The story of the last great bank crashes is one of evasion of responsibility. Neither at Lehman Brothers nor at the Silicon Valley Bank nor at Credit Suisse are there any guilty parties for whom the disaster ended with disgrace, debtor’s prison and social or even actual death, as those who caused such bankruptcies used to be threatened in bank novels. In the analyzes there is always talk of many anonymous “bankers” who were too greedy and made mistakes.

The bank, which bears a surname whose name bearer is tainted with disgrace, is a discontinued model. In the 19th century it was the norm. And the archetype of all banking stories is also about such a company, which not entirely coincidentally – like the archetype of all department store novels, Zola’s “The Paradise of Ladies” – comes from France, where such business models were developed much earlier than in France Germany. We are talking about “The Bankhaus Nucingen”, a shorter story by Honoré de Balzac from 1837, which is one of his scenes from Parisian life in the novel cycle “The Human Comedy”.

The story is told from the perspective of four Habitués, whose conversation is overheard in the restaurant. You marvel at the rise of the banker Baron Frédéric von Nucingen, who was poor when he arrived in Paris. With the help of straw men like the shady Rastignac, whom he uses despite being the lover of Nucingen’s wife Delphine, he manages through complicated speculation to become what would today be called the ‘super rich’. Because it became clear to him early on that being just a little rich is a fleeting and always endangered condition in capitalism.

Nucingen’s business, in which he once had the impending ruin of his bank simulated, moves in the dark field between actual illegality and tough business practices. In order for him to become rich, others must become poor, or at least lose a great deal of money.

A few who were smart enough to at least begin to understand Nucingen’s machinations made money with him: “They recognized the great staging of this financial coup, recognized that it had been prepared for eleven months, and celebrated Nucingen as the greatest financier in Europe.” real role models for Nucingen were Baron de Rothschild and Beer Léon Fould. Like him, both took advantage of the opportunities offered to Jews in France by early emancipation.

In old age, the ice-cold Baron shows weakness. For a sum of millions, he tries to buy the love of a half-world beauty named Esther. However, she commits suicide to avoid him. It is a typical Balzac point that the despised prostitute, who is also Jewish, has more morals than the rich man. From today’s perspective, however, the most antiquated thing about the book is that morality is a value at all.