Rothschild (rŏthˈchĪld, Ger. rōtˈshĭlt) [key], prominent family of European bankers. The first important member was Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1743–1812), son of a money changer in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt, Germany. His first names are also spelled as Meyer and Anselm. It was he who laid the foundation of the family fortune by his skillful operations as financial agent for the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (later Elector William I). His five sons were Amschel Mayer Rothschild (1773–1855), who remained at Frankfurt with his father; Salomon Rothschild (1774–1855), who established the Vienna branch of the family; Nathan Meyer Rothschild, who founded the London branch; Karl Rothschild (1788–1855), who established the Naples branch (discontinued in 1863 after the unification of Italy); and James Rothschild (1792–1868), who settled in Paris.
After the Napoleonic Wars the house of Rothschild attained increasing power, and in 1822 all five brothers were created barons by Emperor Francis I of Austria. Because of their position as creditor of many European governments, the Rothschilds were undoubtedly one of the world's chief financial powers in the 19th cent. Their banks played a major role in financing railroads and mines that made France an industrial power and the English branch financed the British government's acquisition of the Suez Canal. The improvement in state financing late in the century greatly reduced their influence.
The Frankfurt branch closed in 1901 when the last male heir of Amschel Mayer Rothschild died. The rise of the Nazis forced the family to give up its Viennese branch in 1938 and some family members fled to the United States during World War II. The Rothschilds remained involved in international investment banking, especially in London and Paris. The French government nationalized the Paris bank in 1981, but six years later David de Rothschild established a new company. He became chairman of both the British and French branches in 2003 when they were consolidated into a single holding company. Rothschild family members have traditionally maintained their Jewish faith and have consistently engaged in large-scale philanthropic activities for both Jews and non-Jews. Many later and contemporary members of the family distinguished themselves as patrons of the arts, sportsmen, writers, and doctors.
See F. Morton, The Rothschilds (1962); E. C. Corti, Rise of the House of Rothschild (1928, repr. 1972) and Reign of the House of Rothschild (1928); V. S. Cowles, The Rothschilds (1973); D. Wilson, Rothschild (1988); N. Ferguson, The House of Rothschild (2 vol., 1999); the memoirs of G. de Rothschild (1985).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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