An Autodidactic Corner Selection
The House of Rothschild : Volume 1: Money’s Prophets 1798 to 1848 by Niall Ferguson and The House of Rothschild Volume 2: 1849 to 1998:The World’s Bankers are close to essential reading for anyone into not just 19th century European history, banking history, Jewish
history but much of European literature, especially that of Balzac (who fashioned an important character in La Comedie Humaine on James Rothschild), Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust. The Rothschild’s created the international bond market and this made the dazzling world of The Guermantes possible. They created a form of upper Class wealth seperated from ownership of land and in so doing changed The landscape of European life and literature, especially that of France.
As Ferguson says in his introduction there is a great deal of web space devotrd to the Rothschild’s and it is all pretty much trash. The Rothschilds are part of the fantsies of the right and the left. Ferguson’s work gives the truth about the history of what by around 1850 was the richest family in the world. He explains how they became so wealthy in fascinating detail. We learn of their government contacts, their private information networks, how governments received loans, how the bond market worked and also currency trading. We learn about how laws dictating where Jews could live impacted the family.
I was fascinated to learn about how James Rothschild was part of The Comedie Humaine. James Rothschild walked behind Balzac’s coffin and secured the future of his widow by buying her house for ten times the market value.
“Literal-minded modern scholars tend to dispute the notion that James was the model for Balzac’s fictional banker Nucingen. They point to obvious dissimilarities: Nucingen is said to be from Alsace, he is the son of a convert from Judaism, he has no brothers, he is too old (at sixty in 1829) to be James, has only one daughter and so on. Yet Balzac himself told his future wife in 1844 that James—“ the high Baron of financial feudalism”—was “Nucingen to the last detail, and worse.” And a careful reading of the relevant parts of Balzac’s great work shows how much of Nucingen was inspired by James. None of the other financiers of the day is more plausible as a model; fictionalised he may be, but Nucingen is James, to the extent that Balzac could never have created the former had he never known the latter. Nucingen is first introduced in Le Père Goriot (1834-5) as the husband of one of the two self-centred daughters of the impoverished vermicellier Goriot. He is a “banker of German origin who had been made a baron of the Holy [Roman] Empire,” speaks with a thick, phonetically-spelt German accent (for example, “quelque chose” becomes “keke chausse”) and lives in the rue Saint-Lazare, “in one of those light houses, with thin columns [and] mean porches which are considered pretty in Paris, a true banker’s house, full of expensive elegance, ornaments [and] stair landings in marble mosaic.”
The Rothschilds were the wealthiest family in history. They created international banking, they are said to have financed both sides of all Major wars, including The American revolution and The Wars of Napoleon. Ferguson explains in great detail how family developed a jewelery business that acted as the banker for a few minor German princes to a firm of incredible wealth and power.
Ferguson shows us ways the five branches of the Family stayed unified while spread to five cities in Europe.
Rothschilds married other Rothschilds, especially the men. Marrying cousins was relatively common in the limited marriage market of affluent Germanic Jews.
“not even the royal families of Europe were as closely inbred, though self-conscious references to “our royal family” suggest that the Rothschilds regarded them as a kind of model”.
As the years advance the family gets involved heavily in Railroads and silver mines, they were very involved in Brazil.
Ferguson tells us what happened to the family during World War One. The Nazis did confiscate some of the assets of the Vienna branch. One family member died in the Holocaust.
The family had ties to American Jewish banking houses but never opened an American branch.
At 1000 plus pages, these are books for the serious. For those who want to understand banking history, they are invaluable.
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served for twelve years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
He is the author of fourteen books. His first, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927, was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year award, while the collection of essays he edited, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, was a UK bestseller. In 1998 he published to international critical acclaim The Pity of War: Explaining World War One and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild. The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award. In 2001, after a year as a Houblon-Norman Fellow at the Bank of England, he published The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000. More detail can be found at niallferguson.com