Almost a century ago, the Rothschilds tried to suppress the publication of the most comprehensive history of their family ever written until that time – The Romance of the Rothschilds, by Ignatius Balla. What was bothering the Rothschilds? They claimed that one story reported in the book was a vicious lie.
Fateful Chess Move
The book begins innocently enough by describing the Rothschild family’s climb to wealth. Over two hundred years ago, the dynasty’s founder, Meir Am- schel Rothschild was a small trader in Frankfort who never dreamt that his family would possess a fortune of over four hundred million pounds sterling by the time the Romance of the Rothschilds was published. As the book notes of their fortune, “It is estimated at more than four hundred million sterling, and it increases daily. It would be bound to increase even if they never engaged in another transaction, as, invested at an interest of not more than four per cent. their capital would yield more than 16,000,000 yearly, or more than 45,000 a day.”
The book reveals that Meir Amschel’s original goal was to devote many years to Torah study, a dream that was cut short by the death of his father when he was only twelve years old. After entering the world of business, his extensive knowledge of old coins and medals drew him to the attention of Prince William IX, the Landgrave (ruler) of Hanau, one of the patchwork of states and principalities that made up old time Germany. Prince William, one of the wealthiest heirs in Europe, was interested in knowing the origin of an old coin.
“Summoned to the Landgrave’s palace, Meir Amschel found the noble deep in a game of chess and stood behind the Landgrave’s chair, quietly watching the game,” Balla reports. “The Landgrave happened to turn round and notice the Jew waiting respectfully, and asked him, ‘Do you play chess?’
“’Yes, and if Your Highness will kindly make this move, the game will be decided in your favor in three moves.
“He had indeed recommended a master stroke and the Landgrave won the game. After Rothschild had gone, the Landgrave said to Baron Estorff [who had arranged the meeting], ‘General, that is certainly no fool you have brought to me.’
“’I trust Your Highness will be just as pleased with the other good qualities of Rothschild,’ the baron responded. ‘I hope so, if he is as honest as he is clever.’ was the reply.”
Rothschild’s close connection with this wealthy ruler set him on the road to riches and he did very well for the next thirty years. During the Napoleonic wars when much of Germany fell under French rule, Rothschild proved that he was as honest as he was wise when the Landgrave fled Germany in 1806, leaving a huge part of his wealth in Rothschild’s hands for safekeeping. By the time the prince returned home in 1813, Meir Amschel had already passed on to a better world and his sons handed the money back to the Landgrave with considerable interest. The prince publicized the Rothschild family’s honesty in every royal court in Europe, helping to lay the foundation of their financial control of Europe. Stories like the following gem in Balla’s book abounded:
“A Frankfort woman once came to the Rothschild’s elderly mother, Gudula, and complained, ‘War is breaking out and they will take my only son, as I cannot pay the money to release him from military service.’
‘Do not be afraid,’ Gudula consoled her. ‘There will not be war. My sons will not provide the money for it.’”
In addition to their reputation for integrity, Rothschild’s five sons had the advantage of numbers, each one living in a different major European city and working with his brothers for the good of all. They were also able to learn of current events before anyone else by developing close connections to politicians and people of high social rank, in return for immense sums, ministers and ambassadors vied to give the brothers the first news. This was vitally important at a time when the postal service was erratic and telegraphs and telephones were dreams of the future.
In short, the brothers lived up to the motto on their coat of arms, “Concord, Integrity, Industry.”
The Waterloo Sequel
Most active of the brothers was Nathan of London who organized an efficient postal service of pigeons to keep him in constant touch with Paris and Frankfort, a pigeon post that plays a large part in one of the most famous stories of his career that began after the defeated Napoleon escaped his imprisonment on Elba Island for a hundred days and plunged Europe back into war.
Napoleon’s unexpected breakout threatened to blow Nathan’s business out of the water until he brilliantly turned it to his advantage. According to the Romance of the Rothschilds, Nathan personally rushed to Napoleon’s last battle at Waterloo to see the fight with his own eyes. The moment he witnessed Napoleon’s defeat, he rushed to the coast where it seemed all his efforts were in vain. A fearful storm was raging and no sailor was willing to risk his life in such weather. Finally, one desperate soul said he would take the millionaire across in return for two thousand francs handed over to his wife beforehand – if they went down, the widow would at least have something.
Back in England, Nathan rushed to London and appeared at the stock exchange in utter exhaustion, giving the impression that he knew of some secret bad news. The consequences were catastrophic.
“A fear, amounting to panic, broke on the entire Exchange like a flash of lightning,” Balla writes. “The passionate and irreconcilable enemy of England was once more free, and no one could now restrain him if he chose to fall on Europe again as the scourge of G-d. The fear fell on the city like a devastating cyclone. The news increased in volume and terror, and filled men with alarm. A wild panic ensued.
“The rate of exchange fell from minute to minute until it reached its lowest point, and, when it was seen that both Rothschild and his agents offered securities for sale in large quantities, even flung them on the market, nothing could arrest the disaster. It was as if
a mania had seized the crowd ; in a few minutes the strongest banks began to waver, and the value of the most solid securities sank alarmingly…
“While sympathetic souls expressed their concern for Nathan Rothschild, whose great firm, it was thought, must now sink into the dust, destroyed by its colossal losses, he was quietly buying up all the securities offered by means of secret agents whom no one knew.”
Contrary to Balla’s report, popular legend has it that Nathan did not travel to Europe personally, but learnt the news through a courier who conveyed it through the famous carrier pigeon service.
Be that as it may, towards the end of 1912 when the Romance of Rothschild was about to be published, the Rothschild family complained that the book’s tale of Nathan deceiving the stock exchange was a libel and sued to prevent publication of the book. A special cable sent to The New York Times on November 27 gives the following report:
“The attempts to suppress the book have already taken a legal form. The counsel for Rothschilds argued that the book contained libelous matter and instanced a story which he alleged it contained of how Nathan Rothschild, founder of the London firm, made a large amount of money after the Battle of Waterloo… Rothschild, who could have stopped the slump with a single word announcing Napoleon’s defeat, said nothing.
“As the counsel for the Rothschilds cited this story as ground for injunction, Justice Bailhache interposed the remark, ‘It’s a long time since Waterloo.’ Other remarks advanced by the Rothschild’s counsel were equally without effect on the judge, who summarily dismissed the application for an injunction.”
An Ignored Warning
The following year on January 18, The New York Times reported on what was widely regarded as the Rothschild’s unofficial version of the Waterloo story in the form of an article by writer Lucien Wolf.
“Mr. Wolf describes the story as pure invention, assigning it to that shady Paris journalist, Georges d’Airnvael, who, he says, attempted to blackmail the head of the Paris House, Baron James Rothschild, with it,” The New York Times said. “D’Airnvael submitted his manuscript to the baron and asked money for its suppression, and only when the impudent proposal was rejected, resorted to publication. The story created some sensation, and Baron James was stung into publishing a reply in which he told the story of the attempted blackmail.”
What had really happened after the Battle of Waterloo?
According to Lucien Wolf, records in the Rothschild’s London home proved the following version of how Nathan Rothschild got the news:
“The news of Waterloo was brought from Dunkirk by the captain of a vessel belonging to the Rothschilds. It was contained in the form of a “Gazette Extraordinary” [special announcement] issued in Brussels on the night of June 18-19, 1815, and announcing in a single line the great victory of the English. This reached New Court [the Rothschild home] shortly after midnight on 19th, and early the next morning it was communicated to Lord Liverpool, who refused to believe it. Another message reached the Rothschilds on the 20th. The messenger was at once sent to Lord Liverpool, who cross examined him. Only thirty hours later did Wellington’s dispatches reach London.”
Wolf claimed that the arrival of Rothschild’s messengers was well known in London and even reported in the London Courier of June 21 – “The truth is that from the first he brought openly in the face of an incredulous and falling market… Thus, in The Courier of June 20 it was stated that Rothschild had made great purchases of stock.”
According to Lucien Wolf, no carrier pigeons were involved in Rothschild’s coup, nor did he cynically hide the information from English officials for his own benefit. Rothschild’s warning was simply not believed.
Unfortunately, the less generous version of the Rothschild/Waterloo story seems to have gained credence even among the Jewish people. Perhaps the pigeon story should be abandoned in favor of the maxim that birds of a feather flock together.