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Response to Review no. 213

To write the history of the biggest financial institution of the nineteenth century in the space of five years – the time granted to me when I was commissioned to write the two hundred history of N.M. Rothschild & Sons – was by any standards a great challenge. The task was not made easier by the fact that a great deal of the correspondence of the Rothschild partners was written in Judendeutsch, right up until the 1860s. And what voluminous correspondence! The most important letters in the London archive, the so-called ‘private letters’ between the partners in the bank between 1812 and 1898, fill 135 boxes. To give just one example: in March 1848 the London Rothschilds received at least sixty important private letters from their counterparts on the continent. To add to the challenge there was already a large, though far from reliable, literature on the family, extending far beyond conventional scholarship to include – again, by way of example – the novels of Balzac, Disraeli and Zola.

As Jeremy Wormell notes, the book I wrote was big. Indeed, by citing its extent at over 1,200 pages, he understates its size, since the publishers were obliged to use large format paper. I should guess the whole thing is not far short of 450,000 words long. Like any sensible historian, I am well aware of my own fallibility. To have written something on this scale without error would have been a superhuman feat, even with the invaluable help I received from colleagues more expert than I in financial history, not least David Landes. So I am genuinely grateful to Wormell for pointing out seven minor slips. It will be a pleasure to make appropriate corrections before the German edition goes to press.

One of the reviewer’s first tasks is to give to the prospective reader some sense of what the book contains. Wormell’s attempt at this is to say the least perfunctory. The book, he writes, ‘is bedded in the nineteenth-century Europe’s diplomatic manoeuvrings, wars and preparations for wars’. So much for that. He devotes half a sentence to the central issue of the family’s Judaism. He gives the reader almost no inkling of the contributions the book makes to the social, political and cultural history of nineteenth-century Europe.

Instead, Wormell rides his own hobbyhorse. My ‘treatment of the debt markets’, he complains, is ‘weak’. This is the cue for a page and a half of what Wormell thinks I should have written to explain how the Rothschilds did their business. Perhaps some readers would have appreciated a passage along these lines. I suspect, however, that the financially literate would have found it otiose and the financially illiterate would have skipped it.

The remaining four pages of his review are devoted to a list of my sins of omission and commission. Given Wormell’s expertise on the British national debt, it is not wholly surprising that nearly all of his criticisms relate to that subject. Thus I am castigated for not having read the Report by the Secretary and Comptroller General of the Proceedings of the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt, for having understated the scale of Goschen’s conversion and for making ‘uncritical use’ of Mitchell and Deane’s figures on the National Debt. Presumably Wormell’s own book might have put me right, had it not been published two years after mine.

What Wormell fails to mention – perhaps he fails to see it – is that by the late nineteenth century, business relating to the British National Debt was a negligible part of what the Rothschilds did. In peacetime there were no issues, and in wartime profit margins were squeezed by competition. The real money was to be made elsewhere: in continental railways, in Russian bonds, in South African mines. The reader of Wormell’s review would have no idea that these subjects dominate the chapters of the book dealing with the period after 1875.

Wormell repeatedly complains about omissions from my bibliography, which he seems to think too small. No newspapers are cited there, he says, though a cursory glance at my notes would have revealed numerous references to The Times, The Spectator, The Economist; I am not sure what purpose it would have served to list these and other journals at the back as well. For the record, the bibliography includes 1,112 secondary books and articles, but these are only the works cited in abbreviated form in the notes, not all the works I consulted.

At various points in his review, Wormell describes my book as ‘weak’, ‘bemusing’, ‘misleading’, ‘irritating’, ‘uncritical’ and ‘unsafe’. In doing so, I am afraid he makes himself ridiculous. Fritz Stern – than whom no one was better qualified to review it – called The World’s Banker ‘a major achievement of historical scholarship and historical imagination [which] reaffirms one’s faith in the possibility of great historical writing’. By comparison with that, Wormell’s lop-sided and pedantic jottings are of very little consequence indeed.