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A History of the Rothschild Family

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article cited an estimate of the combined net worth of the Rothschilds at $350 billion. That estimate came from a source that does not meet Investopedia’s standards, and we have consequently retracted it. Similarly, an estimate that the Rothschilds controlled more than $2 trillion worth in assets was also inadequately sourced and retracted.]

The Rothschild Family

The Rothschilds, a prominent family originally from Germany, established banking and finance houses in Europe beginning in the 18th century. Pioneers in providing capital for business and financing infrastructure projects such as railways and the Suez Canal, the Rothschilds molded the way the international world of high finance works today.

The Rothschild empire had its genesis during the 1760s when Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) founded a banking business in his native Frankfurt, in the German duchy of Hesse. Over time, and with the help of his five sons, the family business expanded throughout several European countries.

Mayer Amschel Rothschild: The Founder

The Rothschilds’ empire had humble beginnings. Its founder, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, was born in 1744 and raised in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto. During that era, Jews were legally required to live in small communities that were separate from Christians. They were also not allowed to leave their villages at night, on Sundays or on Christian holidays.

As a child, Rothschild lived in a house with about 30 other family members and learned about the business world at an early age – his father, Amschel Moses Rothschild, traded coins, silk and other commodities for a living. One of Amschel Rothschild’s clients was Crown Prince Wilhelm of Hesse.

Mayer Rothschild became an orphan at age 12, when his mother and father died in a smallpox epidemic. Before their passing, Rothschild’s parents wanted their son to become a rabbi. However, shortly after his 13th birthday, he decided to take an apprenticeship with a banking firm in Hanover, Germany. During his time there, Rothschild learned the ins and outs of banking and foreign trade from bankers who used their extensive connections and financial skills to advise and serve the reigning nobility; some of these bankers had risen to the status of what were known as “court Jews,” or court factors. 

The Beginnings of a Banking Empire

Rothschild returned to his hometown of Frankfurt when he turned 19. Along with his brothers, he continued the commodities and money-trading business their father had started and also sold rare coins. Through his rare coin business, Rothschild met Crown Prince Wilhelm, who in 1785 became Wilhelm IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and eventually the European continent’s richest man. Rothschild was soon providing other banking services to Wilhelm and a number of nobles, and by 1769, he was given the title of court factor. In 1770, he married and went on to have 10 children – five sons and five daughters.

Expanding and Controlling the Rothschild Footprint

The Rothschild banking empire benefited tremendously from the French Revolution. During the war, the Austrian army contracted Rothschild to supply it with a range of items, including wheat, uniforms, horses and equipment; he also facilitated monetary transactions for Hessian mercenary soldiers. Around that time, Rothschild sent his sons to live in the capital cities of various European countries with the goal of establishing banking businesses in Naples, Vienna, Paris and London, in addition to Frankfurt. With Mayer Rothschild’s children spread across Europe, the five linked branches became, in effect, the first bank to transcend borders. Lending to governments to finance war operations over several centuries provided the Rothschild family with ample opportunity to accumulate bonds and build   additional wealth in a range of different industries.

Before he died in 1812, Mayer Rothschild left strict rules for his descendants on how they should handle the family’s finances. He wanted to keep the fortune within the family and, as such, encouraged the arrangement of marriages among relatives. According to an article published in the August 2003 issue of Discover magazine entitled “Go Ahead, Kiss Your Cousin,” “Mayer Amschel Rothschild arranged his affairs so that cousin marriages among his descendants were inevitable. His will barred female descendants from any direct inheritance. Without an inheritance, female Rothschilds had few possible marriage partners of the same religion and suitable economic and social stature – except other Rothschilds. Rothschild brides bound the family together. Four of Mayer’s granddaughters married grandsons, and one married her uncle. These were hardly people whose mate choice was limited by the distance they could walk on their day off.”

Nathan Mayer Rothschild

Of the four Rothschilds who ventured out, Nathan, the third son (1777-1838), achieved the greatest success. Nathan took over the lead role in pioneering international finance. Using a network of carrier pigeons and couriers to communicate with his siblings, Nathan acted as a central bank for Europe – brokering purchases for kings, rescuing national banks and funding infrastructure, such as railroads, that would help start the Industrial Revolution.

Nathan had moved to England in 1798. There he founded a textile jobbing business with £20,000 of working capital, the equivalent of £1.9 million today. He also began trading on the London Stock Exchange and eventually founded a bank, which became N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd. The firm is the country’s seventh oldest bank in continuous operation. Although privately held and still controlled by the Rothschild family, N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd. reported a net profit of £34 million at the end of 2014.

Like the other Rothschild banks that were subsequently set up throughout Europe, N M Rothschild & Sons furnished credit to the government during times of war and crisis. During the Napoleonic Wars, for example, N M Rothschild & Sons managed and financed various subsidies the British government sent to its different allies and lent funds to pay the British troops, almost single-handedly financing the British war effort.

In 1824 he and Moses Montefiore cofounded the Alliance Assurance Company, which lives on today as RSA Insurance Group. Nathan also helped fund the newly founded country of Belgium in 1830 and gained the rights to the Almadén mines from the Spanish government in 1835, securing a European monopoly on mercury, which was used to refine gold and silver. The supply of the chemical came in handy in the 1850s, when NM Rothschild & Sons started to refine gold and silver for the Bank of England and the Royal Mint. 

Growing Philanthropic Activities 

Nathan Mayer Rothschild contributed to many areas of philanthropy in the Jewish community. His family later expanded these charitable efforts to other populations in Paris and London. His earliest efforts went toward synagogues in London. He continued to champion this work, which eventually led to the formation of United Synagogues, a larger organization that helped streamline the causes of the smaller individual synagogues. Later, various family members supported the creation of Israel and helped with the construction of government buildings.

Rothschild had seven children with his wife, Hannah Barent Cohen. Those children followed and built on their family’s philanthropic tradition. The Rothschild Archive website reports that Nathan’s youngest child, Louise, and her seven daughters took responsibility for many of the 30 Rothschild charitable foundations in Frankfurt.  These included public libraries, orphanages, hospitals, homes for the elderly and special funds allocated for the purpose of education. The Jews’ Free School in London, in particular, received extensive financial support. Educational efforts in Austria, France and Israel were also made possible through Rothschild generosity. In addition to monies put toward education, the family gave an estimated 60,000 pieces of artwork to numerous organizations. The Rothschild family expanded the creation of social housing in the cities of London and Paris, and the Rothschild Foundation was created to further these efforts.

The House of Rothschild in the 20th Century

Internal and external change – including world wars, politics and family rivalries – diminished the family fortune over the next 100 years. The Naples branch of the bank had closed in 1863 and a lack of male heirs led to the closing of the Frankfurt branch in 1901; the Vienna branch was shuttered in 1938 after the Nazis invaded Austria and Jews were endangered in the lead-up to World War II. The Vichy government in France expropriated Rothschild Bordeaux properties during the war and the Nazis confiscated millions of dollars’ worth of art, jewels and precious objects from the Austrian branch of the family (a portion of these were returned by the Austrian government in 1998). Over the years, palatial Rothschild estates were gradually donated to the British and French governments and to other organizations and universities. 

By the 1970s three Rothschild banks remained: the London and Paris branches and a Swiss bank founded by Baron Edmond Adolphe de Rothschild (1926-1977). In 1982, Francois Mitterand’s socialist government dealt the Paris bank fatal blow, nationalizing it and renaming it Compagnie Européenne de Banc. Despite his independence – and resentment at being called “le petit Edmond” (a reference to his small stature among the generally tall Rothschilds) – Edmond came to the aid of his cousin, Baron David René de Rothschild (1942- ), who had stayed in Paris and in 1986 created Rothschild & Cie Banque. David quickly built it into France’s second largest merchant bank. In 2003, the British and French banks were united with David as chairman, and in 2008 all of the holdings were reorganized under a single company, a shareholder of Paris Orléans based in France, unifying the family businesses roughly two centuries after the five sons of Mayer Rothschild spread out across Europe. 

Moving into the 21st Century

The family wealth has been divided among many descendants and heirs throughout the years. Today, Rothschild holdings span a number of industries, including financial services, real estate, mining, energy and charitable work. The family also owns more than a dozen wineries in North America, Europe, South America, South Africa and Australia.

Traditionally, the Rothschild fortune is invested in closely held corporations. Today, Rothschild corporations have continued to see success. Most family members are employed by these corporations directly or are invested in operations that generate family wealth. The remarkable success of the family has largely been due to a strong interest in cooperation, being entrepreneurs and the practice of smart business principles. The estate of Nathan Rothschild was intimately tied to the other fortunes of the family and became part of the collective wealth each Rothschild passed to the next generation. Rothschild descendants continue to finance global business operations and contribute to scholarly, humanitarian, cultural and business endeavors.

The family motto is: Concordia, Integritas, Industria, which means “Harmony, Integrity, Industry.”

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