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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY EIGHT The Richest Man in the World

Augsburg is a miracle. Founded by the Romans in 15 BC, it is the third oldest city in Germany – only Trier (founded by the Celts in the 4th century BC) and Neuss (by the Romans in 16 BC) are older. In its long life, Augsburg has been ravaged by war five times: by the Huns in the 5th century AD; Charlemagne in the 8th century; and Welf of Bavaria three centuries later. In 1634, during the Thirty Years War of religion, a Protestant Swedish garrison occupying the city was besieged by Catholic forces and held out for months, the population reduced from 70,000 to 16, 000 by hunger, typhus and plague.

Then in 1942, the RAF attacked the factory in Augsburg making diesel engines for submarines. This was a necessary attack - we were losing the Battle of the Atlantic - but we had few resources. Seven of the twelve Lancaster bombers on the mission were shot down: the lightweight machine guns arming the Lancasters were useless against fighters with self-sealing fuel tanks. The raid failed - only eight of the diesel factory's 2,700 machine tools were destroyed.

But on 25th February 1944, we went back. In daylight hours, the USAF bombed the Messerschmitt works - by then using slave labour - and that night, the RAF attacked with 594 Lancasters. The fires across the city burned out of control because the ground and the water hydrants had all frozen.

A Polish lady newly-liberated from slave labour in Augsburg (c)wikicommons

To walk around the city today, you would not know. The restoration has been remarkable: sitting here in the sunshine, we are gazing at Germany's finest secular Renaissance building, the Augsburg Rathaus (built by Elias Holl). In 1945, when the city surrendered to the Americans, the town hall was a burnt out shell. Now you can buy a ticket to the Goldener Saal and stand transfixed by opulence.

The city has always been rich. The site sits on natural north/south and east/west routes, and from the Romans onwards the trade on these routes has brought wealth. At the turn of the sixteenth century, Augsburg was a city where 'markets overflowed with everything from ostrich eggs to the skulls of saints' and, charmingly, 'ladies brought falcons to church'.

The two richest families in the world were living in Augsburg then - the Welsers and the Fuggers. Their fortunes were founded on trade, of course, but they exploited the fruits of the Age of Discovery. The Welsers made particular profit from the trade route to the east pioneered by Vasco da Gama. Then they turned their eyes to the west: in 1528, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (who was also King of Spain) mortgaged his colony in Venezuela to the Welsers as security for a loan. The Welsers' rapacity there was apparently unbounded, so bad in fact that Charles V took back the colony and executed the scion of the family, Bartholomeus VI.

The Fuggers' wealth came from spices, wool and silk - and from the copper, lead and silver mines made over as security for various loans. Jakob Fugger was the richest man in Europe: in 1519, for example, his loan of 1,500 kilograms of gold ensured that the teenage Charles V became Holy Roman Emperor and, more importantly, that the Hapsburgs understood Jakob's power.

Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer, 1518 (c)wikicommons

Such power and influence has never been equalled: the estimate is that Jakob controlled two percent of Europe's GDP, some of which he spent on Magellan's circumnavigation of the earth. He also funded his own intelligence service: couriers from all parts of the world would rush him exclusive news of important 'deaths and battle outcomes'.

Jakob Fugger also had a profitable relationship with the Vatican. He served seven Popes, minting the papal currency and forwarding donations from Germany to Rome: he was 'God's Banker'. He was also the Pope's security service, paying for the Swiss Guard.

His relationship with one of the Popes proved particularly significant. Leo X, the first Medici to gain the Papacy, had by 1514 “squandered the papal treasury” on his lavish coronation and, apparently, on “parties where prostitutes looked after the Cardinals”. As Leo X is said to have put it, “since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici and Luigi de' Rossi (c)uffizi gallery

In desperate need of money, Leo put up for sale the Bishopric of Mainz – a position in Germany second in power only to the Holy Roman Emperor. The asking price was 34,000 florins: Jakob paid the entirety himself on behalf of his client, Albrecht of Brandenburg.

Needing a substantial income stream to repay the loan, Albrecht, with Leo X's connivance, put Jakob in charge of selling indulgences. Teams of 'indulgence peddlers' equipped with 'Bibles, crosses, and a large wooden box with a picture of Satan on top', fanned out from Mainz and Augsburg promising sinners easy relief. Forgiveness even operated on a sliding scale: one florin for labourers rising up to 25 florins for the sins of the aristocracy.

Profits were shared equally between the Pope and Jakob. The arrangement was neat - but this was the time of Martin Luther. On 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to Albrecht, objecting to the sale of indulgences and enclosing his paper, the Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences – the Ninety-Five Theses that he was to nail to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg.

Lutheranism was born from the belief that salvation could not be bought: redemption is the gift of Christ freely given to believers and the Bible, not the Pope, is the source of divine knowledge. Before he was excommunicated Luther was brought into the courtyard of Jakob's mansion in Augsburg to dispute his Theses with Cardinal Tommaso Cajetan, papal legate to Germany.

Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels' 1870 rendering of the debate (c)wikicommons

The Cardinal had been ordered to get a recantation, but he could not resist the intellectual challenge posed by Martin Luther - so they spent three days in Jakob's courtyard debating indulgences, canon law and the authority of the Pope. Cajetan was the recognised authority on Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and used his cited its support for indulgences, a view which Luther rejected. After this debate, there was no way back for Luther - had he wanted one. Johannes von Staupitz, Luther’s Augustinian superior, released him from his vow of obedience to the Order with the words: 'You should bear in mind, brother, that you began this in the name of Jesus Christ'.

There was one more explosive product of Jakob Fugger's relationship with Leo X. Jakob was Catholic and as a Christian could not charge interest on his loans. He wanted Leo to remove this impediment by changing the church's view on usury. Leo complied - albeit in a slightly obfuscated way. Interest could now be charged if the loan was made 'without labour, cost or risk'. Jakob had pushed the door ajar and debt financing has poured through it ever since. Truly, Jakob launched our modern capitalist world.

The Ministry of Information film after the 1942 Raid -

One part of the Welsers' Venezuelan venture -

Short biopic of Jakob Fugger by his biographer, Greg Steinmetz -

The Fugger Family sing I had a dream my car got stolen -

The German group Fugger sing Feuer -

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey Money -

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