From ghetto to Golden Book: Steve Crawshaw was at the Rothschild family's 250th anniversary party in Frankfurt

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The Independent Online
THEY might equally well have been called the Grunschilds. The signboard or Schild on the wall of the house at 148, Jews' Lane, Frankfurt was green after all. But the family's earlier house in the Frankfurt ghetto had a rothes Schild, or red shield, on the wall. Hence the name that stuck for the world's most famous financial dynasty.

The name Rothschild has long been a synonym for power and wealth, and is associated, too, with acts of philanthropy on a grand scale. Yesterday, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the birth of the dynasty's founding father, Meyer Amschel Rothschild, his descendants were invited to sign Frankfurt's Golden Book. On the previous page were the names of Francois Mitterrand and the German President, Richard von Weizsacker.

Lord (Jacob) Rothschild, son of Victor Rothschild and today the head of the family, said that he was 'proud and happy' at this 'compliment to all generations of the Rothschild family'. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who attended a celebration concert last night in the Rothschilds' former town-house in Frankfurt, now the Jewish Museum, said that Meyer Amschel's descendants exemplified 'what we hope to achieve through the unification of Europe: they are committed citizens of their home country, but at the same time they are aware of a common European identity which transcends national borders. That identity is the real source of Europe's inner strength.'

The initial story of the Rothschilds was one of triumph over adversity. Subsequently, it has been a philosophy of life that might be summed up as richesse oblige, with much emphasis on the importance of public service and on spending for the public good.

The 85-year-old Miriam Rothschild, herself a scientist, talks of the ideas of Meyer Amschel as being 'the historical prototype of a European Economic Community'. Lord Rothschild suggested yesterday that the principles of the family were simultaneously concerned with self-interest and with the interest of others: 'They were fervently against war and conflict, believing that the prosperity of Europe and their own enterprise depended on peace . . . They were the best informed men in Europe . . . They believed wealth was essential for power and influence and the promotion of international good will, and that anti-Semitism diminished with general prosperity.'

For two centuries Rothschilds have been on friendly terms with European leaders. The family was described as the 'sixth great power of Europe' and its interventions were frequently perceived as crucial. Thus, in 1875, Lionel Rothschild provided an instant pounds 4m for the British government to buy a large shareholding in the Suez Canal, at a time when (in Disraeli's words to Queen Victoria), there was 'scarcely breathing time' to raise the money.

The family now consists of two main branches, in France and England. The French part of the family is headed by Baron Guy de Rothschild and has become almost as well known for winegrowing as for banking.

In Britain, perhaps the best- known member of the family in recent years has been Lord Rothschild's father, Victor, who was a Labour Party member, had worked for MI5 and chaired Edward Heath's Central Policy Review Staff, the 'think-tank'. He was rumoured to have been the fifth man in the Cambridge spy ring - a charge he bitterly denied. Victor was, in the words of a family history (Derek Wilson: Rothschild: A Story of Wealth and Power, Andre Deutsch, pounds 20) re-issued this week, 'the last Rothschild autocrat'.

The celebration for 70-odd Rothschilds in Frankfurt yesterday was both a tribute to the family's achievements and an olive branch. Lord Rothschild referred, in passing, to the 'miraculous revival' of the Jewish community in recent years, but the mayor of Frankfurt, Andreas von Scholer, referred explicitly to what he called the 'dark sides' of Frankfurt's and Germany's history. The Jewish community in Frankfurt, 30,000 before 1933, was officially decreed to have been eradicated in 1942.

Mr von Scholer argued: 'For our society in Germany, and especially in Frankfurt, if we do not consciously address our past, we have no future.'

(Derek Wilson: Rothschild: A Story of Wealth and Power, Andre Deutsch, pounds 20).