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The Rothschild family, the most influential banking and finance dynasty of modern Europe, began with Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743–1812) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and expanded across Europe under his five sons: Amschel Mayer Rothschild (1773–1855) in Frankfurt; Salomon Rothschild (1774–1855) in Vienna, Austria; Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777–1836) in London, England; Karl Rothschild (1788–1855) in Naples, Italy; and James Rothschild (1792–1868) in Paris, France. Throughout its history, the family has used its unparalleled, networked financial and political assets to support large-scale government borrowing, industrial development, health, education, art collecting, scientific discovery, and Jewish rights.
After moving from Frankfurt to Manchester in 1799, Nathan used the expanding British cotton industry to accelerate the process of wealth accumulation started by his father. He consolidated large quantities of fabric for export from many of the smaller British cloth manufacturers, and supplied these producers with dyes and other raw materials. Using the profits that he earned, Nathan moved to London and refocused on the bullion market. Buoyed by his father’s and brothers’ continental connections, Nathan smuggled gold through Napoléon Bonaparte’s continental blockade, funded the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns, propped up the Bank of England during the liquidity crisis of 1834, and created a new European state bond market based on easily tradable notes. Benefiting from carefully cultivated friendships with royal and political leaders, Nathan’s brothers worked with the governments of France, Austria, and Belgium to finance the reconstruction of Europe, devastated by two decades of war. Beginning in the 1840s they established much of the continental railway network. Through their railways, as well as their development of mining and oil exploration, the Rothschilds powered nineteenth-century industrial growth from Spain to Russia. The Rothschilds also played an instrumental role in late nineteenth-century British imperial expansion, financing the Suez Canal Company and the South African diamond trade.
Like its banking concerns, the family’s philanthropic activities have been global, including the building and support of hospitals, schools, and art collections. As a result of intense family pursuit of the natural sciences, more than 150 insect species, 81 animal species, and 14 plant species bear the Rothschild name. Beginning with the Rothschild’s early years in the Jewish ghetto, however, anti-Semites viciously attacked the family for its adherence to Judaism, its high-profile wealth, and its Zionist support. Throughout, the Rothschilds remained proud of their faith, and actively supported Jewish personal and legal rights around the world. Nathan’s son, Lionel Nathan Rothschild (1808–1879) successfully fought to become Britain’s first Jewish member of Parliament in 1847. During World War II (1939–1945), the family suffered substantial loss and hardship in Nazi-occupied Europe. After the war, the Rothschilds expanded into North America, most prominently through the Brinco resource and hydroelectric development scheme in Newfoundland. In the 1980s the French government nationalized the original Paris branch, while the British government depended on the London branch to privatize several major public corporations. Signaling their new emphasis on corporate finance, in 2004 the Rothschilds withdrew from the bullion market that had been critical to their early success.
- Ferguson, Niall. 1998. The House of Rothschild. 2 vols. New York: Viking.
- Wilson, Derek. 1988. Rothschild: A Story of Wealth and Power. London: André Deutsch.
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