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The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker, 1849-1999
By Niall Ferguson
Viking, 1999, 658 pp.
Ferguson's second volume on the Rothschilds, the premier international bankers of the nineteenth century, is an ambitious, detailed, and well-written history of the key members of a remarkable family. It is also an account of a great transnational business partnership -- preserved over five generations through family loyalty, written agreements, and intrafamily marriage -- that spanned the political and economic fortunes of western Europe from 1848 to World War I. Benefiting from Ferguson's unprecedented access to family archives, the book relates how Rothschild success resulted from a unique combination of close political ties, dispersion of risk across countries, and extensive and rapid communication among London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Vienna. In the nineteenth century, the Rothschilds dealt mainly in government bonds, although they later also moved into railway bonds. They also financed some wars, as frequently charged. But Ferguson shows that they worked assiduously, and sometimes successfully, for peace and actively fought antisemitism. Steadily accumulating capital until the early twentieth century, the family saw its fortunes decline substantially thereafter. The author attributes this fall to the loss of interest in managing the business among the later, better-educated generations, the rise of joint-stock banking institutions, and the strategic failure to establish a strong base in New York. To his credit, Ferguson takes a lively interest (as do his subjects) in the influence of political events on financial markets. The result is a neat and informative blend of politics, personalities, and market developments.
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