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The Rothschilds : Modern Jewish Philanthropy in a Wider Context - by Prof. Klaus Weber

The Rothschilds : Modern Jewish Philanthropy in a Wider Context
By Prof. Dr. Klaus Weber, Chair of European Economic and Social History, Faculty of Social and Cultural Sciences, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)

The problem of social inequality has always been a source of fierce political debate. This applies as much to early modern communal poor relief and voluntary giving as it does to modern welfare provided by the nation-state. This article, in its first section, offers an overview of the development of Jewish and non-Jewish attitudes to poor relief in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. The retrospect will help, in the second section, to contextualise the philanthropic activities of members of the Rothschild family, the Jewish banking dynasty which made its way from the 18th-century Frankfurt ghetto to the very top of European finance. Established with banking houses in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Vienna and Naples, family members also figured among Europe’s leading philanthropists during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The focus here will be on the most significant of their numerous commitments in Frankfurt, London and Paris.

Christian and Jewish attitudes towards poverty and poor relief

Charitable activities of Jews in early modern and modern Europe need to be understood against the background of the diaspora situation, which has been the Jewish experience over many centuries. In most territories, they were barred from respectable occupations, essentially agriculture and crafts. Jews thus had to find their economic niches in other sectors, mostly in the commercial sphere. These restrictions were one of the main reasons why medieval and early modern Jewry “was primarily urban and mercantile”. Yet, even within this mercantile sphere, Jews were excluded from the merchant guilds which organised commerce in a corporatist way. Given those restrictions, the most promising career for Jewish merchants was to enter the financial sector.

A widespread explanation for the significant number of Jews active in this sector is that taking interest for loans was not permitted by the Christian religion, in contrast with Jewish regulations on this issue. The truth is that taking an interest rate was not permitted in any of the three Abrahamic religions : not in Judaism, Christianity or Islam – at least when money was leant to coreligionists. In case of loans to someone from “outside”, it was licit to demand some interest. Christians, therefore, could not rely on a large clientele of interest-paying debtors, but Jews could. Successful Jewish merchants thus more often became important bankers than their Christian counterparts. In 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews (or ‘conversos’ with a Jewish background) became bankers of the crown. From the 16th century, Sephardim also became involved with the expanding maritime trade in the Iberian and Dutch Atlantic worlds. In 17th- and 18th-century Central Europe, some German Jews became privileged financiers of dukes and princes, and even of the imperial court in Vienna.

At the same time, the vast majority of Jews in Europe lived in severe poverty. In the mid-1700s, this applied to two-thirds of the sixty thousand Jews living in German lands, and to an even bigger portion of those living in Poland. Many carved out an economic niche in rag trading and peddling, in pawn-broking and small-scale money-lending. Trading in cattle, grain and other agricultural products was one of the few paths to a more decent living. Their situation had become worse during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which impoverished many Jewish communities in the German lands. The subsequent Russo-Polish Cossack Wars produced an influx of Jewish refugees from Poland and Ukraine into Europe’s more western regions. The ‘Betteljude’ (beggar Jew) became an omnipresent figure throughout Germany and the Netherlands. With Jews being excluded from all charitable institutions run by the Church (whatever the denomination), by the guilds or by the municipalities, this new class of Jewish vagrants became yet another financial burden to the existing Jewish charities. The dichotomy of the Jew as a pauper and a threat to towns and villages on one hand, and the Jewish banker on the other, wielding power even over the princes who depended on him for loans, fed Gentile phantasmagoria about the Jews as a threat to Christian communities.

It was precisely during the 16th and 17th centuries that general economic and social changes and the Reformation led to reforms in the organisation of poor relief. Almsgiving, a practice that had been central in traditional Christian doctrine, was rejected by Calvinism and Lutheranism, and criticised even in Catholic lands. Poverty was increasingly connected with sloth (a mortal sin). This corresponded nicely with the early modern states’ eagerness to render their subjects economically more productive, in order to generate further tax revenue. In the Lutheran world (Scandinavia, and many German territories and city-states), poor relief was organised in a symbiosis between parishes and municipalities, with much of it provided as ‘outdoor relief’ : supporting the poor at their home with subsidies in cash or kind, and in connection with strong incentives to work. In the Calvinist world (the Netherlands, many Swiss cantons, Britain to some extent), parishes and polities were more strictly separated, and poor relief was increasingly organised as ‘indoor relief’ : lodging the recipients in poorhouses, in which the able-bodied men, women and children were set to work, and which were financed by the poor-rates levied from the parishioners. Harsh and even deterrent conditions in these poorhouses (or workhouses) were to encourage inmates and potential inmates to keep themselves afloat above the poverty line. Gainful work became the key element not only in Protestant but also in Catholic reasoning and practice, even though unconditional giving to the poor was further tolerated among Catholics.

Jewish attitudes towards poverty were not left untouched by these changes in the Christian world. The issue was definitely more pressing for the Jewish communities – on the one hand, because the gap between rich and poor was even wider among Jews than among Gentiles, and on the other, because Jewish communities were held responsible for the increase in the number of poor vagrant Jews from Eastern Europe. The communities feared that this would jeopardise their always precarious status as tolerated minorities. In any case, it overburdened many of the old-established charities, which even the smallest Jewish communities maintained according to the religious commandments of ‘tsedakah’ – the term can be translated both as charity and as righteousness. The idea and practice of tsedakah was less morally infused than Christian charity and entailed more a notion of redistributive justice than condescension. The basic institutions included a fund for the local poor and for itinerant Jewish strangers, provision of dowries to poor brides, basic health care, a burial society (chevra kadisha) and cemetery. Larger communities even maintained a hospital, typically also serving as a shelter for the itinerant.

From the 17th century, Europe’s Jews adopted and adapted patterns of poor relief from their Christian neighbours, including a moralisation and even criminalisation of poverty. A 1649 communal regulation from Moravia referred to them as “vagabonds, worthless people, robbers and cut-throats who endanger the entire Jewish community”. From the early 1640s, the wealthy Sephardic community in Amsterdam “emphasized vocational training” for their poorer Ashkenazic cousins. During the 1660s, when more Jews from Germany and Poland were seeking better prospects in Western Europe, regulations issued by the Amsterdam Sephardim even “forbade, under pain of excommunication, all private donations” to the Ashkenazim. Only support to poor Sephardim was handled with greater lenience. It was probably not a coincidence that almsgiving was indicted by Jews in the Netherlands. The Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking Sephardic communities in Western European port cities were wealthy ; a wide social and cultural gap separated them from the mostly poor German-speaking Ashkenazim. An additional factor were the attitudes of the Calvinist host community in Holland. Calvin had “condemned those who ‘live by others’ instead of ‘labouring with their own hands’ as ‘no better than a violent man and a robber’”. It seems that social control of the recipients was less harsh at about the same time in Bordeaux and Bayonne, which hosted the largest Sephardic communities in France. They maintained a central register for the recipients of aid and made efforts to find them gainful employment.

In German lands, only Hamburg saw the development of a larger community of “Portuguese” Jews, as the Sephardim were called in the Hanseatic city. During the 1690s, when the citizenry imposed heavy taxation on this commercially successful group, all the wealthier “Portuguese” moved to Amsterdam or London. The dominant cultural divide among German Jews emerged from within, with the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which spread from the mid-18th century, and more among the Ashkenazim in Germany, Poland and Russia than in Western Europe. The Haskalah was an effort of Jewish scholars and community leaders to modernise Jewish faith, rituals, education and communal structure in order to make Jewish life more compatible with its Gentile environment and with the more enlightened world they saw emerging. The protagonists of Haskalah strove more than traditional Ashkenazim for the general emancipation of Jews in the German lands (and beyond). In these efforts, enlightened Jewish writers were eager to improve the secular education of young Jews, to open pathways into the crafts, agriculture and liberal professions, and thus to reduce the over-representation of Jews in commerce. In the course of the 19th century, as the discrimination of Jews gradually lessened, their proportion in crafts, industries and other non-commercial sectors did in fact expand. During that period, they were also increasingly admitted to Gentile poor relief.

Rothschild philanthropies in Frankfurt, London and Paris

The Haskalah had some impact on the earliest philanthropic commitments of Rothschild family members in Frankfurt on River Main, where Jews were forced to live in the ghetto until around 1800. Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812) had advanced from a rather modest merchant and moneylender in Germany’s banking capital to financier and court agent of William Prince of Hesse-Kassel. During the Napoleonic Wars, he and his five sons became involved with raising funds on the continent for British war bonds and with channelling subsidies from London to Britain’s continental allies. Nathan, the eldest, settled in London in 1808. During the following decades, the sons James, Salomon and Carl also established banking houses in Paris, Vienna and Naples, while Amschel ran the Frankfurt house. These five Rothschild banks became leading actors in 19th-century state finance in Europe, beginning with the loans which France had to raise after Waterloo in order to pay reparations. In the course of the century, they diversified their commitments, branching out with investments in railways, steel mills, mining, etc.

In the winter of 1803, on one of his business journeys through Hesse, Mayer Amschel Rothschild – so the story goes – encountered an itinerant Jewish boy from Poland, who made his living singing Hebrew songs. The banker took him along to Frankfurt, where his young bookkeeper Siegfried Geisenheimer (1775–1828) set about attending to the boy’s well-being and education. Geisenheimer was deeply influenced by the thinking of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), a leading figure of the Haskalah. He set up a three-year curriculum and soon opened his lessons to several more orphaned children. Along with three additional young men who joined in the effort, he launched an appeal for subscriptions towards the creation of a ‘Jüdische Frei-Schule’ (Jewish Free School) along the lines of those already established in Berlin, Breslau, Dessau and Seesen, all much influenced by the Haskalah. This allowed the educators to become more independent from Rothschild funding. Their school, the Philanthropin, stood for a modern educational approach. It had 16 pupils on its roll by 1805, and 300 during the 1810s, almost half of them girls. Its reputation impressed wealthy families, who happily paid the considerable fee of 60 fl. p.a. for the schooling of children from such a background. Religious education and Hebrew grammar were on the agenda, but more prominent became secular subjects like German and French, arithmetic, history and geography, which was much appreciated by the Gentile authorities. In 1807, when Frankfurt’s Jews were finally admitted to the crafts, Geisenheimer “immediately organised a class for training Jewish boys as artisans.” In the course of the following decades, further modernisations of the curriculum earned the school increasing portions of public funding. However, more Orthodox members of Frankfurt’s Jewish community disagreed with this educational profile. This was, in fact, the first indicator of a deep divide, which was to dominate Jewish life in Frankfurt well on into the 20th century.

Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s sons supported the Philanthropin (which still sought to also include children from Orthodox families), the new Jewish Hospital erected during the 1840s, and more institutions serving both Orthodox and Reform-oriented Jews. Such institutions were crucial in keeping the rivalling sections and the middle-ground Jews together in one single community (Einheitsgemeinde). Yet, during the 1850s, when the Philanthropin appointed a more liberal director (Sigismund Stern, 1812–1867) and the synagogue a Reform-oriented rabbi (Leopold Stein, 1810–1882), the Orthodox created their own grammar school, synagogue, cemetery, etc. The Frankfurt members of the Rothschild family were not left touched by this development. Amschel Mayer von Rothschild (1773–1855), heading the Frankfurt house after Mayer Amschel’s death, had still been a representative of the middle ground. His nephews and successors Mayer Carl (1820–1894) and Wilhelm Carl (1828–1901) became divided over the conflict, with Wilhelm supporting the Orthodox community, while Mayer Carl continued with the family’s moderate tradition. Wilhelm and his wife Mathilde (1832–1924) donated large sums to the Orthodox synagogue, hospital, school and other conservative institutions. Their donations became, in fact, the “financial backbone” of the Orthodox community. Mayer Carl and his wife Louise (1853–1935) in contrast supported the non-Orthodox charities. Probably more than Wilhelm, they created institutions which addressed society and its needs beyond the boundaries of their own faith, for example, the Clementine, a children’s hospital (generously endowed by Louise) and the Carl von Rothschild’sche Bibliothek, a large public library.

Each of these older and each of the more recent institutions had its merits, but the parallel structures of charities for the Orthodox and the liberal communities contradicted all the efforts made in various European countries precisely since the 1840s in order to achieve more rationalised methods of philanthropy or “scientific charity”. Reforms in poor-relief and voluntary philanthropy were meant to channel and coordinate charitable activities ideally into one single structure. The intra-Jewish divide here described – irrational from the perspective of charity – sprang up in most German-Jewish communities, but nowhere was it so deep as in Frankfurt. And it was, by the way, of little significance outside German-speaking Jewry.

In Paris and London, it was not so much conflicts between traditionalists and reformers which shaped the charitable landscape, but rather the challenges coming with the increase in Jewish immigration, felt since the 1860s and accelerating from the 1880s. In Frankfurt, the Jewish community grew from ca. 5,000 around 1850 to ca. 22,000 in 1900. In Paris, it grew from about 20,000 to 50,000 during the same period, in London even from 20,000 to far more than 100,000. Frankfurt was a rather wealthy city with only a few industries. London and Paris, in contrast, had large proletarian districts, typically in the eastern areas, where the majority of the poorer Jews worked in the textile industries and in shoemaking, much of it organised in sweatshops. In London, most of them had come from Russia and its Polish provinces ; in Paris, many of them had also come from the German-speaking provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. A surge of anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia in 1881/82, generally poor prospects for Jews in Eastern Europe, and the cheaper opportunities for emigration (railways, steamship lines to North America) had caused the increase in westward migration. With population already dense in the poorer areas of London and Paris, some Jewish community leaders feared that the influx of poor Yiddish-, Polish- or Russian-speaking Jews would jeopardise their own position as respected members of French or British society. Unionists lamented rising housing costs and feared that poor immigrants would put a squeeze on wages.

In London, these fears culminated in measures of the Jewish Board of Guardians (an umbrella organisation of Jewish charitable institutions) to repatriate some 24,000 Jews to Eastern Europe between 1882 and 1906, when border control in Britain was still non-existent. Not until 1905 was the more restrictive Alien Act passed. This legislation, meant to curb immigration (implicitly the immigration of poor Jews), was supported by Benjamin L. Cohen, Member of Parliament and a leading member of the Board of Guardians. Lord Nathaniel Rothschild (1840–1915), great-grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, head of the London bank and also sitting in Parliament, opposed the new law. This was in line with his own approach to the challenges of immigration : already in 1885, he had set up the Four Percent Industrial Dwellings Company. Up until 1905, it had erected eight tenement blocks with a total of 1,600 flats for families with a modest income (more followed in the interwar period). All the blocks were placed in the East End, where the Jewish poor clustered. They were not meant exclusively for this clientele, but most of the lodgers were in fact Jewish. Lord Rothschild provided only 25 % of the initial capital ; the remaining shares were bought by larger and smaller investors from the community, thus embedding the Four Percent Company in the upper-middle and upper class of London’s Jewry. The capital was augmented over the years. Nathaniel further became the major benefactor of the Jews’ Free School (JFS), established in East London in the 18th century. It was essentially with his subsidies that by 1900, the managers of the school had made it the largest and probably the best equipped in Europe, with 4,250 boys and girls on its roll. The housing company and even more so the school were elements in a pragmatic strategy for the assimilation of immigrants into established Anglo-Jewry and into British society. Sectarianism was not significant within the community. The more Reform-oriented Westminster Jews’ Free School counted only a few hundred pupils. Some Orthodox Talmud and Torah schools in the East End, even smaller than the Westminster School, were not meant to compete with the JFS, but rather to complement it.

The Rothschilds’ commitments in Paris may be interpreted as an answer to yet another set of social and political challenges. Jewish immigration was more pressing in Paris than in Frankfurt, but far less than in London. James de Rothschild (1792–1868), Mayer Amschel’s son and founder of the Paris bank, and his wife Betty (1805–1886) had made a bequest of 1.6 Million FF towards the creation of the Fondation Rothschild. The yield was used to subsidise poorer Paris lodgers, regardless of their faith. It was only in 1904 that James’ sons Alphonse (1827–1905), Gustave (1829–1911) and Edmond (1845–1934) de Rothschild increased the endowment their parents had made by another ten million FF. These were given towards the erection of tenement blocks in Paris. The internal structure (planning, building and running the buildings) of the thus remodeled Fondation Rothschild was adopted from the Four Percent Company. Yet, in contrast with Nathanial Rothschild’s ambition to include more Jewish investors, the Paris Rothschilds took the enormous sum only from their own coffers. Unlike in London, the five tenement blocks in Paris were not concentrated in a specifically Jewish area but rather spread over five arrondissements. Around 1910, Edmond gave several more millions for the generous enlargement and modernisation of the Fondation de Rothschild (not to be confused with the Fondation Rothschild), a small Jewish hospital their father had created on Rue Picpus in 1852. Its eleven new buildings became operative between 1913 and 1916, open for society at large. Adolphe Carl de Rothschild (1823–1900), who had run the Naples bank until it was closed down in 1863, gave 9.8 million FF towards the erection of the highly advanced eye clinic in Paris, the Hôpital Ophtalmologique Adolphe de Rothschild, opened by his widow Julie in 1905. Most of the millions were employed for the endowment of each of these two hospitals, yielding enough money to cover the considerable running costs. The eye clinic even offered free treatment for the patients, who flocked in from literally all over the world.

What is striking in the case of the Paris commitments is not only the spectacular sums given but also the timing. There is no explicit evidence for this, but it seems that the impressive philanthropic initiatives of the Paris Rothschilds were a response to the anti-Semitic campaigns during the Dreyfus Affair, which upset the nation during the years 1894–99, and in which they were depicted as the stereotypical greedy, unpatriotic and manipulative usurer. The French family members were also donating to a wide range of exclusively Jewish institutions, but more than in Frankfurt and London, these major institutions in Paris sought to address society at large. It is hard to imagine that this was not meant to counter and disprove allegations about Jewish financiers merely exploiting society, and never ploughing back any of the profits they made.

It is remarkable that no major effort was made in Paris in the field of schooling. The obvious explanation lies in the ambition of the French Republic to monopolise education and to squeeze out the Catholic Church. The antagonism between church and state was formative in French politics, and Republican laicism – even invigorated with the outcome of the Dreyfus Affair – would consequently not grant more leeway to autonomous Jewish schooling.


Most of the Rothschild philanthropic commitments were addressing problems caused by the westward migration of poor Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe which had begun in the 17th and culminated in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was a long-term pattern shaping the social challenges of Jewish minorities in Europe. Yet, the aims of the common institutions they created or supported were not uniform in the three countries here involved. These institutions were not merely addressing the needs of the poor. At least to the same extent they also endeavoured to address the anxieties of the established Jewish communities. Their attitudes towards poverty and relief were not only shaped by genuinely Jewish values and religious prescriptions, as some “apologetic and celebratory” studies of Jewish philanthropy claim. They also integrated approaches to poverty from their Gentile environments, which in turn had been shaped by the social doctrine of the respective Christian denominations.

Poor-relief in Britain and Holland, where Calvinist doctrine had been influential, had become an instrument of social control, with severe sanctions for the unwilling able-bodied. With the cost of relief not administered at the level of the state or municipality but rather on the level of the parishes, thus burdening the immediate neighbours of the poor, Jewish communities were anxious to take care of “their own” Jewish poor, even if they were admitted to public assistance. This might help to explain why between 1880 and 1914, for every two immigrated “Jews who remained in Great Britain, one was assisted and often encouraged to go back” to “Russia, Russian Poland and Romania”. Nathaniel Lord Rothschild opposed this strategy of the Jewish Board of Guardians from the outset. He sought to improve systematically the social integration of immigrants through affordable housing. The regulations of the housing company he initiated demanded that it had to make a profit of four percent, which secured that this was anything but almsgiving – something hardly compatible with the British Protestant environment. The inclusion of a wider group of shareholders in the company and its managing committees made it more a joint effort of the community than a paternalist project. The cultural integration of immigrant children was improved through high-quality schooling.

In France, where the pressure of Jewish immigration was lower, and where a more lenient Catholic tradition prevailed, no measures for repatriation were taken at all. It seems that the trigger for the decision of the Rothschild brothers in Paris to create a housing company was not migration as such, but the anti-Semitic campaigns that shook the country during the 1890s. At the same time, the Paris housing company and several hospitals created by Rothschild family members were far more paternalist endeavours than any Rothschild charity in London. In Paris, they were funded exclusively by means of Rothschild capital, and each of the institutions bore “Rothschild” in its name – by contrast, none of them did in London. The sheer size of the housing company and of the general hospital on Rue Picpus made them resemble public institutions rather than private charities. In their philanthropic commitments, the Rothschilds in Paris acted like a paternalist state. Their housing company, in fact, encouraged the Ville de Paris in 1912 to obtain a state loan of 200 million FF for the construction of 26,000 flats for families of modest income. In London, in contrast, large investments in housing which would not fit in with the logic of a market economy were not even accepted. The two million pounds William Richard Sutton provided in 1900 towards non-profit housing could not be invested according to plan, because both the commercial and the philanthropic world objected that such massive intervention would curb the profitability of real estate.

The social conflicts visible in London or Paris hardly existed in Frankfurt, a far smaller city, and hardly attractive for masses of migrants. The dominant conflict line at the Rothschilds’ place of origin was cultural, between Reform-oriented and Orthodox Jews, and it obstructed a pragmatic approach to the organisation of philanthropy. Even this conflict may be interpreted in the context of the Christian environment. Reform Judaism, in fact, adopted many features from the Lutheran Reformation : use of the vernacular language in sermons and religious writing, the rabbi’s attire resembling that of the pastor, the introduction of the organ and a pulpit in worship, etc. Jewish Reformers saw themselves as agents of Enlightenment. Orthodox Judaism, in turn, was often associated with obscurantism, irrationalism, backwardness – which were also attributed to the Catholic world. It is not far-fetched to contextualise the intra-Jewish divide with the rising tensions between the consolidating German nation-state and the Catholic Church, fuelled during the 1880s by Chancellor Bismarck’s ‘Kulturkampf’ campaign.

The intra-Jewish divide was affected by Europe’s 19th-century ‘Culture Wars’, and it probably was even a part of them. The divide was particularly deep in Frankfurt, not the least because it saw a generous supporter from the Rothschild family on each side of the divide. Both Mayer Carl and Wilhelm Carl Rothschild had the means to generously endow their respective favourite groups with the means to form a full-fledged infrastructure. In other words : Frankfurt’s Jewish community was wealthy enough to afford a schism which was avoided elsewhere. Should it be veridical that Rothschild philanthropy in Paris was in part a reaction to the anti-Dreyfusard campaigns, this would also fit into the context of the Culture Wars, which were essentially state vs. church conflicts. The Culture Wars had little impact on Britain. This played out in favour of Nathaniel Rothschild’s pragmatism. These interpretations are not meant to depict Jewish philanthropy as a system that was mimicking its Gentile environment, but to illustrate that the Jews described here were in fact members of French, German or British society respectively, which is what most of them aspired to throughout their life. They amalgamated elements from their own religious tradition with suitable elements from other faith groups, just as their Christian neighbours did.


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