It is the conspiracy theory perhaps most beloved by antisemitic anoraks the world over. First peddled in the mid 19th century, it's now nearly 200 years and the myth that the Rothschild family – having plotted and profited from wars, caused the Holocaust and arranged the assassination of political opponents – secretly control the global economy is still going strong.
Earlier this year, Marine Le Pen drew none too subtle allusions between “the world of finance” and Emmanuel Macron – a one-time employee of the Rothschild investment bank – in what one observer dubbed “conspiracy-mongering”.
The Rothschilds have long been a favourite target of fascists. The Nazis made a 1940 movie about them, while American white supremacists and antisemites such as the Liberty Lobby have obsessed over their supposed control of the Federal Reserve Bank.
But the far-right does not have a monopoly on this one. In February, a former Labour parliamentary candidate shared a social media post about the Rothchilds “owning Israel” – which, in turned, controlled the US Congress and executive branch. Two years ago, the Green party was forced to apologise when its foreign affairs spokesman (himself a former Labour MP) linked the family to the rise of Isis.
The original and most powerful Rothschild conspiracy theory contains many of the core elements of its later variations. The subject of the 1940 Goebbels production Die Rothschilds Aktien auf Waterloo, it dates back to 1846 and was published in a pamphlet written under the pseudonym Satan. It focuses on Nathan Rothschild, founder of the London branch of the bank and son of the dynasty’s creator, Mayer Amschel Rothschild.As Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University and author of News From Waterloo: The Race To Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory, has recounted, “Satan” (the cover adopted by a French left-wing antisemite Georges Dairnvaell), alleged that Nathan was on the battlefield in June 1815 to witness the French defeat. Hastily returning to Britain before the news broke back home, he was able to use his knowledge to make 20 million francs on the stock exchange. In Dairnvaell’s telling, Cathcart writes, the Rothschilds’ “vast fortune was built upon the bloodshed of the battle of Waterloo”.
Later variants of the story had Nathan in London but, still receiving the news before others, manipulating the stock exchange to cause a collapse in the price of shares, which he scooped up before the market rocketed when the news of Wellington’s victory was announced.
Over time, the edifice upon which Dairnvaell constructed his story was demolished. Nathan was not at Waterloo. The newspaper which allegedly reported the story of his share spending spree turned out to contain no such item. And there was, in fact, not even a huge collapse in share prices from which he could have profited.
At most, Nathan, like some others in the City, appears to have received the news of the French defeat several hours before the it officially broke. That news appears, too, to have allowed Nathan – as an employee of the bank wrote a month later – to have “done well” but, as Cathcart suggests, the market was not sufficiently buoyant to have allowed him to make gains on anywhere near the scale alleged by Dairnvaille, nor did he do as well as rival investors who had previously purchased huge numbers of government securities.
Nonetheless, thanks to the Rothschilds’ vast wealth – the French novelist Theophile Gautier would later write of the “century of the Rothschilds” – vast conspiracies continued to be spun: that the family pulled the strings behind a succession of French 19th century monarchs, including Louis XVIII, Louis-Philippe and Napoloen III; turned Otto von Bismarck into an “agent”; and worked to foment the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.
The notion that, as the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, put it in 1995: “The Rothschilds financed both sides of all European wars” was a recurring myth. Their aim, according to Farrakhan and his followers, was “to get their hands on the Central Bank of America”; a goal apparently achieved with the passage of the 1913 legislation establishing the Federal Reserve Bank. In reality, the Rothschild banks are not – as has been repeatedly alleged – members of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (the biggest of the Fed’s 12 banks) and nor do those banks which are members “control” the Fed itself. That role is exercised by board of governors, who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Similarly, the Rothschilds have also been accused of having “took over” the Bank of England during the famous “panic of 1825” stock market crash. Again, this is false: the Rothschilds helped ease the Bank’s liquidity crisis by giving it a loan which was later repaid.
The alleged words of Nathan Rothschild – “The man who controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire, and I control the British money supply” – are frequently used to support the theories about the Rothschilds’ control of the Fed and Bank of England. But, argues Brian Dunning, an expert on conspiracy theories, these words (which are also sometimes attributed to his father, Mayer) appear never to have been uttered by Nathan. Instead, their origin seems to lie in a – false – 1939 quote by the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, Robert L Owen.
Perhaps the most pernicious and offensive of the Rothschild conspiracy theories, however, is that the family somehow engineered the second world war and the Holocaust in order to generate the sympathy necessary to establish the state of Israel. But, as Dunning notes, the “only seed of truth” to the claim that the Rothschilds “funded the Holocaust” is that the Nazis seized the Austrian Rothschilds’ assets, effectively holding the head of the family, Baron Louis, prisoner for several months as they stole his money. But for those wishing to stir the pot of antisemitism, the facts are never allowed to get in the way of a good story.