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Posted Saturday, October 17, 1998

New English Book about the Rothschilds Causes Fluttering in the Dovecotes

"...what business does a non-Jew like me have writing about a subject as sensitive as Jewish history, including the Holocaust?"

Friday, October 1, 1998

It's Not about "Nazis, Jews and sex"

Niall Ferguson says that a future book of his has been misrepresented

THERE is supposedly no such thing as bad publicity. But a headline such as "Sex and Nazi death camp book earns fortune for Oxford don" is, to my mind, the exception which proves the rule. This was what I woke up to find on the front page of one of last Sunday's papers.

A historian should always be ready for public debate and controversy. It is not easy, however, to engage in debate about a book you have not yet written, nor even begun seriously to research. Add to that the fact that the subject in question is the relationship between sexuality and racialism and the danger is that sensation inhibits the research itself.

The article chose to focus on a work I have proposed to write within the next five years, the working title of which is Blood Borders. Its subject is not "sex in Nazi concentration camps"; nor, as has been suggested, have I unearthed "previously undisclosed material about how concentration camp inmates were sexually exploited by their captors".

In fact, the hypothesis which interests me is a complex one that will require careful research into patterns of intermarriage, and attitudes towards race, in Central and Eastern Europe from around 1900 to 1950. Of course, that is a period which saw the most appalling racial violence in all history -- the war unleashed by the Nazis against Jews and other 'non-Aryans". That will obviously be a crucial part of the book. At this stage, however, I have no more than a hunch about the relationship between miscegenation and genocide, and I am unlikely to be able to present my conclusions for at least five years.

Still, it may be as well to address a broader question now: what business does a non-Jew like me have writing about a subject as sensitive as Jewish history, including the Holocaust?

I hope that question is at least partly answered by a book I have written which is just about to be published, The World's Banker: the History of the House of Rothschild, an extract from which appeared in this newspaper on Saturday.

I have spent much of the past five years working on the rise of the Rothschild banking dynasty from the obscurity of the Frankfurt ghetto to the position of unparalleled financial power which they occupied for much of the 19th century. Working in the bank's archives I have been profoundly influenced by the relationship between the family's Jewish faith and their remarkable success, not only in making money, but also in maintaining their unity as a family.

Another theme of the book, by contrast, is the relentless antagonism -- most of it overtly anti-Semitic -- which they encountered. Three things particularly struck me. First, that they encountered anti-Jewish prejudice not only in their native Germany, as might be expected, but also in Russia, France, Italy, Britain and the United States. Second, that "anti-Rothschildism" was not monopolised by the political Right, but was also a recurrent theme of socialist journalism. And third, that many of the themes of anti-Rothschild propaganda which date back to the 1820s can be read today on the Web sites of the Internet's many conspiracy theorists.

"...At this stage, I have no more than a hunch about the relationship between miscegenation and genocide..."


Although I am primarily an economic historian, my work has touched on the question of anti-Semitism before (my first book, on the German hyperinflation of the 1920s, had a Jewish banker as its ultimately tragic hero) But writing the history of the Rothschilds has open my eyes to the sheer extent and persistence of the phenomenon.

Why, I am sometimes asked, do I keep coming back to this issue when I am not Jewish? I used to think this was a silly question, to which the answer was that the subject was objectively important, and that historians do not need to be personally involved in what they write about.

On reflection, there is more to be said. I realise, looking back, that I grew up (in Glasgow, back in the 1970s) with only the haziest notions about Judaism and, for that matter, anti-Semitism. Though Glasgow had and has a thriving Jewish community, it hardly seemed to me to be distinct: the real divisions in Glasgow were between Protestants and Catholics. There were Jews at our school -- only conspicuous by their absence on Jewish holidays -- but few Catholics.

Nor were we taught anything about Jewish history. Tudors and Stuarts, the Thirty Years' War, Victorian politics -- all this, but no mention of Jews or anti-Semitism. As a boy, I was keen on the history of the world wars, but learnt nothing about the Holocaust from war films and games of toy soldiers.

When I came up to Oxford, then, I was very ignorant, and I can recall with mortification giving offence by mocking a society called the Colloquium of Jewish Studies. It was only when I began to read seriously about 20th century Europe in the summer of my second year that I began to see how central the issues of religion and race were to modern history.

Why do I do history? My official reason is to teach others, and for that reason I have always tried to reach the widest possible audience -- even at the risk of bad publicity. But in truth, the real reason is to teach myself. The Holocaust is the most important and most difficult subject for any historian, Jewish or not. It is no accident that I am not rushing into writing about it. My plea is that the work I have in mind should not be prejudged. Prejudice is precisely what the hook will be against.

Niall Ferguson's The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild will be published this month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
© 1998 The Daily Telegraph

Our opinion
THE Daily Telegraph is to be applauded for publishing articles that tack across the prevailing winds of Political Correctness

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