James Rothschild
James Rothschild; drawing by David Levine

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.

Then came the next step: “Nathan and James, as the price of numerous skillfully negotiated loans, conceived the idea of having themselves appointed Consuls to represent Austria in London and Paris. A Jew entering the diplomatic corps! It was unthinkable.” Perhaps not quite so unthinkable as the author makes out, since consuls, unlike ambassadors, were often merchants or bankers. Anyway, it meant that ambassadors had no choice but to receive and be received by the Rothschilds, and the ambassadors held open the door for the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the old aristocracy who would not have dreamed of associating with the nouveaux riches among whom James had begun his social rise, or even with the Napoleonic nobility. Even in the early twentieth century they did it only reluctantly and scornfully; otherwise A la recherche du temps perdu would have been a very different book.

James’s descendant thinks that the Rothschild appetite for decorations, status, and power came from an urge to make up for the indignities they had endured in the ghetto. This may well be true; but since their letters (many of which have not even been deciphered) are mainly on business and family matters there is no way of telling. Besides, James’s goal was not exactly the same as Nathan’s. Nathan “was not interested in titles or high living, although he wished intensely to be accepted by the City of London,” i.e., by the cream of the financial and commercial world, not of society. Even so, James could have been simply a Rastignac whose ambition was pure of everything except ambition. Occasionally, Anka Muhlstein makes him out a Julian Sorel, burning with a sense of social injustice and a passion to get even. Mostly, though, he emerges as more equable and more thick-skinned than Stendhal’s hero, as well as more terre à terre, with a sense of humor in place of grandiose Napoleonic notions. It must have been difficult to resist the temptation of seeing him as an archetypal figure—not the Romantic hero, this time, with his torn personality, but an equally new species: the man on the make. Outside the Church this creature barely existed before the revolution, and Napoleon threw open careers to talent. Dick Whittington was an exception, like the upwardly mobile swineherds who marry princesses in fairy tales.

In any case, James too was now ready to marry: he needed a wife to entertain for him. A girl from the haute juiverie would have been no social asset with the nobility, a member of the financial aristocracy even less so—even if he could have contemplated marrying a Christian. Since he couldn’t, there was no point in aspiring to the Faubourg Saint-Germain itself. But being the youngest of the five brothers by far he had a possibility not open to the others: he could find a niece not too ridiculously young for him. He chose Salomon’s daughter Betty from Vienna.

Betty had many endearing qualities, but perhaps from James’s point of view the most important were being exceptionally competent and tremendously comme il faut. Her adolescence had been “spent in Frankfurt, Paris, and Vienna and [on] numerous journeys, during which her father always made certain that she met as many distinguished people as possible.” There had been no culture shock for the child of the itinerant peddler—which, to all intents and purposes, was what Salomon had been in his youth (he was nearly twenty years older than James). The marriage became a precedent: “of the eighteen matches made by the grandchildren of Mayer Amschel, sixteen were contracted between first cousins”; and the Rothschilds went on intermarrying through the following generations.

So it has become impossible to imagine a book about them without a family tree: in this way, if in no other, they became a sort of royal family, and justified their sobriquet “kings of the Jews.” Intermarriage, Anka Muhlstein says,

served to reinforce the unique situation that [the Rothschilds] had created for themselves. Jews, but without becoming too intimately involved with other Jews, habitués of the salons held by the finest flower of the aristocracy and snobs of legendary proportions, yet refusing to sell their daughters in order to pay for admission to such exclusive circles.

“Not too intimately involved with other Jews” refers, of course, to social relations only. On both sides of the Channel, the Rothschilds were committed to Jewish causes, political as well as charitable. In England they fought for the Jewish vote and then for the right to sit in Parliament. Nathan’s son Lionel became the first Jewish MP in 1850. Ten years earlier all the Rothschilds had united over the Damascus affair, but because he was in France, James bore the brunt.

What happened was this: a Capuchin friar disappeared in Damascus, and the Syrian authorities, backed up by the French consul, accused the Jews of having murdered him. Anti-Jewish riots broke out, but an independent Austrian inquiry found no evidence. The case had important international implications because France had just supported the Egyptian capture of Syria from the Turks, and Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Britain had countered by forming the Quadruple Alliance to defend Turkish interests. “The affair provided a perfect opportunity for the Austrian Chancellor to register his hostility towards France’s Middle Eastern policy, as well as to render a great service to his friends the Rothschilds, who, with their usual vigor and zeal, had immediately begged him to intervene.”

Thiers, the French premier, was raring to go to war; James wanted to give in to the Alliance, recall the French consul, and exonerate the Syrian Jews. He was not simply putting the Jewish cause before the French, though: a peace party existed in France. Nevertheless, it took courage to take the stand that he did and fight the question out in the press with Thiers. Some of the articles inspired by the premier had a distinctly anti-Semitic ring. Eventually Louis Philippe (with whom James was on intimate terms) replaced Thiers with the more conciliatory Guizot. The Jews “had mounted their own defense, and had won their case.” But the affair also caused the first stirrings of modern anti-Semitism in France. The Jews were identified with capitalism at its most ruthless, and accused of international machinations and a desire for worldwide power: it was a new line.

James rode the storm coolly, buoyed up by what his descendant describes as his colossal arrogance. This arrogance also expressed itself in his exhibitionism, “so blatant that it would transcend all considerations of good or bad taste. He was never to be the typical parvenu, breathless from the tremendous effort to make his way and surprised at his own success.” She goes on to say that he succeeded in society because “he knew how to surround himself with the right people.” His first big reception was organized by the architect Berthault who had staged royal fetes under the ancien régime. He produced such a fairy-tale mise en scène that everyone scrambled to be asked to subsequent parties, and James gave gala after gala. Possibly a greater acquisition even than Berthault was Talleyrand’s celebrated chef Carême, not just a cook but an artist and theoretician of cooking. James was soon buying works of art and having fashionable musicians play at his house, which was decorated with as much drapery and gold as possible. Le style Rothschild reached its acme at Ferrières, where James had bought a small chateau in 1829. In the 1850s he pulled it down and erected a vast palace instead. He chose the English architect Paxton, who had designed the Crystal Palace for Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition and had also built Mentmore, a gigantic country house, for James’s English nephew Mayer. “Make me a Mentmore, only grander” was James’s instruction. By this time there was no one for the Rothschilds to compete with except one another.

Nathan had died in 1836, and after that, as Richard Davis writes, “it was James, the youngest, who had most nearly taken his place as head of the family.”2 He carried more guns than either Salomon or Karl, who both died in 1855; James himself lived until 1868. His English nephews admired his panache. One of them, Nathaniel, married his eldest daughter Charlotte and settled in France under James’s wing. James was an affectionate and sometimes a charming, if autocratic, father and uncle. “Whoever served the Baron had to behave like a courtier,” and he unblushingly expected and accepted the most obsequious behavior from everyone he met. But with his family he enjoyed joking and romping—another instance, perhaps, of his determination to stand apart like royalty, unbending only with members of the dynasty. The accounts of charades and dressing up (once, grotesquely, he appeared as a kilted Scotsman) remind one of Ingres’s painting of Henry IV surprised by the shocked but reverential Spanish ambassador as he crawls on the floor with his children. In fact it was Betty whom Ingres painted in a dress of startling cyclamen satin, transforming her, as Robert Rosenblum says in his book on the painter, from a model of “the mid-nineteenth century’s material wealth into a timeless icon of aristocratic grace and beauty.”

Mayer, the youngest brother of James’s son-in-law Nathaniel and later the owner of Mentmore, was the first English Rothschild to be able to attend a university. He went to Cambridge, and the next generation followed in his footsteps. This is the point at which the English Rothschild style diverges even further from the French. English education for the upper classes—partly because it is residential and partly because of the particular values it stresses—forges much stronger personal links than the French system. The Rothschilds had already entered Parliament. From now on they would have intimate childhood friends among the British ruling class; in fact, they were very soon part of it. (In 1874 Mayer’s daughter married a future prime minister, Lord Rosebery.)

In France, there was not even a ruling class for them to join: politicians came from every walk of life, while the aristocracy held itself aloof. Reading between the lines of Anka Muhlstein’s book and Richard Davis’s (which is not quite fair since the former stops with James’s death) one gets the impression that although the Rothschilds were admitted to the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, they were probably not as intimate with the owners as the English Rothschilds were with their cronies. Like the Rothschilds, the French aristocracy tends to reserve intimacy for the family.

Though more assimilated than his brothers, James did not believe in too much assimilation, at least for other Jews. He

liked to believe himself at the apex of the pyramid formed by that part of Jewish society which was forced to live in isolation, subject as always to the agonies of poverty and prejudice. He willingly assumed the responsibilities of such a position, but, once again, in the manner of a Prince secure in his own freedom from servitude. And James could play such a role all the more readily since not only did he do much to support the oppressed Jews, but he also represented a dream come true, the spectacular and unique success that every unfortunate Jew visualized as the ultimate vindication of his own degraded position.

This Issue

August 18, 1983