Books: An impersonal biography

John Cooper pens an exhaustive account of the inner workings of the Rothschilds and Britain’s power brokers.

The unexpected story of nathaniel rothschild (photo credit: PR)
The unexpected story of nathaniel rothschild
(photo credit: PR)
In The Unexpected Story of Nathaniel Rothschild, John Cooper attempts to piece together a definitive biography of the first Lord Rothschild, Nathaniel or “Natty.”
This was not a straightforward task, because Natty, a distinguished banker, British MP and Jewish communal leader, requested that all of his correspondence be destroyed upon his death.
Thus, with a dearth of primary sources on his subject, Cooper references and cross-references a multitude of works on the Rothschild dynasty and British and European history.
The result is an exhaustive account of the inner workings of Britain’s power brokers, including the monarchy, to which Natty and the Rothschilds had amiable ties. Not surprisingly, Natty is portrayed as reserved, “secretive” and both a champion of Jewish rights and an overly diplomatic conformist. The book wavers between meticulous accounts of Natty’s involvement in political and diplomatic dealings surrounding world events with more endearing accounts of his personal life.
Cooper dedicates a large portion of the book to Natty’s efforts to halt the murderous pogroms that plagued Russia starting in the 1880s. The Rothschilds’ primary method was to refuse loans to Russia as a sanction. Similarly, Natty and other Jewish leaders were instrumental in ensuring that Britain was at the forefront of the international movement to condemn and stop the attacks against Jews in Russia and other parts of the world.
Despite his devotion to his “coreligionists,” Natty constantly tried to prove he was a loyal Brit. Specifically, Cooper highlights Natty’s compliance with British efforts to help Jews emigrate from Russia, on the condition they didn’t settle in the UK.
Natty’s encounter with Theodor Herzl constitutes one of the book’s most engrossing chapters because it contains fascinating anecdotes from Zionism’s early days. To this end, Natty was supportive of Herzl’s plan to settle Jews in El-Arish in Sinai but not in Palestine, because he believed it was not in Britain’s interest to “colonize” Palestine as the Ottomans held off Russian expansion.
Though he advocated for resettling Jews in North America and Argentina, he opposed Jewish sovereignty.
In 1902, Natty wrote to Herzl: “I tell you very frankly that I should view with horror the establishment of a Jewish colony pure and simple... It would be a ghetto with the prejudices of the ghetto...Find new homes for Jews, but let them live among their Christian brethren...let... all of us beware of the impossible.”
Cooper does not definitively label Natty a Zionist or anti-Zionist, but does underscore his admiration for Herzl.
“Lacking in imagination, he was seeking...a charismatic personality with...a visionary streak and was instantly drawn to Theodor Herzl, who seemed to embody in himself the very qualities he lacked.”
Chaim Weizmann also surfaces in this chapter, expressing frustration at the Rothschilds’ hesitation to support a Jewish state in Palestine.
The chapters about Natty’s personal and philanthropic life are the most readable. It is interesting to read about his shyness, his lifelong quest to please his mother, and his parents’ controlling tendencies. The latter translates to Natty’s professional and personal lives – when he joins the family bank under his father’s tutelage and when his mother fully decorates his new home without consulting him or his wife, Emma.
As Natty ages, he becomes more “gruff” and “terse.” His diplomatic maneuvers become less bold. Cooper implicitly criticizes this inaction in the face of intensifying anti-Semitism at the beginning of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Natty seems to have redeemed himself in his forceful efforts to prevent the outbreak of the “Great War,” according to Cooper.
Through the book’s abundant detail, we learn much about the world a century ago – first and foremost, how little has changed. We often wonder how international communication and globalization functioned before the Internet and TV, but regular mail worked fine back then. Machers were machers, and some of the xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric could have been lifted from today’s newspapers.
Though readers with an average knowledge of world and British history could follow the storyline, Cooper should have included more background information. Moreover, while Natty’s stature and achievements are impressive, it is hard to gauge their significance without adequate context. What distinguished the Rothschilds from other wealthy Jewish families at the time, for example? This book will appeal primarily to history buffs and professional historians.
Though it provides some fascinating insights into the inner workings of the era’s international affairs, the preponderance of detail and lack of background will overwhelm the casual reader.