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

they do damage to the trade of Christians and because they are unusable as far as the State is concerned…. One must prevent their numbers from growing and must limit them not only to a fixed number of families but also to a fixed number of individuals. One must also restrict their business activities, preventing them from engaging in wholesale trade, for they should only be retailers.

Sixteen years later, in his Testament of 1768, he showed that his views had not changed.2 His aversion to the Jews was unalloyed by any appreciation of the achievements of the most brilliant of the members of the Jewish community, and long after Moses Mendelssohn had become one of the best- known inhabitants of Berlin, with a reputation as a philosopher that extended far beyond the boundaries of his kingdom, the King acted as if he did not exist and effectively blocked his election to the Royal Academy. Indeed, Mendelssohn had difficulty in acquiring the privilege of maintaining a residence of his own in Berlin and, when he sought to have it extended to his children, his request was refused.3

On the other hand, Frederick had wars to fight, and wars require money. As Michael Graetz points out, the King had no objection to making Jews like Veitel Ephraim, Daniel Itzig, Moses Isaak, and Hertz Moses Gumperz his agents for minting money and acquiring military supplies, and he placed the entire financing of the Seven Years War in their hands. Clearly, Moses Mendelssohn had chosen the wrong occupation.


Amos Elon’s biography of Meyer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the banking empire, and Fritz Backhaus’s article in the exhibition’s catalog on Rothschild and his sons suffer from a common weakness: their main character is not very interesting. This is not their fault. There is not much available personal information about him: no diary that reveals early dreams and ambitions or reactions to success or disappointment, no letters to friends or sweethearts, no reliable eyewitness descriptions of him in contact with other people, not even a painting or drawing to show what he looked like. We see him only at work, making money, and although both authors tell us how it was done, neither makes it very exciting. Instead they concentrate on the world in which this shadowy figure grew up, and, particularly in Elon’s book, this is a fascinating story.

Meyer Amschel Rothschild was born in 1744 in the Judengasse in the imperial city of Frankfurt on the Main river. This was a narrow street built upon the old city moat along the outside of the twelfth-century Hohenstaufen Wall. The wall had three gates that could be closed to prevent all egress to the town proper and were shut at nightfall and on all holidays and feast days. The Jews of Frankfurt had been confined to the Judengasse since the fifteenth century, and the fact that this and other restrictions on their movements and activities were still enforced in Rothschild’s time was a sadder commentary on the limitations of the German Enlightenment than Frederick’s obtuseness in the case of Moses Mendelssohn.

In his memoirs, Goethe, the grandson of a Frankfurt lord mayor, described the Judengasse as it was in his youth:

The closeness, the dirt, the crowd, the sound of the disagreeable language, all this made the most unpleasant impression, if one merely looked through the gate. It was a long time before I ventured to go in, and it was not easy to return once I had escaped the importunities of the many persons who tirelessly offered or demanded something to haggle over. Besides, the old tales of the horrors committed by Jews against Christians…loomed darkly before the young mind…. And yet they remained God’s chosen people and, whatever had happened since, carried with them the memory of those most ancient times.4

One can be forgiven for finding in this passage a certain air of detachment, an impression confirmed by the poet’s matter-of-fact reference, in his famous description of Joseph II’s coronation in 1764, to the Jews being locked up in their ghetto before the festivities began.5 Certainly there was none of the savage indignation of the radical journalist Ludwig B̦rne, who was born on the Judengasse and described it as a long dark cellar, its surface covered with deep muck in which countless children played “like worms hatched on the manure by the force of the sun.”6

The escape from this ghetto, and every Frankfurt Jew must have dreamed of it, was to become a Court Jew, and young Meyer Amschel Rothschild’s feet were set on this path when he was orphaned at the age of twelve, for family connections secured him an apprenticeship in the Hanover banking firm of Wolf Jakob Oppenheim, the grandson of the famous court factor in Vienna. In Hanover he gained experience in foreign trade and—since the Seven Years War was raging throughout his apprenticeship—in adapting commercial relations to wartime conditions, and, in addition, learned how to issue and cash bills of exchange. He also broadened his knowledge of rare and antique coins, which had fascinated him ever since the days when he sorted coins for his father during the Frankfurt fairs, and he became a sophisticated judge of their value to collectors. This proved to be a fortunate specialty, for it brought him together with a Hanoverian nobleman named General von Estorff, who not only commissioned him to buy coins and medals for his own collection but introduced him to the man who played the most important role in his later career.

This was the future Landgrave of Hesse, Prince William, the heir to an enormous fortune, which he later greatly increased by supplying his cousin George III of England with Hessian subjects to fight for him in America and pocketing the recruiting fees. Elon tells us that the Prince was a shrewd judge of character and intelligence and, as a Freemason, had no prejudice against Jews. He also had a coin collection and, thanks to Estorff, soon became a customer of Rothschild, who at the end of his apprenticeship had returned to Frankfurt. The prince’s privy purse for 1765 shows an expenditure in June of “38 gulden 30 kreuzer to Jew Meyer for medals.”

Other transactions followed, and these emboldened Rothschild to petition the prince in 1769 for an appointment as court factor, saying that he stood ready “to exert all my energies and my entire fortune to serve Your Lofty Princely Serenity whenever in future it shall please You to Command me.” The prince responded favorably, and Rothschild became a “Hoch-FÌ?rstlicher Hessen-Hanauischer Hof-Factor,” a distinction that gave him no specific rights, and did not even allow him to leave the Judengasse on Sundays and holidays, but constituted a mark of enhanced respectability that could be printed in the coin catalogues that he was now sending to prospective customers. He had begun, Elon writes, to run a kind of mail-order business in the quiet periods between the Frankfurt fairs and to travel to neighboring towns to meet customers and display his wares. Traveling must have been almost a relaxation for Rothschild, despite the condition of the roads, for in August 1770 he had married the seventeen-year-old daughter of Wolf Salomon Schnapper, the court factor to the little principality of Sachsen-Meiningen, and he and his bride were forced to share the old family home in the Judengasse with his brothers Moses and Calmann and their families and businesses.

By 1778, however, Rothschild was the only Jewish coin dealer in Frankfurt, and the business was so profitable that in 1784 he was able to buy a home of his own. This was just as well, because between 1771 and 1792 he and his wife had five daughters and five sons. Meanwhile, he had begun to diversify his activities, developing a profitable wholesale trade in woolen and cotton cloth and flour, in which his two oldest sons, Amschel and Salomon, were his principal agents. During the years of the American Revolution, moreover, he became active for the first time as a banker. In 1776, Crown Prince William’s profits from his contracts to supply the British with Hessian recruits became available in the form of bills of exchange drawn on English banks. In order to increase his profits, the prince discounted these through local bankers, offering credit lines to the most trustworthy. Rothschild was one of these favored bankers and found this new activity profitable and congenial.

With a surprising amount of self-confidence, in view of his limited experience, he therefore set about converting a medium-sized trading and discount and exchange house into a major banking concern and made his first experiments in negotiating state loans. The coming of the French Revolution, however, represented the real breakthrough in his career. In 1792, when Prince William, now Landgrave of Hesse, joined the great coalition against the Revolution, Rothschild advanced much of the å£100,000 subsidy that he demanded of Great Britain. At the same time, with two partners, he entered into a contract to supply the Austrian army with wheat, uniforms, pack horses, and other equipment, managing the considerable capital transfers involved, and working through an elaborate network of subcontractors. This worked so efficiently that in January 1800, Emperor Francis II, by formal patent, appointed Rothschild and his oldest son, Amschel, Imperial Crown Agents, an honorific rather than substantial title but one that testified to his growing reputation and encouraged other businessmen to invest in his enterprises, as they now began to do. Meanwhile, his third son, Nathan, had moved to Manchester and was handling the profitable trade between England and wartime Europe, which ballooned after the imposition of Napoleon’s continental system in 1806. Elon writes:

A fleet of cargo ships was at Nathan’s disposal to transport goods to ports on the Dutch and north-German coast. His brothers were in attendance at all ports of call to forward the merchandise on to Frankfurt and other destinations on the continent…. Calmann was in Hamburg, Salomon in Dunkirk and Jacob in Amsterdam, where Amschel also seems to have spent nine months in 1808 in connection with this business…. Rothschild coordinated everything. French attempts to stop them were half-hearted or ineffective.

Elon’s description of the complicated financial manipulations of the Napoleonic years is authoritative and circumstantial. There may be readers of this record of seemingly limitless profit-making who will find themselves thinking that an occasional catastrophic setback might add a bit of suspense to the story and that it would be morally edifying if one of the more unpleasant figures in the story—the Landgrave of Hesse for example—would actually lose money. But that capitalist par excellence, although driven from his realm by Napoleon because he refused to join the Emperor’s Confederation of the Rhine, got away with most of his private fortune and then increased it mightily by placing his investments in the hands of the Rothschilds.

One sympathizes with those who had to do the dirty job of fighting the wars and were the tools of the money-men. Consider poor Arthur Wellesley in the Iberian Peninsula, without money to pay his troops and with his wounded officers in Salamanca selling their uniforms simply to stay alive. In desperation the future Duke of Wellington borrowed from Maltese and Italian bankers at usurious rates in exchange for bills drawn on the British government. These notes in hand, Elon tells us, were bought up at a fraction of their face value by Rothschild agents in Malta, Livorno, and Marseilles and sent to London, where Nathan Rothschild cashed them at the Bank of England at a huge profit. When Wellesley threatened to break off his crucially important campaign against Napoleon’s flank, Nathan, who had bought å£800,000 worth of gold from the East India Company, resold this to the British government so that they could prevent him from doing so, and then persuaded the government to authorize Rothschild and Sons to transfer the needed funds to the peninsula.

Meyer Amschel Rothschild died on September 19, 1812. The one-time coin-dealer who aspired to become a Court Jew had in the course of his life built a financial empire which now, under the leadership of his sons, would play a powerful part in a world in which Court Jews had become obsolete. He had spent his life thinking about money and appears not to have been much interested in other things. He was never an agitator for Jewish emancipation, although he helped raise the money needed to buy civic equality for the Jews of Frankfurt in 1811, and donated almost a quarter of the total sum himself. His charitable instincts were strong: he was generous in his support of the most vulnerable elements in the Judengasse community; and in 1803 he supplied the impetus and much of the funds for a new school “for poor children of the Jewish Nation.” In sum, a banker at heart, but by no means one who battened on widows and orphans.

This Issue

January 9, 1997