Everyone has heard of the Rothschilds, fewer perhaps of the Sassoons, the Kadoories, the Poliakovs and the Gunzburgs. Yet the Rothschilds were only one of a number of Jewish business dynasties that flourished across the world between the fall of Napoleon and the Second World War. The story of these remarkable family businesses is far from hidden, though poorly understood. In the beginning were the patriarchs: Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), a contemporary of Goethe, who started off dealing antiquities in the Frankfurt ghetto; David Sassoon (1792-1864), heir to a distinguished Baghdadi-Jewish dynasty, who fled the political machinations of his hometown for British India; Joseph Evzel Gunzburg (1812-78), an alcohol magnate from Podolia with a prestigious rabbinic genealogy stretching back fifteen generations; Solomon Poliakov (1812-97), a shtetl Jew who set out from Belarus for Moscow, leaving his wife, Zlata, to mind the shop; and Eleazar Silas Kadoorie (1867-1944), a former Sassoon apprentice who broke with his patrons and struck out on his own as ‘E.S. Kelly’ in Hong Kong. The businesses they founded were a defining feature of the political and economic revolutions that propelled Europe to global dominance.
‘Patriarch’ is hardly a neutral word in this context, though the authors of four different books – Roman Sandgruber’s about the Viennese Rothschilds, Lorraine de Meaux’s about the Gunzburgs, ChaeRan Freeze’s on Zinaida Poliakova, and Jonathan Kaufman’s about the Sassoons and Kadoories – all use it. It plays to Old Testament stereotypes and fails to capture the experience of a woman such as Zlata Poliakova, whose commitment to providing her sons with an education in Russian and arithmetic did quite as much for their prospects as her husband’s relocation to Moscow. In other ways, too, these books are riddled with tropes. Some were applied by contemporaries, for whom the Rothschilds were an archetype. They spoke of the Poliakovs as the ‘Russian Rothschilds’ and of the Sassoons as the ‘Rothschilds of the East’. Other tropes are embedded in the stories themselves. From Mann to Galsworthy and Bashevis Singer, family sagas with a business dimension are a staple of modern literature, and these new histories sit comfortably in that genre: each follows a familiar narrative arc – stupendous rise to dramatic fall.
On occasion, the tropes are unwitting. Sandgruber is an emeritus professor at the University of Linz who writes with learning and panache. Yet section titles like ‘Seine Majestät Rothschild’ and ‘Rothschilds Gold’, which riff on antisemitic stereotypes, appear in terrible taste. Indeed, Sandgruber’s penchant for a turn of phrase can lead him into dangerous territory, most strikingly when he notes that we know little about the religious faith of the third generation of Austrian Rothschilds, adding, without caveat: ‘In truth their faith was money, as Heinrich Heine had speculated.’ It’s a shocking statement in a book that seeks to indict Austria for its historic antisemitism, and failure to remember a family that helped to define this phase of its history. (Historians be warned: it’s not easy to write well about rich Jews.)
The first generation of Rothschild brothers were self-made men, admired for their financial brilliance and scorned for their lack of European culture. During the upheavals of the Napoleonic era, they settled in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Naples and Vienna. Salomon (1774-1855), founder of the Austrian branch, had a traditional Jewish education, kept the Sabbath and spoke the Jewish dialect of his childhood all his life. Nonetheless, this ghetto Jew, who never quite mastered German, became an essential prop of Metternich’s European order (a fact Metternich’s biographers tend to ignore). In some respects, Salomon’s position resembled that of ‘court Jews’ in the early modern period. He lived in a city that was, at least in theory, barred to all but a handful of very wealthy Jews. He was a baron with the ear of the chancellor; his business interests – not just state loans, but steamships, coal mines and the country’s first railway – transformed the Austrian economy. But when he bought a country estate it had to be in Prussia, not Austria, because nothing could persuade the Habsburg nobility to accept Salomon as one of their own.
The Rothschilds survived the Revolution of 1848 – only just. Salomon’s son Anselm (1803-74) took over running the businesses: a ghetto Jew, perhaps, but one with a university education. He founded Austria’s first and greatest joint-stock bank, the Credit-Anstalt, and developed Salomon’s Nordbahn into a railway network that eventually stretched from Italy to Poland. Anselm’s wife, Charlotte, entertained Europe’s great composers at the Rothschild villa outside Frankfurt. She refused to settle in Vienna; it was a city in which she and her daughters could be invited to a ball without ever being asked to dance. Left to his own devices, Anselm lived quietly in his father’s palaces; he gave a fortune to the new Viennese Jewish community, but prayed mostly at home rather than attending synagogue.
Anselm had four sons, one of whom died in infancy. Ferdinand (1839-98) moved to England. Nathaniel (1836-1905) was a playboy bachelor, who became the greatest philanthropist in Austrian history. (The state’s failure to honour the terms of his charitable foundations is now the occasion of a major lawsuit.) Albert (1844-1911) took over the family business, but devoted much of his time to pleasurable diversions: mountaineering, ice-skating, tennis, horse-racing, motor cars, hunting, astronomy, photography and chess. As Austria-Hungary transitioned to a constitutional monarchy, some things became easier: in 1875, Albert bought a large estate in Lower Austria – an area historically closed to Jews and which soon became a crucible for politically inflected antisemitism. In Vienna, the Rothschilds remained the ultimate insider-outsiders. Albert may have been ‘the richest man in Europe’, but it took two prime ministers and a foreign monarch to persuade Emperor Franz Joseph that he should be formally received at court. By this time, hate for the Rothschilds had infused the entire political spectrum, appealing variously to Austro-German nationalists, socialists, Catholics and even Zionists.
The scale of the Austrian Rothschilds’ wealth is surprising. Austria-Hungary was a great power in decline, yet Albert left a fortune ten times that of his English cousin Natty, and nearly thirty times that of his nearest Austrian rival. His heirs were rich enough to survive both the First World War and hyperinflation, though their capital was greatly depleted – like that of the state itself. Louis (1882-1955) was now head of the Austrian house. The politician Otto Bauer, who was both a socialist and a Jew, commented: ‘Old Austria was ruled by the Habsburg dynasty and the Rothschild dynasty. In the republic, only the Rothschild dynasty remains.’ Then came the catastrophic failure of Credit-Anstalt in 1931. Louis was a complacent, incompetent president of the board. For years, the bank continued to pay 10 per cent dividends even as it built up stupendous losses. (Louis attended barely half of the directors’ meetings.) Its collapse was a shattering blow both for Austria and the Rothschilds, prompting Louis to spend millions in political bribes. The motive behind these backhanders is unclear. Did they help him to avoid prosecution, or limit the antisemitic vitriol heaped upon him? (Louis was culpable, yes, but his totemic status as a Jew and a Rothschild in 1930s Austria meant he was also a scapegoat.) The whole episode reads like the worst kind of antisemitic fantasy, even if it speaks as much to the corruption and chaos in Austrian politics and society as anything else. In the event, the Rothschilds were so thoroughly bound up with the Austrian state, only the Nazis could sever the knot.
Sandgruber credits the Rothschilds’ longevity and extraordinary resonance in the popular imagination to their international ties and family ritual of endogamy. But such practices were already well established among the mercantile diasporas of the early modern era; in the 19th century, they remained a hallmark of many family businesses and certainly of leading Jewish ones. Take the subjects of Kaufman’s book, who – from the vantage points of Mumbai and Baghdad – also built global businesses underpinned by international connections and close family relationships. David Sassoon had eight sons, scattered across different cities and continents, who wrote more than seven thousand letters to one another between 1860 and 1900. Like the Rothschilds, the Sassoons used Hebrew script and a Jewish dialect – not Judendeutsch but the language of the Jews of Baghdad.
But their wealth was also a byproduct of empire – not the quintessentially European empire of the Habsburgs, but the more global, commercially driven imperialism of the British. As a 21st-century journalist, Kaufman understands that making money from imperialism is not a good look, perhaps especially for Jews. He is inclined to project his own experiences as an American Jew onto this very different part of the world, highlighting David’s ‘immigrant’ sensibility and identifying him as a forerunner of ‘the liberal Jewish businessman whose skills and talents led to fabulous financial success, but whose history of personal hardship and commitment to Jewish values made him more socially and politically progressive’. This proves a hopeless framework for understanding the way David’s insider-outsider status worked to his advantage as he leveraged Baghdadi-Jewish commercial and philanthropic networks to support his rapidly expanding business.
To assert that ‘India made David Sassoon rich, and it made him British’ is to miss the point. Here was a man who dressed all his life like the Baghdadi-Jewish dignitary he was; a man for whom British citizenship was a strategic choice reflecting long-standing habits in Ottoman lands, where many members of the Jewish elite were known as ‘Francos’ because of their quasi-European status. He came from a society in which Jewish businesses necessarily had an ethno-religious profile. It was a world in which groups like Jews, Eastern Christians and Parsees remained culturally and socially distinct from their Hindu and Muslim neighbours, and in which piety, ethnicity and communal charity – practised by the Sassoons on a massive scale – were inextricably entwined. Tellingly, David never learned English. He made sure that his sons and their wives did – and, during the Indian Mutiny, permitted them ‘to wear Western clothes as often as they wished, so that it may be known on which side you are’. The ease with which members of this second generation of Sassoons acquired the trappings of Englishness, after moving to Britain, and (like Ferdinand de Rothschild) became intimate with the Prince of Wales is remarkable. You only have to visit Albert Sassoon’s orientalising mausoleum in Brighton – which enjoyed an unconventional afterlife as a pub, the Bombay Bar – to understand the extent to which they continued to straddle different worlds.
The Sassoons made their fortune from opium, and the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s book is focused on Shanghai; he splices together the story of the Sassoons with that of the Kadoories, another successful Baghdadi-Jewish dynasty. Yet Kaufman can’t quite see that it was their ability to move culturally, as well as geographically, between South-East Asia and Britain that gave both families a competitive advantage. The career of Eleazer Kadoorie illustrates the ways this worked. A distant cousin of the Sassoons, Elly was taken on as their apprentice at the age of fifteen and learned the ropes travelling in India and China. In 1881, he struck out on his own, setting up as a stockbroker in Hong Kong and acquiring stakes in dozens of companies, working across the rigid divide between the British and their Chinese subjects. But for marriage prospects he looked to London: he set out, aged 32, to explore business partnerships in the imperial metropole and returned home with a Jewish wife. Laura Mocatta brought the cultural, aristocratic and philanthropic traditions of the Anglo-Jewish elite with her to Asia. She secured her husband’s entrance into British society, promoted education for Jewish girls in Baghdad, and helped her brother-in-law establish a network of schools for poor Chinese students across Hong Kong and Canton.
Elly found that he could acquire the trappings of Britishness, but its substance remained elusive. Locked out of British company directorships and subjected to antisemitic sneers by his rivals, he built up business interests in rubber, electricity and luxury hotels in Malaysia, China and Hong Kong. The upheavals of the Napoleonic era had made the Rothschilds’ fortunes and this too was a period of revolution, war and financial crisis. When Elly eventually settled in Shanghai, he and his sons built a mansion modelled on the Palace of Versailles and joined the colonial elite. These were the glory years of Shanghai’s International Settlement. Citizenship and a knighthood didn’t stop him cultivating China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen, whom he persuaded to endorse the Balfour Declaration, and currying favour with the emerging nationalist and republican elite. When Chiang Kai-shek married Sun’s sister-in-law, he did so at the Kadoories’ Majestic Hotel.
Nor did the Sassoons fail to appreciate the opportunities that beckoned in this part of the world. British readers may be familiar with Philip, Sybil and Siegfried, but it was the crippled war veteran Victor (1881-1961) who chose to make a new life for himself in India and then Shanghai. Here, he invested in property, built the legendary Cathay Hotel – bigger, glitzier, more modern than the Majestic – and partied through the boom years. His social status was complicated. British aristocrats mocked his Baghdadi origins, but acknowledged that although ‘he was Jewish … one couldn’t very well snub a man who played golf with the Prince of Wales.’ Sir Victor shrugged it off, joking (supposedly) that the only race greater than the Jews was the Derby. He prided himself on paying his Chinese workers higher wages than almost any other Western businessman, but the office floors of the Cathay Hotel contained segregated bathrooms: one marked ‘Gentlemen’ and the other ‘Chinese’.
Both the Sassoons and the Kadoories benefited from the social, economic and legal privileges that came with extraterritoriality. This was at once symptomatic of the colonial moment and curiously reminiscent of elite Jewish practices in the Ottoman world. It proved a fleeting advantage: one that was undercut by China’s increasingly strident nationalist government, overturned by the Japanese occupation, and eliminated altogether when both families fled Communist rule.
It’s evident that the fate of these Jewish business dynasties was intimately linked to the rise and fall of a geopolitical order rooted in European ascendancy and the imperial nation-state. The case of Russia adds an intriguing dimension. Unlike Britain and the Ottoman lands, this was a Eurasian empire with no tradition of Jewish high finance; indeed, before the 18th-century partitions of Poland, Russia had very little experience of Jews. Yet here too, from the mid-19th century, Jewish dynasties emerged: the Gunzburgs of St Petersburg and the Poliakovs of Moscow. These families brought aspects of traditional Jewish culture with them as they entered the world of the Russian aristocracy. Like the Rothschilds and the Sassoons, the patriarchs remained strictly observant, taught their sons and daughters Hebrew and Yiddish in addition to European languages and put money and political influence at the service of Jewish communities in cities that, like 19th-century Vienna, were only just opening up to Jews. In Russia, which neither emancipated its Jews nor evolved into a viable constitutional monarchy, their status remained ambiguous. The Gunzburgs and Poliakovs acquired titles and landed estates thanks, in part, to their intimate relationships with key political figures such as Prince Dolgorukov, the governor general of Moscow, and Sergey Witte, head of the Council of Ministers. Yet in 1891, when the police began to purge Moscow of Jews residing illegally in the city, Solomon Poliakov, then eighty, could do nothing to prevent his sister-in-law and her children from being forced out.
There were limits to what ChaeRan Freeze describes as ‘the political economy of intimacies’: as Jews, the Gunzburgs and Poliakovs could never hope to join the Russian aristocracy on equal terms. Perhaps they did not wish to – Jewishness was central not just to their identity but to their success. As de Meaux explains, the bank Joseph Evzel Gunzburg founded in 1859 was a viable proposition not just because the existence of its French branch allowed clients to manage commercial activities outside Russia but also because Joseph married so many of his children into the Parisian Jewish elite. The Poliakovs intermarried with clans like the Sassoons – unhappily in the case of Zinaida (1863-1952), whose husband married her for money, and didn’t forgive her when the fortune began to dry up.
Citizenship, as ever, played an important role. The Gunzburgs never abandoned Russia – and were only allowed to pursue their Parisian lives while retaining vast Russian interests on the condition that they didn’t become legally French. They too were insider-outsiders: serving in the army, but ineligible for promotion; vilified as Jews for corrupting Russian society, but close enough to the levers of power to retain their industrial capital and social standing when less well-connected families would have gone bust. The Poliakovs, like the Austrian Rothschilds, ultimately proved ‘too big to fail’. Zinaida’s father’s banks collapsed in the early 1900s, and were taken under state control, but the Russians kept his bankruptcy secret until after his death in 1914. Both Freeze and de Meaux extend imaginative empathy to their subjects, but this approach can sometimes occlude, or seem to excuse, the excesses of business people whose practices weren’t always honourable, and whose wealth (like that of other nobles and capitalists) derived from exploitation of the poor. Tsarism was a rotten system. Most Jews suffered; the few who benefited were no better or worse than the rest of the ruling class.
A superficial reading of Sandgruber and Kaufman’s books might lead us to the false conclusion that the Gunzburgs and Poliakovs were in some sense ‘more Jewish’ than their Viennese and Anglo-Baghdadi counterparts. This is because neither author demonstrates a meaningful grasp of the Jewish society and culture to which their protagonists belonged. For the Gunzburgs and Poliakovs in particular, Jewish society transcended the boundaries of states and empires. Indeed, the marriages that frequently bound them to Jews in other places speak to a pattern of behaviour that Freeze describes as a ‘dual habitus’: one characterised not just by immersion in the social and cultural practices of high society but by a broad engagement with the Jewish world.
That engagement was not always intellectual – although it certainly was for the Gunzburgs, who cultivated the rich traditions of modern Hebrew literature and scholarship developed throughout the Russian-Jewish Enlightenment. More usually, it was social and philanthropic, finding expression through the causes and institutions that members of these families funded and endorsed. Consider the Gunzburgs’ role in sponsoring the modernisation of Jewish society in Russia through educational, cultural and philanthropic initiatives; this continued from the accession of Alexander II in 1855 through to the Revolution. De Meaux understands this as a form of the early modern tradition of shtadlanut – or intercession between Jews and the official authorities – and in a sense she is right. Yet it was also a fundamental feature of something historians like to call ‘Jewish modernity’. In this context, the commitments of Horace de Gunzburg (1832-1909) stand comparison with David Sassoon’s generous communal philanthropy in India, and the contribution of Elly Kadoorie and his wife to Jewish education in Baghdad.
As the position of European Jewry worsened through pogroms, war, revolution and fascism, so the obligations felt by these families towards their persecuted and often destitute brethren multiplied and developed. In 1914, Zinaida Poliakova (now Gubbay) was a well-established society lady in Paris. Yet she assumed an important leadership role during the First World War, when she initiated the Society to Aid Jewish Victims of War and became its first president. Nor should we be surprised to find the playboy-businessman Victor Sassoon working alongside the Kadoories to provide financial and organisational support to the many Jewish refugees who began to reach Shanghai from Nazi Europe in the late 1930s. Louis de Rothschild was less engaged with such causes, but one need only think of his cousin Edmond’s pioneering support of Zionism or the role of the British Rothschilds in underwriting the Kindertransport to see how uncharacteristic his detachment was.
I expected these books to show that the rise and fall of Jewish business dynasties tracked the great sweep of modern Jewish history – from the faltering hopes of emancipation, first kindled in late 18th-century Europe, to the Holocaust. To my surprise, in most cases, their demise came earlier. Whether in Austria, Russia or China, it was precipitated above all by war and political revolution, not by the expropriation and extermination of Europe’s Jews. After 1917 many of the Poliakovs and Gunzburgs were already stateless. For those who fled Nazi Europe, or died in Auschwitz like many of Zinaida’s family, the Holocaust marked the end point in a long process of decline.
In retrospect their success seems to have had its roots in the status inequalities of European empires, old and new. This was an era in which aristocratic lineage still mattered and not all citizens were equal – particularly in the colonial world. Jews, as Hannah Arendt once remarked, were an ‘inter-European element in a nationalised Europe’, who ‘did not form a class of their own and … did not belong to any of the classes in their countries’. This applied just as much to the financial elite as it did to the middle classes and the poor. These families lacked the unthinking privilege of the true landowning classes; they had other sources of wealth and different solidarities. For a brief time, they thrived on such distinctions. But as insider-outsiders – indeed, as Jews – they remained terrifyingly vulnerable.
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