ROTHSCHILD: The Wealth and Power of a Dynasty by Derek Wilson

ROTHSCHILD: The Wealth and Power of a Dynasty

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A generation-spanning chronicle of the German-Jewish merchant-banking clan, which falters badly after a strong start. Wilson, a British journalist, secured the cooperation of many living family members. In the case of contemporary Rothschilds, he has made unfortunate use of his access, recording their activities in fawning fanzine prose: Baron Edmond, readers are assured, ""finds the title. . .rather absurd and is at pains to put people at ease""; Baron Elie is characterized as becoming ""most animated, not over matters financial or vinicultural, but on the subject of his family's charitable institutions."" If Wilson is slavish toward the quick, though, he's judicious in his accounts of the dead--as he traces the Rothschilds' rise from their roots as enterprising coin dealers to wealth and power throughout 19th-century Europe. As the author makes clear, patriarch Mayer Amschel did not farsightedly dispatch his five sons to separate Continental capitals to launch a financial empire; the young men left on their own, mainly to escape the stifling environment of Frankfurt's ghetto. Nor, the author shows, was Nathan's legendary market killing in the wake of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo attributable to any more remarkable means than the family's highly efficient courier service. Beyond portraying them as tireless networkers, Wilson offers precious few details on how Rothschilds managed to amass and expand fortunes. He nonetheless does a generally good job of tracking the dynasty heirs as they made their way in an often hostile and anti-Semitic world. On balance, the Rothschilds have been an accomplished, secretive but high-living and resilient lot. They have survived and thrived through wars, market panics, confiscation, and other untoward events. In addition to finance, Rothschilds have made names for themselves in ventures ranging from modern dance through the fine arts, horticulture, horse racing, wine, and philanthropy. In years past, their political influence with the likes of Bismarck, Churchill, Disraeli, and Metternich made them powers to be reckoned with. More recently, Baron Guy played a leading role in making Charles de Gaulle leader of the Free French in WW II London. The line is far from played out, but, despite Wilson's best efforts to prove otherwise, the now dispersed family's socioeconomic status in an increasingly corporate world is no longer what it once was. A fine version of a saga that bears retelling, badly flawed by the intrusively sycophantic tone of the author's concluding chapters.

Pub Date: Dec. 6th, 1988
Publisher: Scribners