The House of Rothschild -The World’s Banker 1849-1999

By Niall Ferguson

Chapter 8: Jewish Questions

Gentlemen, if you do not give us your support, we will probably have to proscribe you … If you do support us, however, we will make you greater than the modest founder of your house, or indeed his proudest grandson, could ever have dreamt … we will make you great as we shall take our first elected prince from your house.

THEODOR HERTZL, “ADDRESS TO THE ROTHSCHILD FAMILY COUNCIL,” 1895The relationship between the Rothschilds and the wider Jewish communities of Europe remained in many ways unchanged in the time of the fourth generation. The aristocratic marriages described in the previous chapter were, it must be emphasized, the exceptions. Most Rothschilds still married other Jews. Indeed, the really significant change in the period was that those other Jews were no longer other Rothschilds. In the third generation there had only been three such marriages, two of which were in fact to cousins through the female line. The first real Jewish outsiders to marry into the family were the Italian industrialist Baron Raimondo Franchetti, who married Sara Louise, daughter of Anselm, in 1858; and Cécile Anspach, who married Gustave the following year. The animosity felt by Betty and her daughter-in-law Adéle towards Cécile provides a good indication of how difficult it was for such outsiders to win acceptance by the family. After 1877 that changed, and marriage to other members of the Jewish social elite rapidly became the norm. In 1878 Wilhelm Carl’s daughter Minna married Max Goldschmidt, whose sister was Maurice de Hirsch’s wife. It gives an indication of how persistent the practice of endogamy was that Minna’s son Albert married Edmond’s daughter Miriam in 1910—by which time his father had taken the name von Goldschmidt-Rothschild on being ennobled. Another family which established marital links to the French Rothschilds in this period were the Halphens: in 1905 Alphonse’s son Edouard married Germaine Halphen and in 1909 Edmond’s son Maurice married her sister Noémie.

Perhaps the best example of a dynastic alliance was between the Rothschilds and the Sassoons, a family who had made their fortune in India and the Far East, some of whom settled in England in this period. In 1881–at a ceremony attendee by the Prince of Wales and notable for the wide press coverage it received—Leo married Marie Perugia, daughter of the Trieste merchant Achille Perugia, whose other daughter married Arthur Sassoon. Another link to the Sassoons was forged in 1887, when Gustave’s daughter Aline married Sir Edward Sasoon, son and heir of Albert Sassoon. And in 1907 Gustave’s son Robert married Nelly Beer, whose family was also linked by marriage to the Sassoons. All the other marriages of this generation were to wealthy Jews of a comparable social standing. This signalled the end of the marital exclusivism of the mid-nineteenth century and the integration of the Rothschilds– albeit as primus inter pares— into a wider “cousinhood” of wealthy Jewish families.

The Rothschilds thus remained confidently Jewish; indeed, they became less remote from the Jewish community as a whole as a result of such marriages. True, there were flickers of religious uncertainty, and not only on the part of Constance. The tragic death of Alphonse’s and Leonora’s infant son René as a result of an infection (erysipelas) following his circumcision precipitated much soul-searching on Charlotte’s part. She was also shocked by the strictly kosher diet kept by Wilhelm Carl and his family: “To eat … as they do,” she commented, noting their “wan and feeble” appearance, “means not to eat at all; it is worse than doing penance.” “When they met in Frankfurt after a long separation, Natty thought his uncle Wilhelm Carl “too Caucasian in looks to be ornamental. His gait and manner and mode of speech are jewish, not his features.” Yet Natty’s own fidelity to the religion of his forefathers was unshakeable. As an undergraduate, he dismissed Paley’s Evidences of Christianity as “the most absurd conglomeration of words I ever broke my head over, so that there is no danger of my being converted as many up here have prophesied.” Leo had been forced to study more than his fair share of Paley too; but there is no mistaking the enthusiasm with which he described attending synagogue in Vienna with his uncle Anthony and cousin Albert in 1869. When a new synagogue was built at St Petersburg Place, Bayswater, in 1877 it was Leo who laid the foundation stone, as his father had done seven years before when work was begun on the Central Synagogue.

Like their grandfather and father before them, Natty and his brothers were not much interesed in the finer points of theology or religious ritual. In 1912, for example Natty was reported as saying that he did “not consider it the part of an orthodox Jew to discuss the shape and size of a mikvah [Jewish bathhouse].” For them, religion meant the organisation and functioning of the Jewish community; and as Rothschilds, they regarded it as self-evident that they should act as the lay leaders of that community in England. The extent to which they were able to occupy this position in the late nineteenth century is remarkable. Natty was President of the United Synagogue from 1879 to his death in 1915 (though he took little interest in day-to-day matters). Between 1868 and 1941, a Rothschild served without interruption as treasurer of the Board of Deputies: first Ferdinand (1868-74) then Natty (to 1879) then Leo (to 1917) then Lionel. Natty was also honorary president of the Federation of Synagogues, president of the Jews’ Free School, vice-president of the Anglo-Jewish Association and a member of the Sanitary and Legislative Committees of the Board of Guardians. Leo succeeded him as president of the Free School and was also vice-president of the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter (see below). The Rothschilds also had influence over the Jewish Chronicle when it was owned by Asher Myers (though not after it was acquired by the Zionist Leopold Greenberg in 1907). In France the Rothschilds built several new synagogues, including one in the rue de La Victoire (1877) and three others financed by Edmond between 1907 and 1913. By comparison, the Viennese Rothschilds were less engaged with their fellow Jews.

To be sure, Rothschild primacy was not wholly undisputed in what was, after all, less a single community than a number of more or less distinct communities (besides the United Synagogue, there were also the Sephardic Spanish and Portuguese, the Reform and a growing number of Orthodox congregations established by immigrants from Eastern Europe). The most often cited example of a challenge to Natty’s position came with the creation in 1887 of the Federation of Synagogues, the brainchild of the bullion dealer and politician Samuel Montagu, which was intended to act as an umbrella for the Orthodox congregations. Natty had for some time been concerned about what he saw as the “spiritual destitution” of the East End, and at the Federation’s foundation he was made its president, but in December 1888 he was forced to surrender the office to Montagu after a confrontation at the United Synagogue Council over the admission of the Federation to the London Shechita Board (the authority overseeing ritual slaughter). It would seem that what he wished to achieve was the imposition of the United Synagogue’s authority over the newcomers—hence his original scheme for a large synagogue in Whitechapel Road to be linked to a “Jewish Toynbee Hall.”

The significance of this should not be exaggerated, however. In fact, Natty retained the tide of honorary president and even performed the opening ceremony for the Federation’s first synagogue in New Road in 1892. Indeed, his desire to unite the various Jewish communities was more welcome to Montagu than to many members of the United Synagogue. It was to this end, following the death of the long-serving Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler in 1890—and despite opposition from Adler’s son and successor Hermann—that Natty called a conference of the various synagogues, arguing “that the time had come when even the humblest portion of the Community … and certainly the most orthodox, should invite the other branches of the Community to join with us in attempting to unite us all. I will not say under one head, but under one spiritual Chief.” However, it proved impossible to reconcile the competing claims for influence of the different communities; and a similar effort failed in 1910 for the same reason. Still, Natty was powerful enough to secure the appointment of Joseph Herman Hertz as Chief Rabbi in succession to Adler in 1912, largely (according to one account) on the strength of Lord Milner’s recommendation, though more probably because he saw Hertz as likely to appeal to both the Federation and the United Synagogue—to the Orthodox East End and the more assimilated West End.

If his influence extended this far on an essentially religious question, it is hardly surprising that on more political questions relating to the Jewish community Natty was accorded quasi-regal status. As the scion of the richest of all Jewish families, a key figure in the City, an MP and then a peer, and as an unofficial diplomat with direct access to most senior politicians of the day, he had no equal. It might not be possible to get the various Jewish communities to agree on a single spiritual “Chief”; but there could be little doubt that Natty was their de facto temporal chief.

To appreciate the significance of this, it is necessary to appreciate the profound and alarming—questions which were being raised about the position of Jews in Europe at this time. When Natty became a peer, Alphonse’s reaction was revealing: “This news will have great repercussions in Austria and Germany,” he wrote, “where anti-Semitism is still so virulent.” The late nineteenth century saw the transformation of what had previously been an incoherent and politically heterogeneous prejudice against Jews—sometimes harking back to the restrictions imposed on them under the ancien regime, sometimes looking forward to a utopia in which they and all other exploitative capitalists would be expropriated—into something more like organised political movements. It is no coincidence that the term “anti~Semitism” itself dates from this period: racial theories were developing which purported to explain the supposedly anti-social behaviour of Jews in terms of their genes rather than their religion. As political life became more democratised by the development of mass literacy and the widening of the franchise, the years after c. 1877 saw a great upsurge of anti-Jewish journalism, speech-making and, in some countries such as Russia, actual policy. The Rothschilds had little other than their religion in common with the Jews who came westwards from Eastern and Central Europe. As we have seen, they were part of a wealthy elite which had overcome virtually all of the social barriers which remained against Jews in Western Europe. Yet. having since the 1820s been the targets of political malcontents on both the left and right, it was probably inevitable that the Rothschilds would once again be identified as the personification of the “Jewish problem.” This was the disadvantage of being “Kings of the Jews.”


Events in the mid-twentieth century tempt us to exaggerate the importance of anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century. As an organised political movement it was minor compared with socialism; and it is a mistake to see every expression of hostility towards Jews as a manifestation of it, for these were as ubiquitous as votes for anti-Semitic candidates were sparse. The memory of National Socialism also inclines us to look first to the German lands for signs of anti-Semitism. Of course, there were some there (more in Austria than in Germany, where the Rothschilds’ financial importance was declining); but traces can also be found in Britain, while Russia was the only major state which systematically discriminated against the Jews. Yet France, where Jews had enjoyed equal rights for longer man anywhere else, was also the country where the volume of anti-Semitic publication was greatest.

It is not without importance that Wilhelm Marr, the man who introduced the specifically racialist term Antisemitismus to German politics, had worked as a young man for the Wertheimsteins, a family closely linked to the Vienna Rothschilds. In an unpublished memoir, Marr recalled how he had been dismissed in 1841 despite working harder than many of the Jewish clerks in the firm. “It was,” he recalled bitterly, “the ‘goi’ who had to bear the consequences of the economic crisis.” Such experiences seemed to find an echo in the economic difficulties of many Germans after the 1873 crash. A good example of the kind of anti-Rothschild polemic inspired by writers like Marr was The Frankfurt Jews and the Mulcting of the People’s Wellbeing published by “Germanicus” in 1880. The tide speaks for itself: beginning with the now familiar garbled version of the Elector’s treasure Story, the author is primarily concerned to relate Germany’s economic difficulties during and after the Gründerzeit to capital export (especially to Russia) encouraged by the Rothschilds and their lackeys in the financial press. There is not a great deal to choose between this and the claim made by the Hessian Reichstag Deputy Otto Böckel in 1890 that the Rothschilds had cornered the world market in oil—a charge which was being repeated in Social Democrat pubs in Berlin five years later (illustrating how readily this rhetoric could still be used by the left). Friedrich von Scherb’s 1893 History of the House of the Rothschild developed this point in some detail, arguing that the Rothschilds’ relentless profiteering had found a new target: having dominated state loans and then railway construction, they were now seeking to establish global monopolies of raw materials.

By 1911, when Werner Sombart published his tendentious but influential book The Jews and Economic Life, such claims enjoyed a degree of intellectual respectability. For Sombart, “the name Rothschild” meant “more than the firm which bears it”; it meant “‘all the Jews who are active at the bourse”:

For only with their help were the Rothschilds able to achieve that position of supreme power—indeed one can justly say the sale mastery of the bond market—which we see them possessing for half a century. It is certainly no exaggeration that one used to be able to say that … a Finance Minister who alienated this world house and refused to cooperate with it more or less had to shut his office up … [N]ot only in quantitative terms, but also in qualitative terms, the modern bourse is Rothschildian (and thus Jewish).

But it was not necessary to root anti-Semitism in this kind of bogus sociology: the racial differences between Jews and Germans could simply be asserted. Max Bauer’s pamphlet Bismarck and Rothschild (1891), contrasted Bismarck, the embodiment of Teutonic, peasant virtue, with Rothschild, his cosmopolitan antithesis:

The principle of his existence is not the calm growth of a constructive strength, but the hasty and nervous gathering of a dismembered mass of money … But [thinks Bismarck] just leave the Jew to his insatiable pleasure; once the five billion marks have been paid in full, it will be the German’s turn to amuse himself in his own fashion! … Bismarck’s physical and spiritual form stands clearly and tangibly for all to see … But what physical notion does the world have of Rothschild? He is never seen, just as the tapeworm remains invisible in the human body. The “‘house” of Rothschild is a structureless, parasitical something-or-other, that proliferates across the earth from Frankfurt and Paris to London, like a twisted telephone wire. There is neither structure nor life in him, nothing that grows in the earth, nothing that strives towards God. Bismarck’s spirit is like a gothic building … These are the powers which stand antagonistically opposite one another in the political culture of our times: insatiable Jewry, that destroys life; and hearty Germandom, which generates life.

There were similar publications in Austria; but there, where the Rothschilds remained a major economic Force, anti-Semitism was more politically effective than in Germany. It was in the years after the 1873 Vienna stock market crash that Karl Lueger conceived his “‘Christian Social” campaign against Jewish financial power. A turning point in this campaign was Lueger’s call in 1884 for the nationalisation of the Rothschild-owned Kaiser-Ferdinand-Nordbahn when the government proposed renewing the original charter granted to Salomon in 1836. Lueger’s demand that the government pay “attention for once to the voice of the people instead of the voices of the Rothschilds” was echoed by Georg Schönerer’s German National Association, and their ire was only increased when Albert was awarded the Iron Cross in 1893 for his role in Austro-Hungarian monetary reform. However, when Lueger himself came to power as Mayor of Vienna in 1897, he quickly discovered how difficult it was to dispense with the Rothschilds. By the late 1890s, critics like the conservative Karl Kraus (himself a Jew by birth) and the Social Democrat newspaper the Arbtiterzeitung were accusing Lueger of being “on good terms with the Rothschilds” and even working “hand in hand with the Jew Rothschild.” At the same time, in classic Habsburg fashion, the Jüdische Zeitschrift accused the Rothschilds of employing anti-Semites in preference to Jews! Rothschild power remained a byword even among those without a political axe to grind. To give just one example, the Tyrolean poet and professor of geology Adolf Pichler remarked in 1882 how “Rothschild” could “make the Mount Olympus of Austrian government bonds totter.” It was, he added sarcastically, “a sublime spectacle.”

But it was in France that anti-Semitism was most articulate and all-pervasive. The outpouring of publications hostile to the Rothschilds which characterised the 1880s had no real parallel in nineteenth-century history; not even the great pamphlet war after the Nord railway accident in 1846 produced so many libels. This rime the catalysing “accident” was the collapse of the clerically backed Union Générale bank in 1882. No sooner had the Union Générale folded than its founder Paul Eugйne Bontoux began laying the blame on “Jewish finance” and its ally “governmental freemasonry.” This refrain was taken up by sections of the press: the Moniteur de Lyon spoke of a “conspiracy orchestrated by a society of Jewish bankers from Germany” and a “German-Jewish conspiracy.”

Perhaps paradoxically, in view of his later role as a Dreyfusard, few writers did more to give this idea currency than the novelist Emile Zola. Although set in the Second Empire, his novel L’Argent—part of his vast Rougon Macquart cycle—was obviously inspired by the Union Générale debacle (with occasional allusions to the Crédit Mobilier). And although the character of Gundermann was plainly not based on Alphonse, there is no doubt whatever that it was based, with one or two modifications, on his late father James. There is an eerie quality to this unflattering resurrection, for Gundermann lacks the redeeming humanity of Balzac’s Nucingen, the other great literary creation James inspired. The best explanation for this is that Zola had not known James as Balzac had; over a decade after his death, he had to turn for inspiration to the memoirs of others—indeed, passages of L’Argent are lifted more or less verbatim from Feydeau. Gundermann is introduced early on as:

the banker king, the master of the bourse and of the world … the man who knew [all] secrets, who made at his beck and call the markets rise and fall as God makes the thunder … the king of gold … Gundermann was the true master, the all-powerful king, feared and obeyed by Paris and the world… One could already see that in Paris a Gundermann reigned on a more solid and more respected throne than the emperor.

He is cool, calculating, dyspeptic (a fictional touch), ascetic, workaholic. Saccard, by contrast, is an impetuous young would-be financier with clerical sympathies who dreams of financing projects in the Balkans and Middle East which might eventually lead to the purchase of Jerusalem and the re-establishment of the Papacy there. In the hope of winning his support, he goes to see Gundermann in his “immense hôtel” where he lives and works with his “innumerable family”: five daughters, four sons and fourteen grandchildren. Once again we enter the thronged offices of the rue Laffitte, where queues of brokers file past the impassive banker, who treats them with indifference or—if they dare to address him—outright contempt; where art-dealers vie with foreign ambassadors for his attention; and where (the debt to Feydeau is unmistakable) a small boy of five or six bursts in, riding a broomstick and playing a trumpet. This bizarre court confirms in Saccard’s eyes “the universal royalty” of Gundermann.

Saccard wants Gundermann’s backing—yearns, in fact, to make money on the bourse just as he has. Yet as he contemplates “the Jew” he instinctively imagines himself “an honest man, living by the sweat of his brow” and is overwhelmed with an “inextinguishable hatred” for

that accursed race which no longer has its own country, no longer has its own prince, which lives parasitically in the home of nations, feigning to obey the law, but in reality only obeying its own God of theft, of blood, of anger … fulfilling everywhere its mission of ferocious conquest, to lie in wait for its prey, suck the blood out of everyone, [and] grow fat on the life of others.

As Saccard sees it, the Jew has a hereditary advantage over the Christian in finance, and he foresees—even as he enters Gundermann’s office—“the final conquest of all the peoples by the Jews.”

When, inevitably, Gundermann dismisses his proposal, Saccard’s antipathy becomes positively violent: “Ah the dirty Jew! There’s one it would be a decided pleasure to chew between one’s teeth, the way a dog chews a bone! Though certainly it would be too terrible and too large a morsel to swallow.” “The empire has been sold to the Jews, to the dirty Jews,” he cries:

All our money is doomed to fall between their crooked claws. The Universal Bank can do nothing more than crumble before their omnipotence … And he gave vent to his hereditary hatred, he repeated his accusations against that race of traffickers and usurers, on the march throughout the centuries against the peoples [of the world], whose blood they suck … [bent on] the certain conquest of the world, which they will possess one day by the invincible power of money … Ah! that Gundermann! A Prussian at heart … Had he not dared to say one evening in a salon that if ever a war broke our between Prussia and France, the latter would be defeated!

In the end, of course, Gundermann triumphs: the Banque Universelle collapses and Saccard ends up in jail, leaving in his wake a trail of broken hearts and empty purses.

No one could accuse Zola of having failed to do his homework: not only was the portrayal of James’s office carefully based on an eyewitness account, but the rise and fall of the Union Générale was described with some precision—the mopping up of clerical and aristocratic sayings, the bidding up of its own shares and the eventual débâcle. But what Zola had also done was to give literary credibility to the idea that the Union Générale really had been destroyed by the Rothschilds, as well as to the canard that the French Rothschilds had pro-German sympathies. That such notions struck a chord in the France of the Third Republic is all too apparent. Guy de Charnacé’s Baron Vampire is as wretched a book as L’Argent is powerful; but its message is not too different. The character of Rebb Schmoul, like Gundermann, is a German Jew with a distinctively racial gift for financial manipulation. A “bird of prey,” he profits from the horrors of war, then metamorphoses into Baron Rakonitz, advising impecunious baronesses in return for their social patronage. Such stereotypes were given added currency by the publication of Bontoux’s own memoirs in 1888. Although Bontoux did not mention the Rothschilds by name, there was little doubt about whom he meant when he denounced “la Banque Juive,” which, “not content with the billions which had come into its coffers for fifty years … not content with the monopoly which it exercises on nine-tenths at least of all Europe’s financial affairs,” had set out to destroy the Union Générale.

It was, however, another disappointed man—Edouard Drumont—who made perhaps the biggest of all individual contributions to French anti-Semitic mythology. Edouard Drumont had worked as a young man at the Crédit Mobilier and had devoted years to researching and writing a huge and rambling tome which purported to describe the full extent of Jewish domination of French economic and political life. First published in 1886 and so successful that it subsequently appeared in 200 editions, Jewish France took the notion of a racially determined and anti-French Jewish character and developed it into a pseudo-system. Thus “the Rothschilds, despite their billions, have the air of second-hand clothes dealers. Their wives, despite all the diamonds of Golconda, will always look like merchants at their toilet.” Even the sophisticated Baroness Betty cannot conceal her origins as a “Frankfurt Jewess” when the conversation turns to precious stones. In part, Drumont was merely updating the pamphlets of the 1840s (Dairnvaell was his main inspiration), so that much of his attention in the first volume is devoted to the idea of the Rothschilds’ excessive political power. It is all here: their speculation on the outcome of Waterloo, their immense profits from the Nord concession, their antagonism to the more public-spirited Pereires. Goudchaux—a Jew—saves them from bankruptcy in 1848 and Jews in the Commune protect Rothschild properties from arson in 1871. The politics of the Republic are merely a continuation of this story: Gambetta is in league with the Jews and Masons, Léon Say—“l’homme du roi des juifs”– -plays a similar role, and Cousin, President of the Supreme Council, is merely a cog in the great Jewish-Masonic machine which is the Compagnie du Nord. Even the fall of Jules Ferry can be attributed to the Rothschilds’ malign influence. Best of all, Drumont suggests that the Union Générale was in fact an elaborate Jewish trap, designed to mulct the clericals of their savings.

Drumont’s later Testament of an Anti-Semite (1894) further developed these poisonous ideas, partly in order to explain the limited political achievements of the anti-Semitic movement. Here he adopted a more pseudo-empirical style, calculating how much the Rothschilds’ supposed fortune of 3 billion francs would weigh measured out in silver—and how many men it would require to move it!—and comparing the number of acres of land owned by the Rothschild family with the number owned by the religious orders. If the Boulangists had eschewed anti~Semitism, it was only because “Rothschild had paid [them] 200,000 francs for the municipal elections, on condition that the candidates would not take an anti-Semitic stance,” and because the Boulangist leader Laguerre had personaIly received 50,000 francs. If the French economy was depressed, it was because “Léon Say… had handed over the Banque [de France] to the German Jews,” allowing the Rothschilds to lend out its gold to the Bank of England. If France was internationally isolated. it was because the Rothschilds had handed over Egypt to England and financed Italian armaments with French capital. This last charge of lack of patriotism was repeated a few years later in The Jews against France (1899). “The God Rothschild,” Drumont concluded., was the real “master” of France: “Neither Emperor, nor Tsar, nor King, nor Sultan, nor President of the Republic … he has none of the responsibilities of power and all the advantages; he disposes over all the governmental forces, all the resources of France for his private purposes.”

Drumont was only the most prolific of a group of anti-Semitic writers of the period who directed their fire at the Rothschilds. Another purveyor of similar libels was Auguste Chirac, whose Kings of the Republic (1883) mingled old chestnuts like the myths of the Elector’s treasure and Waterloo with new claims about the Nord line and the Rothschilds’ relationship with the revolutionaries of 1848 and 1870-71. Once again, there was both a racial and a national dimension to the argument: not only were the Rothschilds Jews, they were also Germans—hence their eagerness to despoil France by financing reparations payments in 1815 and 1871. Chirac’s later book, The Speculation of 1870 to 1884 (1887), was a more sophisticated work which sought to explain the Rothschilds’ recent profits by analysing the fluctuations of bond prices in the period before and after the Union Générale crisis-a not unreasonable enterprise in itself, but compromised once again by its intemperate and unsubstantiated allegations against the Rothschilds and Léon Say. Though superficially empirical, this was in reality just another diatribe against “the triumph of the feudalism of money and the crushing of the worker” and the control of the Republic by “a king named Rothschild, with a courtesan or maidservant called Jewish finance.” The main allegation made here was that the Rothschilds had conspired to undermine French influence in Egypt for the benefit of England, as part of their historic mission to “kill France” by financial means. The outwardly unremarkable Alphonse was in truth “Moloch-Baal, that is to say the God Gold, marching towards the conquest of Europe and perhaps the world, possessing [real] power behind the royal names and political garb, having, in a word, all the profits and avoiding all the responsibilities.”

Predictably, such diatribes were accompanied by numerous hateful caricatures, of which the best known is probably Léandre’s God Protect Israel. Here Alphonse is portrayed as an emaciated, half-slumbering giant who clutches the globe in claw-like hands and wears on his bald head a crown shaped like the golden calf (see illustration 8.i).

In a similar vein is Lepneveu’s Nathan Mayer or the Origin of the Billions which portrays a bearded Rothschild with the body of a wolf lying on a bed of bones and

8.i:C.Léandre,Dieu protege Israel, Le Rêve (April 1898)

coins on the battlefield of Waterloo (see illusuation 8.ii). More crudely, another cartoon (probably from the political left) portrayed “Rothschild” as a giant pig being pulled in a carriage by ragged workers with the caption: “What a fat pig! He grows fat as we grow thin.” Though primarily conspiracy theorists, writers like Drumont and Chirac were also preoccupied with the Rothschilds’ penetration of French high culture and society. In the second volume of Jewish France, Drumont devotes a long passage to the château and gardens at Ferriéres. The art and furnishings, he concedes, are magnificent; what is lamentable is that so many jewels of French heritage should belong to Jews who can only jumble them together like so much “bric-á-brac.” Nor is it only French culture which the Rothschilds can buy. “This château without a past,” he comments, “does not recall the grand seigneurial lifestyle of the past”; yet the visitors’ book now contains “the most illustrious names of the French nobility.” A prince de Joinville—“a man in whose veins flow drops of the blood of Louis XIV”—abases himself before a mere “money-lender.” At Rothschild marriages, the list of noble names is complete: “[A]l1 the [ancient] arms of France … gathered to worship the golden calf and to proclaim before the eyes of Europe that wealth is the sole royalty which now exists.” It is the same story at the costume ball given by the princesse de Sagan in 1885: “this miserable aristocracy” shamelessly rubs shoulders with Mme Lambert-Rothschild, Mme Ephrussi and the rest of “Jewry.” At heart a romantic Legitimist, Drumont regarded the Bourbon and Orléanist nobility as traitors to their Gallic race. It was a theme he returned to in his Testament, noting with dismay Charlotte’s purchase of “an abbey founded by Simon de Montfort” (Vaux-de-Cernay), Edouard’s election to the exclusive Cercle de la rue Royale and the presence of the usual grand names at a Rothschild garden party. Chirac too commented sourly on the relationship between the Rothschilds and the elite of the

8.ii:Lepneveu,Nathan Mayer ou l’origine milliards,cover of Musée des Horreurs,no. 42 (c.1900)

Faubourg Saint-Germain, which had once disdained James and Betty but now accepted their children as social equals.

It was one of the oddities of the Jewish experience under the Third Republic that a high degree of social assimilation coincided with very public expressions of anti-Semitism. Nor was it merely a matter of outsiders like Drumont carping while royalist aristocrats put prejudice aside; often the very people who socialised with the Rothschilds sympathised with the views propounded by Drumom and Chirac. The almost schizophrenic nature of attitudes towards the Rothschilds can be illustrated with reference to two important contemporary sources: the Goncourt brothers’ journal and Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. The Goncourts not only shared Drumont’s views; they knew him well. Their journals for the period 1870 to 1896 are full of spiteful anecdotes about the Rothschilds’ “Jewish” character—their materialism, their Philistinism and so on. Yet the Goncourts were also themselves quite happy to accept Rothschild hospitality: discussing French engravings with Edmond in 1874 and 1887, dining with Nat’s widow in 1885, dining with Leonora in 1888, dining at Edmond’s in 1889. It was characteristic of the period that the Goncourts could quote Drumont approvingly less than a year after praising Rothschild cuisine; could dine with Drumont and listen happily to his talk of putting “Rothschild against a wall” in March 1887, then discuss engravings with Edmond that December; could dine at Edmond’s in June 1889, then exchange anti-Semitic anecdotes with Drumont in March 1890, just months before his abortive anti-Semitic call to arms on May 1.

This world of Parisian salons, in which Jews and anti-Semites routinely mixed, was dramatically polarised in 1894 when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer on the French General Staff, was accused of being a German spy, court-martialled, found guilty on the basis of forged documents and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Alphonse’s reaction to the allegations against Dreyfus was initially one of alarm at the effect the case would have in encouraging anti-Semitism, on the assumption that Dreyfus was guilty; but this soon turned to anger as the evidence accumulated to suggest that Dreyfus had been framed. According to one clerical memoir, Alphonse was “irritated by the condemnation of Dreyfus and by the indifference of the French aristocracy.” However, other members of the family were less willing to be identified publicly as “Dreyfusards,” preferring to try to minimise the schism within their own upper-class milieu.

Proust gives a flavour of the atmosphere of this time, with Dreyfusard sympathies being studiously concealed by members of the heterogeneous circle around the duchesse de Guermantes. To Bloch, a Jew of relatively undistinguished origins, the very name Rothschild inspires awe; when he realises that an old English woman whom he has been patronising at the duchesse’s is “La baronne Alphonse de Rothschild” he is thunderstruck:

At that moment there suddenly flooded through Bloch’s arteries so many ideas of millions and prestige … that it was as if he had suffered a stroke, a mental spasm, and he exclaimed involuntarily in the presence of the amiable old lady: “If only I had known!“—an exclamation of such stupidity that it kept him awake for eight nights in a row.

The prince de Guermantes, on the ocher hand, will not even receive a Rothschild— indeed, would rather let a wing of his château burn down than ask for water-pumps from the neighbouring Rothschild house. In fact, he turns out to harbour secret Dreyfusard inclinations; but he keeps these hidden because to be identified as a Dreyfusard carries a social price. The duc de Guermantes pays that price when he fails to secure election to the presidency of the Jockey Club because his wife “was a Dreyfusard … received the Rothschilds, and … for some time … had shown favour to great international magnates who, like the duc de Guermantes himself, were half-German.” This in turn makes the Duke bitter:

The Alphonse Rothschilds, although they have the tact never to speak about this abominable affair, are Dreyfusards in their hearts, like all Jews … If a Frenchman steals or murders I do not feel obliged to find him innocent simply because he is a Frenchman. But the Jews will never admit that one of their fellow citizens is a traitor, although they know it perfectly well, and could not care less about the frightful consequences (the Duke was naturally thinking of the damned election .. .)

The Dreyfus affair exposed similar attitudes on the political left as well. When a Jewish journalist named Bernard Lazare published a pro-Dreyfus pamphlet, he was immediately attacked by the socialist Alexandre Zévaés in the Petite République as “one of the faithful admirers of His Majesty Rothschild.”

Such attitudes existed in England too. In June 1900 David Lindsay recorded in his diary his attendance at “Hertford House, where a large party invited by Alfred Rothschild and Rosebery assembled to meet the Prince of Wales.” “The number of Jews in this palace,” Lindsay declared, was past belief. I have studied the ami-semite question with some attention, always hoping to stem an ignoble movement: but when confromed by the herd of Ickleheimers, Puppenbergs, Raphaels, Sassoons and the rest of the breed, my emotions gain the better of logic and injustice, while I feel some sympathy with Lüger [sic] and Drumont—John Bums [the labour leader and future Liberal Cabinet minister], by the way, says the Jew is the tapeworm of civilization.

Yet Lindsay continued to accept invitations to Waddesdon and Tring. Similar sentiments were sometimes privately expressed by non-Jewish bankers in the City, though none could avoid doing business with Jews. There are also a number of stereotypical Jewish financier-villains in late Victorian fiction: Trollope’s uncouth Melmotte in The Way We Live Now is not based on a Rothschild, but there is no mistaking the provenance of Baron Glumthal— “the great Frankfurt millionaire” with the “slightest trace of a foreign accent” and the politically all-powerful “house” in Charles Lever’s Davenport Dunn.

The difference between England and France is that anti-Semitism was more likely to be given a political outlet on the left than on the right. Where Drumont was a frustrated clerical legitimist, the English writers who explicitly attacked the Rothschilds were as likely to be socialists or New Liberals like John Burns as radical nationalists. A good illustration is John Reeves’s book The Rothschilds: The Financial Rulers of Nations (1887), which returns a typical verdict: “The Rothschilds belong to no one nationality, they are cosmopolitan … they belonged to no party, they were ready to grow rich at the expense of friend and foe alike.” Four years later, it was the Labour Leader which denounced the Rothschilds as a

blood-sucking crew [which] has been the cause of untold mischief and misery in Europe during the present century, and has piled up its prodigious wealth chiefly through fomenting wars between States which ought never to have quarrelled. Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear of change and calamity you may be sure that a hook-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbance.

Perhaps the most intriguing case of all is that of the left-leaning Liberal J. A. Hobson, author of the classic Imperialism: A Study (1902). Like many radical writers of the period, Hobson regarded the Boer War as having been engineered “by a small group of international financiers, chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race” who were “prepared to fasten on any … spot upon the globe … taking their gains not out of the genuine fruits of industry, even the industry of others, but out of the construction, promotion, and financial manipulations of companies.” There is no question that he regarded the Rothschilds as central to this group. It is true that in later years Hobson moved away from this anti-Semitic line of argument in favour of a more orthodox socialist anti-capitalism. But such rhetoric had become part of the political language of Edwardian radicalism. As we shall see, it was Lloyd George, the most radical of pre-war Chancellors of the Exchequer, who singled out Natty for a remarkable personal attack during the debates over his 1909 budget, though Lloyd

8.iii:”Coin” Harvey,The English Octopus: It Feeds on Nothing but Gold (1894)

George himself was denounced by the right for his own involvement with Jewish financiers (the Isaacs brothers) in the Marconi affair.

In America too there was anti-Rothschildism. Ever since the 1830s, the Rothschilds had been political targets in the United States, despite their relatively limited financial influence there. But even the attacks they had suffered during the Civil War paled alongside those during the brief heyday of the People’s Party in the 1890s. The Populists were essentially opponents of American entry into the gold standard, mobilising the discontent of mid-Western farmers with the low grain prices of the 1880s. However, their critique of the “gold gamblers of Europe and America” and “the secret cabals of the international gold ring” had a strong anti-Semitic as well as anti-English component, due not least to the prominent role played by the London Rothschilds in the loans which facilitated the American transition to gold. Gordon Clark’s book Shylock: as Banker, Bondholder; Corruptionist, Conspirator alleged that a deal had been struck between Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln and Johnson, and James de Rothschild: “The most direful part of this business between Rothschild and the United States Treasury,” he claimed, “was not the loss of money, even by the hundreds of millions. It was the resignation of the country itself INTO THE HANDS OF ENGLAND, as England has long been resigned into the hands of HER JEWS.” In Coin’s Financial School (1894), “Coin” Harvey depicted the world in the clutches of a huge, “English Octopus” bearing the name: “Rothschilds” (see illustration 8.iii). In the same author’s novel A Tale of Two Nations, the mastermind of the English plan to“destroy the United States” by, demonetising silver is a banker named “Baron Rothe.” These allegations became something of an embarrassment when the Populist movement was absorbed by the Democratic Party. The Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan had to explain to Jewish Democrats that in attacking the Rothschilds he and the Populist leaders were “not attacking a race: we are attacking greed and avarice which know no race or religion.”

It might be asked how far such polemics could actually hurt the Rothschilds, secure as they seemed in their palatial residences. Yet the repeated identification of the Rothschilds as the architects of a Jewish capitalist conspiracy almost inevitably inspired acts of violence directed against members of the family. The least serious of these were the crude assault on Natty’s son Walter, who was dragged off his horse by some unemployed workmen while hunting near Tring, and the “Jew hunts” experienced by his brother Charles at Harrow. More serious were the two assassination attempts of the period. In August 1895 a crude letter bomb was sent to Alphonse at his home in the rue Florentin; in his absence it was forwarded to the rue Laffitte where it blew up and seriously injured his head clerk. “An Anarchist outrage on one of the Rothschilds is not greatly to be wondered at,” commented The Times. “In France as elsewhere they are so wealthy and hold so prominent a place that they stand out as the natural objects which Anarchists would seek to attack, and when we take further into account the intense anti-Jewish feeling which exists in France, we are the more inclined to wonder that they have escaped so long.” Nor was the threat of assassination confined to France. In London in 1912 a man named William Tebbitt fired at Leo five times with a revolver as he was driving out of New Court, riddling his car with bullets and badly wounding the policeman on guard at the door. Tebbitt appears to have been insane (Leo had apparently done him some kindness); but the attack was symptomatic of the vulnerability of the family at a time when handguns and hand-grenades were making assassination easier than it had ever been in the past.


The most elementary response to attack is to fight back. That was the response favoured by Alphonse’s son Edouard and Gustave’s son Robert, both whom responded to racial insults by demanding satisfaction on the field of honour. But one could not duel with every anti-Semite. The question of how to respond to religious and racial intolerance had long preoccupied the Rothschilds; but the new forms of prejudice which characterised the fin de siécle called for new responses. These were not easy to formulate.

Because of their unique social position—simultaneously at the apex of the respective Jewish communities and in increasingly close contact with the European aristocracies—the Rothschilds were sometimes inclined to blame anti-Semitism not just on anti-Semites but on other Jews. In 1875 Mayer Carl told Bismarck: “As for anti-semitic feeling the Jews themselves are to blame, and the present agitation must be ascribed to their arrogance, vanity and unspeakable insolence.” To modern eyes, this seems a shocking statement, suggesting a kind of disloyalty to the wider Jewish community which is not at first sight easily reconciled with the Rothschilds’ claim to be that community’s lay leaders. Yet the fact that the man who tried to assassinate Leo was (as Natty put it) “of our own persuasion” is significant: there were profound tensions between Jews too in this period.

The two groups which gave the Rothschilds most concern were nouveaux riches—Jewish bankers and businessmen who had made their fortunes more recently than the Rothschilds—and, perhaps more important, Ostjuden: the much more numerous Jews of Eastern Europe (principally though not exclusively from the Russian Empire), 2.5 million of whom migrated westwards after the pogroms sparked off by the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and the new discriminatory laws introduced the following year. In the former category, Gerson Bleichröder was viewed with especial distaste, though it is reasonable to assume that part of Mayer Carl’s grievance against Bleichröder had its origins in their business disagreements. Forwarding a letter from Bleichröder on the subject of German anti-Semitism in November 1880, Natty told Disraeli:

There is no doubt that Bleichröder himself is one of the causes of the Jewish persecution, he has been employed so often by the German Government that he has become arrogant and forgets that he is very often merely “a Ballon d’essai.”

There are also a great many other reasons … among them the constant influx of Polish Russian and Roumanian Jews who arrive in a state of starvation and are socialists until they become rich.

The Jews also are proprietors of half the newspapers particularly of those papers which are anti Russian … I hear also that Madame von Bleichröder is most disagreeable & haughty.

As these comments suggest, the new poor were at least as great a source of embarrassment as the nouveaux riches.

The Rothschild response to anti-Semitism was not just (as Drumont alleged) to demand high levels of police protection and to fortify their houses; though they can be forgiven for doing so in the light of the assassination attempts described above. There was a long-standing family view about how best to deflect or mitigate anti-Jewish feelings. Ever since the time of Mayer Amschel, the Rothschilds had taken care to make charitable contributions not only to the Jewish communities where they lived, but: also to non-Jewish “good causes” as part of a conscious strategy to win social acceptance. There is some evidence to suggest that members of the third generation had tended to neglect this tradition during the last decades of their lives. The younger Rothschilds, however, consciously revived it in the 1880s and 1890s, though in England the emphasis was now laid as much on public service as on financial donations; and in every case there was a new interest in the provision of housing for the poor, in addition to the traditional preoccupations with health care and education.

We have already seen how Ferdinand set up a hospital dedicated to his wife Evelina after her death. His brother-in-law Natty was also president of no fewer than three hospitals, treasurer of the King Edward VII Hospital Fund and chairman of the Council of the British Red Cross, as well as running what has been called “a two-tier health service” on his Tring estate. In Frankfurt: Mayer Carl and Louise established the Clementine Interdenominational Girls’ Hospital following the death of their eldest daughter Clementine and also contributed towards the town’s public baths. Finally, their unmarried daughter Hannah Louise was responsible for a large number of public foundations including the Baron Mayer Carl von Rothschild Carolinum Foundation, a medical foundation which came to specialise in dental care. The Viennese Rothschilds also made major charitable contributions in this field: founding a general hospital, an orphanage, an institute for the blind and one for the deaf and mute. Nathaniel left considerable sums to establish a sanatorium for nervous illnesses at Döbling and Rosenhьgel and his house at Reichenau became a hospital. And in France Adolph established an ophthalmological hospital in Paris after a surgeon in Geneva successfully removed a piece of metal which had lodged in his eye, while Henri set up a clinic at 199 rue Marcadet. Education remained important too (as it had been since the days of the Philanthropin in Frankfurt). In addition to the Carolinum Foundation, Hannah Louise established the Carl von Rothschild Public Library (which later occupied the Rothschild house on Untermainkai) and the Anselm Salomon von Rothschild Foundation for the Promotion of the Arts. Her sister Hannah Mathilde was also a major benefactor of the new Frankfurt University set up in 1910.

It was a sign of the times, however, that the provision of cheap housing now became an object of Rothschild philanthropy. For the late nineteenth century saw an acceleration in the pace of urbanisation as millions of people throughout Europe left the countryside co find employment in cities. London, Paris, Vienna and Frankfurt were all affected in this way, albeit to varying degrees. Although there was heavy private investment in housing, contemporaries could hardly fail to notice the appalling conditions which prevailed in the “slums” of Europe’s many East Ends: landlords had an obvious incentive to overcrowd their properties, and almost none to provide good sanitation (which at the very least required a measure of collective action by builders and property-owners). One Rothschild response to this was to set an example by acting as model landlords themselves. Natty, Leo and Ferdinand also made a point of running their Buckinghamshire estates as models of modern paternalism, providing tenants with improved housing, running water, dub houses and other facilities. But these experiments in private welfare (not dissimilar to those adopted by some big German industrial concerns in the period) had no real applicability in the slum areas where the Rothschilds owned no land.

A first step to address the urban problem was taken by the Paris Rothschilds in 1874, when a fund was established known as l’Oeuvre des loyers (later Secours Rothschild) to pay 100,000 francs a year to the mayors of the Paris arrondissements to assist poor families unable to pay their rents. Thirty years later, another bigger Rothschild Foundation “for the Improvement of the Material Existence of Workers” was set up with 10 million francs’ capital to construct affordable working class housing blocks in the 11th, 12th and 19th arrondissements. The model for this was in fact the English Rothschilds’ Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company, which had been set up in the 1880s (see below).

All this needs to be set in the context of the family’s primary charitable function as benefactors within the Jewish communities, though the distinction, as we shall see, is not always easy to make. The continental Rothschilds continued to found specifically Jewish institutions. In 1870, for example, James Edouard established the hospital of Berck-sur-Mer, which specialised in bone disorders, while Edmond modernised the old Jewish hospital in the rue Picpus; in addition, he and Gustave each founded a new Jewish school. In Austria Anselm established a Jewish hospital at Wahring in 1870; while in Frankfurt the indefatigably philanthropic Hannah Mathilde Founded a Jewish Children’s Home, the Georgine Sara von Rothschild Foundation for Sick Foreign Jews, an Old People’s Home for Jewish Women (in the old Rothschild house on the Zeil), a Jewish Home for Women in Bad Nauheim, as well as a Sanatorium for Poor Jews in Bad Soden, a spa town near her summer residence at Königstein. In London the Jews’ Free School remained a favoured institution as did (albeit to lesser degree) the Jews’ College.

However, the influx of East European Jews created new problems which the established institutions could not address. Unlike many Non-conformists, British Jews felt no anxiety about the expansion of state support: for,secular education, providing they could maintain their own communal control over religious education. At the same time, Natty and his relatives grasped the need for extra-curricular organisation. For example, Natty’s wife Emma provided around 60 per cent of the annual costs of the Brady Street Lads Club founded in Whitechapel in 1896 to keep young Jewish men out of mischief Her son Walter contributed £5,000 to the costs of the Hayes Industrial School set up in 1901 for Jewish young offenders, nearly a third of the total. Two years later, the Rothschild and Montefiores combined to create a similar school for girls with the explicit object of improving the religious education working class girls received. The spirit in which all these efforts were conceived can be gauged from Lionel’s declaration at the opening of the Hutchison House Club for Working Lads on June 28, 1905:

We hope to catch the youth of the immediate neighbourhood, and to help them to rise in the world, to help them out of the temptations which they find in the street, the music-halls and the public houses. We want to instil into the boys ambition, the pride of being Jews and the pride in being Englishmen. [Cheers] We want to teach them the qualities of endurance an sportsmanship.

It is hard to imagine a more clearcut call for cultural integration. As Natty declared in a speech to the United Synagogue council in 1891, the “paramount duty devoling upon the Jewish community” was “the task of Anglicising the numbers of their foreign brethren at present living in the East End of London.” Max Beerbohm’s cartoon A Quiet Morning in the Tate Gallery hints at the difficulty the Rothschilds had in understanding “their foreign brethren.” The curator is pictured “trying to expound to one of the Trustees the spiritual fineness” of a picture of a group of Orthodox rabbis in a synagogue. With his neat moustache, top hat and cane, the Trustee in question—Alfred—looks unconvinced (illustration 8.iv).

The housing question also called for new forms of benefaction. In May 1884 Natty was invited to join a Board of Guardians Sanitary Committee set up specifically to consider ways of providing better housing for the growing number of poor Jewish tenants living in East End districts like Spitalfields, Whltechapel and Goodmans Fields—areas which had been notorious for crime and prostitution even before the case of Jack the Ripper in 1888. A first step towards tackling the housing problem for immigrants was taken that year with the creation of the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter, which offered accommodation for up to fourteen days for single men and helped families to find lodgings. But a new East End Enquiry Commission under Natty’s chairmanship also proposed creating more permanent housing—“healthy homes … at rentals such as the poor can pay”—through the creation of a Dwellings Company of the sort which had proliferated since the 1860s and had been encouraged by Richard Cross’s Artisans’ and Labourers” Dwellmgs Improvement Act of 1875.

8.iv:Max Beerbohm,A quiet morning in the Tate Gallery (1907)

Apparently encouraged to pursue the matter by his dying mother, Natty sought to mobilise other wealthy Jews—including Lionel Cohen, the bu1lion-broker F. D. Mocatta, Claude Montefiore and Samuel Montagu—but in the end the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company set up in March 1885 had to rely on the Rothschilds for a quarter of its £40,000 share capital (another major donor was the Rothschild-supported Jews’ Free School which lent the company £8,000 two years later).

The Industrial Dwellings Company was not strictly speaking a charitable foundation: its declared aim was to “provide the maximum of accommodation for the minimum rent compatible with the yielding of a nett 4 per cent per annum dividend upon the paid-up Capital,” and the “ruthless utilitarianism” of the resulting flats has been condemned by a modern social historian. However, the differential between this fixed return and the much higher returns being reaped by purely commercial landlords was substantial and can be regarded as a kind of subsidy: the flats were unquestionably an improvement on the slums they replaced. Two months after the initial subscription was announced, Natty purchased a site at Flower and Dean Street (off Commercial Street in the heart of Spitalfields) from the Metropolitan Board of Works for £p7,000. Designed by the Jewish architect N. S. Joseph, the austere seven-storey buildings were officially opened in April 1887 and were named after Charlotte. Inside, there was spartan accommodation for up to 228 families (in 477 rooms). The Company went on to build a similar estate in Brady Street and acquired a second site in Flower and Dean Street, where “Nathaniel Dwellings” were built in 1891_2.

Of course, it would be quite wrong to regard all this purely as a response to the increase of anti-Semitism; as Jews, the Rothschilds regarded charitable work as a religious obligation and this impulse was reinforced by the voluntarist ethos of Victorian liberalism. To take the case of Anthony’s daughter Constance, who was president of the National Union of Women Workers, an executive of Lady Somerset’s National British Women’s Temperance Association, an active member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children as well as a Home Office-appointed prison visitor; such activities were the sort of thing the wife of any ambitious Liberal MP was expected to go in for. In any case, like her aunt Charlotte, she evidently derived pleasure from such work. She was just as active, if not more so, with Jewish organisations: the Union of Jewish Women, the Ladies Conjoint Visiting Committee of the Board of Guardians and the Jewish Ladies Society for Preventative and Rescue Work (later renamed the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women), a society for rescuing “fallen women” (as unmarried mothers and prostitutes were euphemistically known) and preventing other working-class Jewish girls from falling in the same way. This was a pattern of activity Charlotte had established in the 1850s and 1860s, and it evidently gave both her and Constance the kind of fulfilment which their male relatives could derive from the “counting house” or politics. Emma too was a compulsive philanthropist: in 1879 she recorded no fewer than 400 individual charitable donations and subscribed to 177 “good causes” in the Tring area, including the Church Girls Union, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Tring United Band of Hope!

Nevertheless, there undoubtedly was a “defensive” rationale at work. In part, it was important to demonstrate that rich bankers could be relied upon to make a voluntary contribution towards the amelioration of social problems. As we shall see, this was vital as an increasing number of politicians on the political left argued for direct state intervention to redistribute income and wealth; modest though the proposals of New Liberals were at the turn of the century, the Rothschilds shared that violent aversion, so widespread among the rich of the period, to any increases in direct taxation—especially those motivated by a desire to improve working class living standards. The Rothschild argument was that “capital” must be left free from taxation in order to accumulate; only then could economic growth, increased employment and higher wages be expected. In return, the rich could be relied upon to make their contribution towards the needs of the deserving poor on a voluntary basis. It is worth pausing to assess approximately how big a contribution was in fact being made here. Alphonse’s will provides a good test case, as he made quite a large number of charitable bequests, with a total value of around 635,000 francs. Yet this was equivalent to less than 0.5 per cent of the value of his share of the Rothschild partnership (135 million francs) which was passed on tax-free to his son Edouard. Of course, this takes no account of the substantial sums Alphonse contributed to charitable causes in his lifetime; and further research would be needed to establish the proportion of his income spent in this way. Nevertheless, it was always a weakness of the conservative argument against higher taxation that in general private charitability at the turn of the century tended to fall short of the traditional 10 per cent.

In the case of specifically Jewish philanthropy, of course, there was a further motive: the perceived need to accelerare the “Anglicisation'” of the newly arrived East European Jews. Of course, there was never much chance of achieving the kind of rapid assimilation which the Rothschilds and their cousins had achieved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They, after all, had arrived in England already relatively well off and well educated; the majority arriving from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century were poor artisans. An especially alarming moment in this context was the great East End tailors’ strike of 1888. To an ardent anti-socialist like Natty, the spectacle of a major industrial dispute within the Jewish community was hardly an agreeable one. Both he and Samuel Montagu hastened to offer their services as mediators, in the hope of splitting the difference between the two sides; though it is hard to believe that Natty had much insight into the labour relations of the East End. Their intervention reflected the Jewish elite’s anxiety to appease any nascent radicals within the East End: they had before them the example of Russia, where the Jews’ persecution was often spuriously justified by numerical over-representation within the revolutionary movement.

One criticism sometimes advanced by critics of Rothschild philanthropy was that, far from promoting assimilation, the Industrial Dwellings Company merely encouraged the creation of new ghettos. Thus it has been pointed out that 95 per cent of the tenants in the Charlotte de Rothschild Buildings were Jews. But this is misleading. At the Directors’ meeting of February 18, 1890, it was agreed that “as far as possible, the proportion of Christian tenants to Jewish tenants should be from 33 to 40 per cent” in the company’s Brady Street flats. In 1899 space was reserved in the company’s East Ham property for the construction of non-Jewish places of worship “in order that the estate should in no way form a ‘Ghetto.'” Though the Charlotte de Rothschild Buildings were mainly occupied by Jewish families, a third of the tenants in the Navarino Manions in Stoke Newington Buildings were not, according to figures for 1904. The company’s Camberwell estate (Evelina Mansions) had no Jewish tenants at all in 1911.

An alternative solution to the problems caused by immigration was, of course, to stop it. However, when the idea of restrictions on immigration surfaced for the first time in the 1880s, the Rothschilds and their circle were disconcerted. As N. S. Joseph, the architect of Rothschild Buildings put it, “The letters which spell exclusion are not very different from those which compose expulsion.” When the anti-immigration campaigner Arnold White wrote to Natty in 1891, his arguments for legislation were rejected (though not without a qualification): “I share with you the opinion that an influx of persons of foreign birth, likely to become a public charge by reason of physical incapacity or mental disease, is most undesirable and should be discharged. I have no reason to believe that such persons come here in number sufficient to justify legislation.” Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, a growing number of Conservative MPs were becoming convinced of the need for immigration controls and this put Natty—by now a staunch party man—in a difficult position. In the 1900 election, Natty was embarrassed when his agent in the East End endorsed two candidates (Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon in Stepney and David Hope Kyd in Whitechapel) who proved to be proponents of immigration control; and he felt obliged to disown the Unionist candidate in St. George’s in the East, Thomas Dewar, after an intemperate election address was reported in the Jewish Chronicle.

When, at Evans-Gordon’s instigation, the immigration question was referred to a Royal Commission, however, Natty made no secret of his opposition to “exclusion.” As a member of the Commission, of course, he was primarily concerned to question witnesses. But when a number of these (including Arnold White) specifically claimed that it was Rothschild charity which acted as a “magnet” for poor immigrants, he felt obliged to respond. Natty dissented from the majority on the Commission, whose report called for “undesirable” immigrants—including criminals, the mentally handicapped, people with contagious diseases and anyone of notoriously bad character” -to be barred from entry or expelled. In his minority report, Natty argued forcibly that such legislation “would certainly affect deserving and hard-working men, whose impecunious position on their arrival would be no criterion of their incapacity to attain independence.” For him, the case of the “little Jew who was first educated at the Jews’ Free School” and who became Senior Wrangler in Cambridge in 1908 was the ideal: the young mathematician’s father had “fled from Odessa some years ago. I believe he used to preach to a small synagogue. He is now foreman in a small tailoring business where he receives high wages and teaches in one of the small Cheders. Such a boy,” he observed, “might have done benefit to Russia. I hope he will do well here.”

His son Walter echoed this view. “Great Britain,” he argued, “should be the refuge for the oppressed and unjustly ill-treated people of other nations so long as they were decent and hard-working.” But Natty’s opposition to the bill introduced in 1904 and his support for a Liberal critic of the bill in the 1905 Mile End by-election could not prevent an act being passed later that year. This act established, he declared, “a loathsome system of police interference and espionage, of passports and arbitrary power.” Nevertheless, he opposed petitioning for its repeal—as other members of the Board of Deputies wished to do—on the ground that a renewed debate might lead to a tightening of the rules; instead he pinned his hopes on persuading governments to apply it leniently. If nothing else, the passage of the Aliens Act in 1905 gave the lie to Arnold Whites claim that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of England alter their policy … at the frown of the Rothschilds.”

There were two other ways of taking the sting out of the immigration issue. One was to persuade the Russian government to end its discrimination against the Jews in its territory. This was what many Russian Jews pinned their hopes on, in the belief that the Rothschilds’ financial leverage could force the Tsarist regime to mend its ways. Indeed, stories from the Pale of Jewish settlement like “The Czar in Rothschild’s Castle,” credited “Rothschild” with positively supernatural powers, and dreamt of him literally teaching the Tsar a lesson. Thanks to his possession of ” King Solomon’s signet ring ,” Rothschild had become “the man who … controls the destiny of nations,” living in a vast palace “where enormous hoards of gold were stored and guarded by gigantic warriors.” If the Tsar accepted an invitation to spend the night in Rothschild’s castle, he would be enlightened by pyrotechnical visions of the history of the Jews. In such stories the myth of the Hebrew talisman lived on. As we shall see, however, exerting leverage in St Petersburg on this issue was more a question of money than magic; and diplomatic factors made it difficult for the Rothschilds to do much more than protest at anti-Jewish policies.

The other possible strategy was to get as many as possible of the new arrivals to move on. This had in fact been the Jewish community’s practice for some years. In 1867, the Board of Guardians wrote to New Court on behalf of “Haim Kohen Hahamake,” a “very deserving” Greek merchant who had lost £8,000 and who wished to return co Greece; the Rothschilds sent £100. At around the same time, Alfred sat on the committee of an East End Emigration and Relief Fund. In 1881-5 alone, some 2,301 families were sent back to Eastern Europe under such schemes. Natty himself paid the costs of 200 families who wished to leave England for Canada in this period. In 1891 he was one of the eight founding shareholders of Maurice de Hirsch’s French-based Jewish Colonisation Association, an organisation for Jewish emigration from Russia to Argenrina; and personally offered “to spend £40,000 in transporting to S. Africa and establishing on good Agricultural Land with an easy access to the sea a carefully selected No. [between 400 and 500 familes] of Russian Jews … [to] be taken exclusively from a class who have proved themselves to be successful and persevering Agriculturalists.” This question of “re-exporting” immigrants resurfaced in 1905, when levels of emigration from Russia soared. Natty’s comments on the Royal Commission the previous year indicate that he still favoured “re-exporting” immigrants under certain circumstances.

But could not the Jews return to their biblical place of origin? The notion that the Rothschilds would use their wealth to restore the Jewish kingdom of Jerusalem in the Holy Land dated back as far as the 1830s; and it too lived on in the Pale: “Was not Rothschild a fit prince to … restore scattered Israel to the Land of Promise [and] ascend the throne of David?” However, although the family had taken an interest in the Jews of the Middle East since the time of the Damascus affair and continued to donate money to educational and other institutions for Jews in Jerusalem, it was only much later that a Rothschild first seriously began to consider the possibility of founding Jewish colonies in Palestine. Edmond, James’s youngest son, became interested in this idea in 1882 under the influence of Zadok Kahn and Michael Erlanger of the Central Committee of the Alliance Isráelite Universelle. It was they who introduced him to Samuel Mohilever, Rabbi of the city of Radom (then in Russia) who wanted to resettle a group of Jewish farmers from Belorussia in Palestine; and Josef Feinberg, who wanted money for an already existing colony at Rishon le Zion (“First in Zion”), south of Jaffa (now Tel Aviv). When Edmond gave Feinberg 25,000 francs to drill for water at Rishon le Zion, other settlers in the area were encouraged to apply to him, including a group of Rumanian Jews at Samarin near Mount Carmel (later Zikhron Ya’aqov ) who intimated that they expected not just money but leadership from the famous Rothschild.

Edmond responded enthusiastically. As he told Samuel Hirsch, head of the “Mikveh Israel” Agricultural College, his aim was “to create models of future settlements, something like settlement nuclei, around which further groups of immigrants could subsequently settle.” Every new settler at Rishon le Zion had to sign an agreement “to submit myself totally to the orders which the administration shall think necessary in the name of M. le Baron in anything concerning the cultivation of the land and its service and if any action should be taken against me I have no right to oppose it.” On this decidedly authoritarian basis, Edmond instructed Mohilever’s settlers to attempt viniculture at Eqron (later renamed Mazkeret Batya after his mother Betty). There were also experiments with silk manufacture at Rosh Pinna, as well as perfume and glass production, not to mention synagogues, schools and hospitals—every detail supervised by the Baron’s “officials.” Although he insisted all along that he was engaged not in philanthropy but in creating economically self-sustaining settlements, Edmond’s highly paternalistic approach inevitably generated what would now be called a “dependency culture.” By 1889, despite investments totalling £1.6 million, there were numerous symptoms of economic failure. Although he transferred the administration of the settlements to the Jewish Colonisation Association in 1900, tacitly accepting the need for greater local autonomy, he continued to act as their banker in his capacity as chairman of the JCA’s Palestine Committee. By 1903 nineteen of the twenty-eight Jewish settlements in Palestine were subsidised partially or wholly by him. Altogether he spent around £5.6 million on his settlements.

Edmond’s colonising ventures should not be equated with Zionism in the sense of a Jewish nationalism aiming at the creation of a Jewish state, nor should the English Rothschilds’ interest in Jewish colonisation. In 1890, Natty attended (along with other luminaries of the London community such as Samuel and Cohen) the opening meeting of the Chovevei Zion Association of England, which united the various local Hovevei Zion (“lovers of Zion”) groups which had been formed after 1883 in reaction to the Russian pogroms. Leo also lent support to Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organisation, which sought to establish Jewish colonies in Mesopotamia (Iraq and Kurdistan). But none of the Rothschilds of this generation favoured the notion of a Jewish state in the Middle East; indeed, Edmond explicitly advised the settlers to seek Ottoman citizenship. Even less interested was Albert, who in 1895 received what doubtless seemed to be yet another half-mad demand for money—a billion francs, no less—from a more than usually verbose Schnorrer.

By 1895 the Viennese playwright and journalist Theodor Herzl had become convinced that the only “solution to the Jewish question” was for the Jews to leave Europe and found their own Judenstaat modelled on the independent nation states already founded by Greeks, Italians, Germans and other peoples in the course of the nineteenth century. Having found a sympathetic listener in Hirsch, he made a succession of attempts to win the support of the RothschiIds, in the belief that they were about to “liquidate” their unknowably vast capital as a response to anti-Semitic attacks and that he could provide them with a “historic mission” in which to invest it. But despite the mediation of the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Gьdemann, Herzl’s sixty-six page Address “to the Rothschild Family Council” was never sent. He did not even get an answer from Albert to his initial approach, and concluded bitterly that his Address “should not be laid before the Rothschilds, who are vulgar, contemptuous, egoistical people.” Instead, he must wage “a battle against the powerful Jews” by mobilising the Jewish masses.

This switch from ingratiation to aggression was characteristic of a particular type of Rothschild correspondent. King Ludwig II of Bavaria responded in a rather similar way when the Rothschilds rejected his requests for loans to finance his mania for fairy tale castles: he instructed his servants to rob the Rothschild bank in Frankfurt. Herzl, however, never gave up hope of securing Rothschild support. As early as May the following year, he was seeking to gain a hearing from Edmond through the Chief Rabbi in Paris, Zadok Kahn, even offering to resign from his own embryonic movement if Edmond would take over as leader. But when Edmond said that he regarded Herzl’s talk of founding a state in Ottoman territory as a threat to his own

8.v:Christian Scholler,Di Kinder Israels zieben ins Gelobte Land, um eine Republik zu grunden (1848)

colonisation programme, Herzl reverted to hostility. A year later, he was denouncing them as “a national misfortune for the Jews.” Even when he managed to secure an interview with Edmond in August 1896, it was only to be disillusioned further. By 1898, he had concluded that Edmond was slow-witted and that he would have to try appealing to the more financially powerful Alphonse—a view confirmed by his visit to Rishon le Zion that October.

At first, he got no further in London. Natty refused even to see him in 1901 (despite the intercession of his cousin Lady Battersea) and he clashed when Herzl gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902; in the wake of that first encounter Natty made it plain that he would “view with horror the establishment of a Jewish Colony pure and simple.” “Of one thing I am convinced,” he declared: “that the dream of Palestine is a myth and a will-of-the-wisp.” Leo was also opposed to Zionism in Herzl’s sense. It was only when Herzl changed his strategy, arguing that any Jewish colony in Sinai could be a part of the British Empire, that Natty became interested, introducing him to Joseph Chamberlain. His support increased markedly in the last years of Herzl’s life, though their plan for a British-Jewish colony in Sinai ultimately came to nothing because of diplomatic obstacles.

Why did the Rothschilds give Herzl’s original conception of a “Jews’ State” such short shrift? Part of the reason was that, despite his assurances that they would benefit financially and in other ways from supporting him—he even offered to make the first elected “prince” of the new state a Rothschild—Herzl’s utopia had markedly socialist characteristics (notably a nationalised banking system) which were hardly calculated to appeal to them. Indeed, Herzl had an off putting tendency to mix protestations of altruism with threats to “liquidate the Rothschilds” or to “wage a barbaric campaign” against them if they opposed him. But there was another more important objection, and Herzl quite openly acknowledged it himself: if a Jewish nation state were to be created, it would very probably encourage anti-Semites to question the existing national identities of assimilated Jews. Natty was a Jewish Englishman just as Alphonse was a Jewish Frenchmen, and Albert a Jewish Austrian. They did not share Herzl’s pessimistic and prophetic view—inspired by covering the Dreyfus affair for the Neue Freie Presse—that such national rights of citizenship would one day be revoked by anti-Semitic governments; far from seeing Zionism as an “answer to the Jewish question,” they saw it as a threat to their position. To the Rothschilds, a cartoon like the one which depicted them—not for the first time—as part of a throng of Jews leaving Germany was deeply disturbing, even if they were pictured arriving at the dockside in their own private carriage (illustrations 8.v and Such a vision of mass emigration, whether to the Holy Land or (as the anti-Semitic cartoon wishfully suggested) to the bottom of the sea, represented nothing less than the negation of the social position their family had achieved since Nathan himself had arrived in England as an alien immigrant a century before: that of royalty in the eyes of many Jews, aristocracy in the eyes of most Gentiles, but at the very least subjects or citizens of the countries of their birth. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Herzl was a prophet. Less than half a century after his death, the German, Austrian and French Rothschilds had all fallen victim to just the anti-Semitic onslaught he had foreseen. But it is equally easy to see why, at the time, his vision seemed a fantastic and even dangerous one.

1 Comment

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One response to “The House of Rothschild -The World’s Banker 1849-1999

  1. yiannis yiannakidis

    ζη ον

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