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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power