by the parsimonious Frederick William I in 1713. Almost immediately, Esther was accused of defrauding the late sovereign and forced to pay a fine of close to one hundred thousand talers. She remained a rich woman, but her public financial role was clearly over, and she died in the following year.

If, as has been suggested above, some of the Court Jews hoped that their service to the German courts might improve their own civic position and that of their co-believers, there is little evidence that it did so. Even the coming of the AufklÌ?rung did little to ease the marginal position of the growing Jewish population. The ruler whose name is most closely associated with the Enlightenment was the “philosopher-king” Frederick II of Prussia, who regarded the Jews with a distaste that bordered on contempt. In his Political Testament of 1752, Frederick wrote they were a dangerous element in society because

  1. 1

    Heinrich Heine, Schriften Ì?ber Frankreich, in Werke (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1968), Volume III, pp. 422 ff.

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