Sunday, September 14, 2014

The House of Rothschild by Niall Ferguson.

The House of Rothschild is a two volume banking history. While the enthusiast of social history or biography will still find useful information, the main focus is on the rise of the first international bank. Those seeking a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” show should look elsewhere. While this offering lacks sensationalism, there is a good deal of drama: Political and economic relationships, strategies for overcoming the competition and the rise from a poor Frankfurt underclass to eminent positions of influence in Europe, provide genuine plot without superficial glitz.

The research that went into the writing of this tome is impressive. Ferguson scoured the archives of London, Paris and Moscow. The richest trove of information he uses as evidence, is correspondence between the partners and relatives. There are 5830 source notes and 53 pages of bibliography between the two volumes. There had to be days for the author where a mallet to the head appeared preferable to reading another letter.

Given the importance of economics to the subject, one will need to have either an understanding of monetary investment instruments, or a desire to Google frequently. To offer a personal example, as a representative of the business impaired, (even with the assistance of the internet), I found myself periodically confused. Sometimes I could not even understand how one or another strategy could yield profit. Ferguson does not dumb-down the math for his audience. But those who have far to go in their understanding of economics will learn a great deal in the course of these two volumes if they are willing to apply themselves. Since finance is an often neglected area by history enthusiasts, a true education that expands one’s repertoire of ideas can take place. Those who already have the tools of commerce will find this topic easier and more entertaining.

Because this story is about money, and because the Rothschild Bank placed its acquisition above every other concern, there are readers who will find the company’s amorality repellent.  There are plenty of political histories and people’s histories that will discuss the victims of such policies. While there is a satisfaction to venting moral outrage, that is neither the purpose of this book nor the job of a historian. Ferguson does a heroic job of maintaining a neutral tone while quoting callous letters between the Rothschild brothers. These include their warm relationship with Klemens Von Metternich (who made the Hapsburg Empire a police state), their secret deal to sell guns to Russia so that the Czar could more easily suppress Polish independence and other profitable activities. Like a cheetah, engineered by evolution to run down and kill antelope, the Rothschild international bank was a perfect, ruthless animal. One can admire or abhor this bank’s heartless indifference to any consideration other than money, as one wishes. That said, it is important for a balanced individual to read books on both the cheetahs and the antelopes of history.

Ferguson does spend time discussing anti-Semitism. But again, this has nothing to do with moral outrage. Anti-Semitism is a topic of the book because it affected the banking business and the Rothschild’s ability to secure contracts. Ferguson makes it an issue because most gentiles who regarded or participated in the transactions of the Rothschilds made it an issue. The author keeps his eye on the business ball.

While Ferguson’s abilities are laudable, no one should ever expect perfection. The author occasionally stands in awe of his subject’s power and gives them too much credit for influence. When French Foreign Minister Jacques Lafitte supports war with Austria, a concerned James Rothschild approaches King Louis Philippe. A week later, Lafitte resigns. The author interprets “It would appear that James’s ‘talking to the king had the desired effect,’” (Ferguson, v.1, p. 240), as if James’s intervention was the only determining factor in the resignation. Additionally, there are maddeningly frequent quotations of novels by Benjamin Disraeli. Yes, Disraeli knew the family intimately and fictionalized them in his novels. But “fictionalized” is the operative word. These many quotations are not facts of history. One cannot determine facts from them.  However, my not infrequent nitpicking testifies to how enthusiastically I read his long history. Ferguson’s flair for writing and ability to keep the story engaging causes one to become absorbed in his narrative. A historian who can make a banking history come alive for a business impaired reader cannot be ignored.

Ferguson, Niall. The House of Rothschild. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey

Eminent Victorians is Lytton Strachey’s 1918 British best seller. It contains the biographies of four people considered to have exemplified the era’s morality and standards (Henry Edward Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and Charles Gordon). In its time, this book was a quiet innovation. It challenged the iconic worship of the 19th Century’s upright British saints. It provided an alternative to the “standard biography,” which “commemorate[s] the dead” with “ill-digested masses of material” (Strachey, p. viii).  As a result, it reads like a grouping of literary profiles with more art than history.

Strachey wrote with an arch humor that will leave a wicked smile on your face. He stealthily assassinates Lord Acton as “a historian to whom learning and judgment had not been granted in equal proportions” (Strachey, p. 100). He slowly roasts Lord Hartington as a man beloved by his listeners for being dull: “It was the greatest comfort…they could always be absolutely certain that he would never…be either brilliant or subtle, or surprising or impassioned or profound…as they sat listening to his speeches, in which considerations of stolid plainness succeeded one another with complete flatness…they felt…supported by the colossal tedium” (Strachey, p. 315). It’s funny, but it’s not history.

An historian might find herself a bit frustrated with the presentation and quality of information. In service to creating a tasteful work, Strachey sometimes skimps on the facts or passes-over issues that would cause his readers to blush. Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert had a close working relationship and a deep friendship. The author describes this relationship as “an intimacy so utterly untinctured not only by passion itself but by the suspicion of it” (Strachey, p. 167). With all due respect to the chastity of Ms. Nightingale and the marital fidelity of Mr. Herbert, there is no way Strachey could have known this.

Though his style is largely restrained, amusing, and dilettantish, Strachey can be relentless when he has an opinion. One central theme throughout the biographies is that the idols of Victorian England are somewhat cracked. Cardinal Manning is not just the genial saint of British Catholicism; he is also a cruel, politically manipulative autocrat (Strachey, p. 86). Florence Nightingale is not at all the passive “Lady with the Lamp;” she is a driven professional whom, the author claims, pushed Sidney Herbert into an early grave (Strachey, pp. 181-2). Thomas Arnold, historically portrayed as a reformer of boys’ education, is shown to be responsible for a litany of educational missteps, not the least of which was to forestall science instruction (Strachey, p. 213). General Gordon was both a military hero and a disobedient soldier whose rashness caused his own death (Strachey, p. 283). All of this is said more softly and with a greater mass of verbiage than I have space to allow. Strachey does not pointedly hammer at the idols. He cautiously taps, relentlessly taps, until the statue has a crack and the imperfection is annoyingly obvious to those who prefer their icons flawless.

One may argue, as some did, that his characterizations are unfair and his citations sparse. But in the present, one does not read Eminent Victorians for its historical accuracy. Some of the information may be interesting, and some of it may even be true. But more important to the modern reader are an illustration of what early 20th Century English readers appreciated and an admiration of some fine, subtle, sardonic writing.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Random House, 1962.

For review of a book on the British Empire during this time period, see:

For a politically progressive history of London, see: