A Family and Its Fortunes

Baron James: The Rise of the French Rothschilds

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

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.