Rothschild's victory over Frankfurt

The remarkable story of the building of a bank in an 18th-century ghetto

A new book*, a portrait of the first Rothschild, by Amos Elon, makes the family's story even more remarkable than I already believed it to be. It also provides a picture of a repulsive Frankfurt, the most anti-Semitic city in 18th-century Germany.

It was only a few years after Rothschild's death that Byron wrote his celebrated lines about the power of finance:

Who keep the world, both old

and new, in pain

Or pleasure? Who make politics

run glibber all?

the shade of Buonaparte's

double daring?

Jew Rothschild and his fellow-

Christian Baring!

Unlike the Barings, the Rothschilds continue to push on with their banking business; they announced the other day a closer integration of their European operations. Until now most attention has been paid to the founder's five brilliant sons - the five arrows on the bank's crest - who, leaving behind one of their number in Frankfurt, established businesses in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples, of which those in London and Paris still survive. But the founder, Meyer Amschel Rothschild, born in 1744 in a dilapidated tenement in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt, was arguably the greatest Rothschild of all.

No improvement in the circumstances of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, the largest in Germany, had taken place since medieval times. It was confined to a closed, over-crowded, insanitary compound, shut off by high walls and heavy gates, which were locked at night, all day on Sundays and other Christian holidays, and from Good Friday until after Easter. The freedom of movement of Jews and the jobs they could do were severely restricted; they had to swear a loyalty oath in which they were referred to as members of an "accursed" race; their numbers were limited to 500 families, so only 12 Jewish weddings could be authorised each year. They were often molested in the street. At the cry "Jud mach mores" - "Jew pay your due" - they would have to take off their hats, step aside and bow. Jews could venture outside the ghetto only for business, and never more than two abreast. This city of Goethe, a contemporary of Rothschild, maintained an obscene painted relief, known as the Judensau (Jews' sow) at one of its entrances. When the old ramparts were turned into promenades, a sign outside one of them said "No Jew or pig can enter here."

Frankfurt's non-Jewish residents were viciously hostile because they were determined to keep to themselves all the advantages of their city's favourable trading position, standing as it did at the junction of five international land routes - linking England and the Netherlands with Russia, and Venice and France with the Hanseatic towns to the north. Frankfurt's anti-Semitism was in its origin one-quarter religious hate, three-quarters commercial fear. That Rothschild built up a business which endures to this day, albeit no longer in Frankfurt, in the face of the city's vile regulations, makes his achievement all the greater.

Rothschild took the only available escape route: he became a Court Jew. The rulers of numerous German kingdoms and principalities always needed men of business and bankers to handle their financial affairs. Christian bankers weren't terribly interested in the opportunity - princes were apt to renege on contracts; they made their own laws.

After many years of slow progress, punctuated by setbacks, Rothschild gradually began to do more and more business for the ruler of neighbouring Hessel-Kassel. Its prince was both exceptionally rich and an obsessive money-maker: he supplied mercenaries and loans to his fellow rulers and invested in rare coins and British government stocks. In today's terms, Rothschild had become the chief broker to the largest and most active institution in the market. Nonetheless, Rothschild's daily life continued to be marked by the humiliations visited upon Jews. One day, in the 1780s, the Frankfurt magistrates decided that Jews should be forbidden to carry walking sticks. The Frankfurt post office withheld letters addressed to Jews until the afternoon, so that they could be censored. However, as the recipients were allowed to see their envelopes earlier, Rothschild had his correspondence colour coded. A blue envelope told him that the pound was rising, red that it was falling.

By the beginning of the 19th century Jewish emancipation could no longer be resisted. Nonetheless the city fathers, Lutherans every one, demanded their pound of flesh. They insisted that the Jews buy their civil rights. Rothschild conducted the negotiations in 1811. The city claimed that it should be compensated for losing the proceeds of the special tax on Jews, levied since medieval times. The price agreed was equivalent, in today's money, to pounds 4,000 per Jewish family. A year later Rothschild died. He had lived his entire life in the ghetto and had visited the synagogue almost every day.

Mr Elon quotes an affecting description of "old Rothschild": "during the meal the old Rothschild, who has business deals with my father-in- law (a Christian banker), was announced ... his eyes mirrored intellect and good will. He possessed both qualities. Greeting us warmly he entered. The servant brought him a chair. He did not sit down. `Please sit down,' said my father-in-law. `No, sir,' Rothschild responded, `I know what is becoming for me.' `If you do not sit down,' said my father-in-law, `I'll also stand up.' At this, Rothschild placed himself at the edge of the chair; we feared he might fall off. This was the man who through industry founded a world power of finance."

*`Founder: a portrait of the first Rothschild and his time' by Amos Elon (Harper Collins, pounds 20).

News
Food blogger and Guardian writer Jack Monroe with her young son
people
News
people
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
Life and Style
Fraud contributes 11p to a £2.00 box of half a dozen eggs
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Life and Style
The racy marketing to entice consumers to buy Fairlife, which launches in the US next month
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

    £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital