Heine’s Lutèce

Letter XXXI (“Money is the god of our era, and Rothschild is his prophet”)

Source: Lutèce. Paris, Michel Lévy Frères, 1855, from the French edition of his complete works, supervised by Heine;
Translated: from the original for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2012.

March 31, 1841

The debate in the Chamber of Deputies on literary property is not very satisfying. But it is in any case a remarkable sign of our times that today’s society, based on the right to property, either through a feeling for equity or perhaps as a means of corruption also wants to grant intelligence participation in the privilege of possession. Can thought become property? Is light the property of the flame or of the wick of a candle? I abstain from any judgment on such a question and only rejoice in the fact that you want to grant the poor wick that consumes itself while burning a tiny gratification for its great merit of disinterested illumination.

People speak less than one would suppose of Mehmet Ali, and yet it seems to me that there secretly reigns in people’s hearts a sincere compassion for the man who was to trusting of in France’s star. Consideration for the French is being wiped out in the Orient, and this loss is having a disadvantageous effect on their relations with the West. The stars we no longer believe in fade away. When their disagreements with America took a worrisome turn the English actively pursued arranging the question of the Egyptian succession. France could then have acted in favor of the pashas, but the government appears to have done nothing to save its most faithful ally.

Nevertheless, it is not only the disagreements with America that are driving the English to wrap up as quickly as possible the question of the Egyptian succession, and thus also put French diplomacy in a position to take part in the deliberations and resolutions of the great powers of Europe. The question of the Dardanelles is becoming increasingly threatening and demands a speedy decision. In this affair the British government is counting on the support of the French cabinet in its conferences with other states, because on this occasion the interests of the two countries vis-à-vis Russia are in agreement.

Yes, the so-called Dardanelles question is of the greatest importance, not only for the great European powers, but for all of us, the smallest as well as the largest; for the Lilliputian principality of Reus-Schleiz-Greiz as well as all-powerful Austria, for the humblest cobbler as well as the most opulent leather manufacturer. For the fate of the entire world is in question here, and this question of the Dardanelles must somehow be resolved. As long as this solution has not been found Europe will languish under a secret ill which doesn’t allow it rest and which will in the end break out in a catastrophe that will be all the more terrible for being delayed. The question of the Dardanelles is only a symptom of the eastern question itself, of the question of the Turkish succession, that fundamental illness which we are all suffering from, that morbid matter that is fermenting within the body of the European state and which unfortunately can only be extirpated with a sword blade. Even when they discuss different matters all the powerful monarchs are looking at the Dardanelles from the corner of their eyes, gazing at the Sublime Porte, ancient Byzantium, Istanbul, Constantinople: the plague has many names. If the principle of popular sovereignty were sanctioned under European popular law the collapse of the Ottoman Empire wouldn’t be as dangerous for the rest of the world, because in that case the isolated peoples in the dissolved empire would soon elect their own heads of state and would continue to be governed as well as possible. But the dogma of absolutism still reigns in most of Europe, according to which the people are the property of the prince, property that can be acquired through the right of the strongest, by the ultima ratio Regis, the barely canonic law of the cannon. There is thus nothing surprising in the fact that no European potentate wants to allow the Russians to absorb the great inheritance and that each of them wants to have his piece of the oriental pie. All of them will feel their mouths water upon seeing the barbarians of the north feast, and the teeny-tiniest German principality will ask at least for a tip. These are the instigations of human nature because of which the fall of Turkey will necessarily be pernicious for the entire universe. As for the political reasons why England, France, and Austria can’t allow Russia to establish itself in Constantinople, they are as clear as day.

The outbreak of war, which is in the nature of things, has nevertheless been put off for the moment. Short-sighted politicians, who resort strictly to palliatives, have been tranquilized and are hoping for trouble-free days of peace. Our financiers once again see things through rose-colored glasses. Even the most eminent of them seems to have abandoned himself to this illusion, but not at all times. M. de Rothschild, who for some time looked to be under the weather, is back on his feet again and looks to be in fine health. The oracles of the stock exchange, who work so well together at deciphering the facial expressions of the great baron, assure us that the swallows of peace are nesting in his smile; that any fear of war has disappeared from his face; that he feels well. We no longer see the least flash of an oncoming storm in his eyes, and consequently the horrible hurricane with its thunder of cannons has completely dissipated. Even the baron’s sneezes, they add, bespeak peace. It is true that the last time I had the honor to pay my respects to M. de Rothschild he was beaming with the greatest well-being and his good humor overflowed in poetry, for at such moments the baron has the habit of letting his humor flow in torrents of rhyme. I found that in this case he was particularly successful in his rhyming, except he was unable to find one for Constantinople and he scratched his head, as all poets do when they can’t find their rhyme. Being myself a bit of poet I took the liberty to propose to my brother in Apollo, M. de Rothschild, that he say Constantinopolis instead of Constantinople, and that he rhyme the word with metropolis, by saying “Constantinopolis, the future Russian metropolis.” But this rhyme appeared to seriously displease the baron. He claimed that England would never allow it and that a European war could result from it that would cost the world much blood and tears, and cost Rothschild himself much money.

M. de Rothschild is in fact the best political thermometer. I would say that when it comes to indicating good or bad weather he possesses a talent as natural and infallible as a frog, but this comparison might be looked upon as disrespectful. And to be sure one must have respect for this man, if only because of the respect he inspires in the majority of those who approach him. I especially love visiting him in his bank offices, where I have the occasion to observe how men of all classes and religions, gentiles as well as Jews, bow, bend, and prostrate themselves before him. Doing so results in bends and twists of the spine that are better than those of the most agile acrobats. I saw people who upon approaching the great baron flinched as if they were touching a voltaic battery. At the door of his office many are already tremble with veneration like Moses at Mount Horeb when he saw that his foot was resting on holy ground. Just as Moses removed his shoes, more than one broker or exchange agent who dares set foot in M. de Rothschild’s private offices would remove his boots before entering if he weren’t that he feared that his naked feet smell and that this fetid emanation would discommode the baron. This private office is, in fact, a remarkable place that gives rise to sublime thoughts and feelings, like the view of the ocean, of the starry sky, or of high mountains and great forests. There we see how small man is and how great is God, for money is the god of our era, and Rothschild is his prophet.

When one day I wanted to go to visit M. Rothschild at his home a braided domestic passed through the corridor carrying the baron’s chamber pot and I saw a speculator who was passing at the same moment respectfully remove his hat before the mighty pot. This is the kind of devotion certain people’s respect leads them to. I made a note of the name of that reverential man, and I am certain that in time he will become a millionaire. When one day I told M*** that I had dined en famille with M. de Rothschild in one of the interior apartments of his bank offices he clasped his hands in surprise, telling me I'd tasted an honor that until then had only been granted Rothschilds by blood, or at the very most a few sovereign princes, and that he would gladly purchase this honor at the price of half his nose. I can’t help but note that M***’s nose, even if it shrunk by half, would still be sufficiently long.

M. de Rothschild’s offices are extremely large: they're a labyrinth of rooms, a barracks of wealth. The room where the baron works from morning to night – he has nothing else to do but work – was recently prettied up. At present there can be found on the mantelpiece a marble bust of Emperor Franz of Austria, with whom the house of Rothschild has done much business. But out of friendship the baron also intends to have busts made of all the princes of Europe who have contracted their loans through his house, and this collection of marble busts will form a more grandiose Valhalla than the Valhalla dedicated to illustrious Germans that King Ludwig of Bavaria built in Ratisbonne. I don’t know whether M. de Rothschild will celebrate the heroes of his Valhalla in rhymed verse or in His Bavarian Majesty’s lapidary style, with neither rhyme nor reason.