From “Deutsch” to “Deutsch de la Meurthe"

The Deutsch family’s story is typical of what a lot of academics call the ‘assimilation’ and ‘acculturation’ of the French Jewish population during the 19th century. In 1791, France is in fact the first modern nation to grant full civil and political rights to its Jewish population, and thereby to raise the Jews to full and equal citizenship.

Alexandre Deutsch was born in 1815 in a little village in Lorraine. As many of its fellow believers, he seized new opportunities and chose to migrate to Pari. That’s where he founded a vegetable oil refinery in 1845. Starting from scratch, he succeeded in his business, handing over to his two sons Henry and Emile one of the biggest French oil firms, with interests all over the world. This economic success made it possible for the family to join the early 20th century Parisian upper middle class.

Pioneering in big business, 1845-1880s

While Alexandre Deutsch refined vegetable and animal oils, the first oil well is dug in Pennsylvania in 1859. The entrepreneur was very interested in this new raw material. He bought the first gallons shipped in France in 1862 to study its characteristics in his factory. He took a risk by investing in oil when this material didn’t have real openings. Indeed, in these times, petrol was only used for light or as industrial grease.

In the aftermath of 1871, oil had a bad reputation because of arsons. The French government set up protectionist legislation to control it, which helped the French refiners to expand. Alexandre Deutsch chose to establish two big refineries closer to the Atlantic coast, in Rouen and Saint Loubès (near Bordeaux), the United States being the only oil-exporting country at that time.

As Alexandre Deutsch wanted to build a long-lasting and successful corporation, he was very concerned about his succession and the education of his sons, whom he associated to the firm in 1866. In 1877 he officially transformed the society into ‘A. Deutsch et ses Fils’. His wedding strategy was also of critical importance: he married his two sons with affluent Jewish heiresses.

A radiant and influential family, 1880s - early 20th century

The firm took a new importance when they joined forces with the Rothschild brothers of Paris to take-over the Spanish market (1879). The Deutsch brought the know-how, the Rothschild the funds. In the 1880s the business spread to Russia and Austro-Hungary.

This international development made the family even more influential in France. They took the head of the French refinery trade association to fight against legislation changes and to promote oil.

Their social status rise is very representative of the period. A lot of wealthy industrialists joined the upper class and imitated their way of life. The Deutsch family also became quite central to the Jewish Community: both Emile and Henry had responsibilities in the Jewish consistory and took part in charities.

Supporting and passing on, early 20th century -1924

In the early 20th century, the Deutsch brothers were now called ‘Deutsch de la Meurthe’. They were well established in the Parisian elite and were known for their patriotic sponsorships. Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe was one of the few who believed in what was not yet called ‘aviation’. Thanks to his prize-moneys, Santos-Dumont achieved a performance with an airship in 1901 and Henri Farman became the first genuine aviator in 1908. His passion for aviation was also aimed at creating a solid market for the oil industry. Furthermore, Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe was well aware of the age’s dangers: he took part in lobbies for air forces, fearing Germany’s advance in that field.

During World War I, the French refiners were called to great responsabilities, as the state was confronted with the strategic importance of oil and the need for explosives, which the Deutsch firm also supplied. From this time on, the French government tried to control the refinery. That is one of the reasons of the association with a big trust (Royal Dutch Shell), which was also a good means to secure the supplies of crude or essence.

Henry Deutsch died in 1919, in the accident of a motorboat of his invention. Emile Deutsch passed on his values by founding the Parisian student hall of residence. It was also a good means to affirm his love for his country. He died in 1924.

This was the end of the industrial venture, even though the family remained a big shareholder of the French Shell. The Deutsch family continued its sponsor activities, in particular Suzanne Deutsch de la Meurthe who pursued her father’s work for aviation.