“The Rothschilds can start or prevent wars. Their word could make or break empires.”
That was the opinion of one American newspaper journalist in 1923. The Rothschilds, a European banking dynasty, had, despite relatively humble beginnings, amassed one of the largest fortunes in the world and were said to wield enormous power.
That’s not unusual; many wealthy families have modest origins. But what was it about this particular family that saw their name become a byword for wealth and influence?
The answer probably lies in the canny decision by the first Rothschild banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild to take his bank international by sending 4 sons to open branches in 4 different European cities, thus laying the foundations for a pan-European business empire and giving the Rothschild name continent-wide exposure.
Born in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt am Main in 1744, Mayer Rothschild was the son of a trader and money changer (Mayer changed his name to Rothschild meaning ‘red shield’, allegedly named after the symbol on his door).
He started his financial career with a banking apprenticeship, later becoming a dealer in rare coins. It was here that he began to make the aristocratic connections that would serve him and his family so well in years to come.
Mayer’s rare coin dealership expanded to providing banking services to the ruler of Hesse (now a state in modern day Germany) and eventually arranging international loans.
The first steps towards a multi-national business empire were taken when Mayer sent his third son Nathan to England and youngest son James to Paris.
The family profited greatly from the Napoleonic wars, where they apparently financed both sides. The large network of agents, shippers and couriers they had developed in Europe proved valuable in providing them with financially beneficial information and also in spreading information both true and false that might enable them to make a killing on the markets.
The Rothschilds’ business continued to prosper post-Napoleon. By the 1820s, more sons had been dispatched to open branches in Vienna and Naples and the London operation had grown so large it was able to help the Bank of England avoid a run on the bank by supplying it with gold.
The Rothschilds were not just masters of making money – they were also masters at keeping it. In the early days the Rothschilds followed the aristocratic model of carefully arranged marriages.
In fact Mayer’s will stipulated that Rothschilds should only marry first and second cousins to retain the company in the family and key positions could only be held by male Rothschild offspring.
He also stipulated that there should be no public accounting of his assets and net worth, something the Rothschilds adhere to today for the most part. Members of the dynasty, despite their enormous fortunes, don’t often feature on rich lists.
In fact, it’s this secrecy that fuels the world’s conspiracy theorists who allege amongst other things that the Rothschild’s are secretly running the world, control the Federal Reserve of the United States and are working to install a New World Order with a single government.
There are also frequent mentions of secret societies, The Illuminati and, like the American journalist quoted at the beginning of this article, assertions that the Rothschilds used their influence to start wars in order to rake in the profits by funding them.
It’s much more likely that rather than being practitioners of the dark arts (as alleged by some of the loopier elements on the internet), the Rothschilds have from the early days been skilful practitioners of the art of the deal.
The family has also had a history of Jewish philanthropy, which has made them a target of anti-Semitism.
The true glory days of the Rothschilds were in the 19th century, when the total family worth, in today’s terms, was at its lowest estimates in the many hundreds of billions, if not the trillions.
But with the arrival of the Russian Oligarchs and the computer billionaires, the name Rothschild is no longer front of mind when thinking of wealth.
As a 2004 article in The Independent pointed out, the Rothschilds never managed to make major inroads into the United States and private bankers were left behind as the world went corporate.
The family is still there though, doing what they have always done best – making lots and lots of money wherever there is money to be made.
As Baron David de Rothschild says of their legacy: “We have had 250 years or so of family involvement in the finance business. We provide advice on both sides of the balance sheet, and we do it globally.”
By Jo Blick
Photo – The Rothschilds’ Coat of Arms.