MERCHANTS OF DEATH

CHAPTER VIII
SUPER-SALESMAN OF DEATH



I am a citizen of the world :  my Fatherland is wherever I work and I work everywhere.
—ALFRED NOBEL
.


ABOUT the time when Alfred Krupp was being trained at the Gymnasium in litterae humaniores as a preparation for a life work which had so singularly little to do with humanity, a Greek family in Turkey was fleeing to Odessa.  Greek patriots had proclaimed independence from Turkey and the Turks had responded with massacres.  When the Ottoman fury subsided, the Zacharias family left Russia and returned to their home in a little Anatolian village where, in 1849, a child was born to them.  He was christened Basileios, or Basil, Zaharoff.

Of course, “ Zaharoff ” was not an alias, although the chequered career of Basil Zaharoff and the fact that some of his most shady transactions as an arms salesman took place in the land of the Czars lent colour to the rumour.  Like many other Greek refugees in Russia, the Zacharias family adopted a Slavic termination to their name—a simple explanation for what most people regard as a mystery.  Indeed, of the many mysteries surrounding the life of a man who has well earned the title “ The Mystery Man of Europe,” it is the only one that is easy to clear up.

There is a sort of Biblical appropriateness in the fact that young Zaharoff opened his business career as a money changer in the bazaars of Constantinople.  The Turkish capital was a clearing house of all races, a polyglot centre where French, German, English and the various Levantine and Balkan tongues mingled in infinite confusion.  The young Greek money changer had to learn languages to get on, and he had to seek the protection of powerful compatriots to pursue his trade unhindered by the hostile Turks.  This gave rise to a romantic love for Greece, which was to give an odd twist to his internationalist career.1

A scandal touching him arose at this time.  Employed by an uncle in an importing business, he learned the details of commerce so rapidly that the uncle made him a partner.  Suddenly he left for England with a sum of money from the firm’s cash drawer.  Haled into court in London on the complaint of his relative, he insisted that a share in the profits was due him and that he merely took money which was legally his.  The exact merits of this case have never been fully examined, but it is well established that Zaharoff was acquitted.  Innocent or guilty, he was tainted by the charge of dishonesty, and even now in Athens cafes it is accepted as a fact that the great world-figure took his first step on the ladder of wealth with the assistance of stolen money.

It was to Athens, however, that he returned from the Old Bailey, and there first displayed that lucrative preference for politicians which later marked his career.  Etienne Skuludis, subsequently a powerful figure in Greek politics, gave him protection against the outraged murmurs of Greek society and even obtained for him his first job in the trade which became his métier.  A Swede, who was the Athens agent for the Anglo-Swedish arms firm of Nordenfeldt, left his position and, on the recommendation of Skuludis, assisted Zaharoff in getting the vacant position.

It was just in time.  The Russo-Turkish War of 1875-8 had just ended and the various Balkan kingdoms, particularly Bulgaria, had shown astounding military vigour.  The Greek army, weak in numbers and equipment, stayed within its borders, and Greece failed to share in the spoils when the peace treaty was signed.  It was a lesson to Greek statesmen, who resolved not to miss another such opportunity, and who forthwith engaged in the policy of raising the army from 20,000 to nearly 100,000.  Out of a budget of 20,000,000 francs, Greece now allocated 16,000,000 to armaments.

The huge sums voted for arms by Balkan and Turkish ministers were to benefit Zaharoff and other representatives of small firms.  Krupp, Schneider and the larger European war magnates were too busy supplying the great powers, and they were not organised to manœuvre in the treacherous waters of Balkan politics.  Careful testing, calculating and auditing were the rule in connection with the purchases by larger states ;  but in Greece deals were accomplished much more privately and deviously, especially since Ministers of War followed each other in swift and prosperous succession.  Through his patron Skuludis, Zaharoff was able to make some very profitable sales for Nordenfeldt & Co.

Tosten Vilhelm Nordenfeldt was being sorely pressed by the competition of larger firms, and he needed such a wily contact man in the Mediterranean.  Peace treaties, instead of ending armaments, increased the demands of defence ministries.  There was a keen conflict of salesmanship, and Nordenfeldt supplied Zaharoff with a number of new improvements to lure buyers—such as the new base fuse, the eccentric screw breech, a mechanical time fuse, a quick-firing gun for light artillery, and finally the newest wonder of the world—the submarine.

Naval experts of the great powers had long felt the need of some such invention, but they were reluctant to accept Nordenfeldt’s product until it had been proved practical.  Thus Basil Zaharoff had the honour of selling the first submarine, and that to his native land.  He was a staunch Greek patriot and he took great satisfaction in this deal.  But another element in his business policy now appeared.

At this time, Turkey, the dreaded enemy of Greece, had a much more capacious treasury than her neighbour, and announced herself in the market for submarines.  It was Zaharoff’s business to sell, and sell he did, regardless of his patriotism.  He placed an order from Turkey for two of the new submarines.  As his biographer remarks :  “ If Greece, Rumania, Russia, or any other benevolent neighbour of Turkey should express a wish to enlarge their stock of ships by a submarine, the firm of Nordenfeldt and its agent Zaharoff were always at their service.”

So well did he serve his master that he became salesman-at-large in Europe.  In the ’80s of the last century, Nordenfeldt was seriously worried by the progress of Hiram Maxim and his machine gun.  Zaharoff reassured his employer, however, and offered to block the Anglo-American’s triumphal march through the Continent.  The curious little Yankee, as we have seen, appeared in Vienna with his extraordinary contrivance.  Zaharoff was there too with the inferior Nordenfeldt gun, but also with an unsurpassed knowledge of the official mind and a linguistic ability which his adversary did not possess.  In his autobiography, Maxim describes his own performance before the audience of Austrian officers and journalists, but he is evasive about Zaharoff’s equally spectacular exploits on that occasion.

After the applause had died down following the sensational spelling of the Emperor’s initials, a tall swarthy gentleman circulated among the journalists exclaiming, “ A wonderful performance !  Marvellous !  Nobody can compete with this Nordenfeldt gun ! ”  “ Nordenfeldt ? ” asked one of the reporters.  “ Isn’t he inventor’s name Maxim ? ”  “ No,” replied the gentleman, who obviously knew all about the matter, “ that is the Nordenfeldt gun, the finest weapon in the world.”  And in order that the foreign journalists present should be set right, he sounded the praises of Nordenfeldt in English and French.

After Zaharoff had thus established a new record for astute press-agent work, he talked to the officers, who were not likely to be so easily deceived.  To them he appealed in the name of technical knowledge.  “ Nobody can compete with Mr. Maxim so far as this gun is concerned.  But that is just the disadvantage of this great invention—that nobody can copy it.  It is therefore nothing but a conjuring trick, a circus attraction.”  He proceeded to explain that everything about the apparatus had to be manufactured with the greatest precision, that a hundredth of a millimetre difference and the gun would not function, etc.  All of this talk did so much to remove the impression that Maxim had made that when the inventor appeared in the office of the War Ministry he got a surprisingly cool reception.  He was informed of the accusations against the gun by one of his competitors from London, and only by the greatest effort was he able to obtain an order for 150 guns.

The incident affected Maxim greatly.  He saw that this cunning Greek could beat him at the game of salesmanship ;  that he himself was an inventor and needed leisure to work on his inventions, while some enterprising men like Zaharoff took charge of the selling.  For his part, Zaharoff was enormously impressed by the spectacle of the amazing little gun ;  and so it was not long before we find Zaharoff, the Greek, joining forces with Maxim, the Anglo-American, under the head of Nordenfeldt, the Swede, in a most international armament firm.  Later the mammoth firm of Vickers, which had been swallowing many of its competitors, amalgamated with the Greek and the Anglo-American, after Nordenfeldt, finding the alliance with the American uncongenial, had left to form his own concern in Paris.

As a result of his connection with Maxim, Zaharoff’s commissions increased and his fortune grew.  No wonder, for governments throughout the world were in a buying mood.  Japan and China were involved in a war ;  the imperialist expansion in Asia and Africa had brought about numerous minor conflicts ;  and Greece and Turkey were again engaged in a dispute.  Most important of all, the United States and Spain were fighting in Cuba and the Philippines.  Zaharoff received some £5,139,270 worth of orders from Spain.  In war and in love, Zaharoff found Madrid a very pleasant place, for he had become enamoured of a lady of the court and spent much time there.

Soon he had established himself as persona grata in courts and chancelleries, weaving his way into ministers’ offices, insinuating himself into directorates of various foreign firms, and always emerging with handsome orders.  In that terra incognita which is located between the representatives of the people and the firms which exploit them, he wandered with only an occasional glimpse vouchsafed to the curious.  The journalists and pacifists saw him only through a glass darkly, and as the fragmentary rumours spread there was hardly a mystifying political scandal that was not connected with his shadowy figure.

Buried in the files of yellowing newspapers slumbers the once famous Turpin affair which rocked French politics in 1889-90.  It was another of those “ English scares ” which were so prevalent at the end of the past century in the excitable French capital.  The world has now forgotten how the British secret service was accused of appropriating the secret French process of melinite, a chemical used in explosives, and how there was a master mind supposed to be directing the conspiracy in the person of one Cornelius Herz.

But Zaharoff’s biographers have not forgotten.  Where was the Greek during these two years ?  They can find no record of his movements in 1889 and 1890, and they note that there is a remarkable resemblance between Zaharoff and the descriptions of Herz, who disappeared after the termination of the affair.  Was not Zaharoff also a minion of the English, and had he not, like Herz, intimate relations with that other shifty personality, Georges Clemenceau ?  Zaharoff’s Boswells have been unable to find satisfactory answers to their questions, and perhaps there was no connection at all between the two figures ;  but these suspicions have not detracted from the air of mystery which still surrounds the figure of the world’s most famous salesman of arms.

It was natural that in a land which nourished such back-stage characters as Rasputin, Zaharoff should appear at his best.  He knew the Russian language and he was of the approved Orthodox religion.  He could intrigue with the best of the members of the various factions.  In order to gain the favour of a Grand Duke who was a powerful factor in granting arms contracts, he cultivated relations with the Duke’s mistress.  Among the aristocracy there were strange tales about the urbane Greek, and it is possible that Zaharoff inspired these stories to augment his power among the superstitious nobility.  When he was once asked about these exploits he smiled significantly, and admitted that he had led a very adventurous life.

Russia, during and following the Russo-Japanese war, was a most active field for Zaharoff.  As will be shown more fully in the story of the leader of the French armament manufacturers, the situation was complicated.  The foreign arms merchants fought with one another, joined forces and then broke apart again—in fierce competition.  The Nickolayeff naval shipyards on the Black Sea were the objective of a joint attack by both French and British firms, with Zaharoff in the midst of the mêlée.  Zaharoff and his group scored a victory here.

Encouraged by this, Zaharoff steamed across the Black Sea to the shores of the Bosphorus, the scene of his earliest international coup.  Turkish shipyards and naval ordnance had long been in the most inefficient condition, and the Turkish government readily gave a concession to Zaharoff to reorganise these yards.  The futile cannonade of the British fleet in the Dardanelles a few years later, in 1915, was a well-deserved salute to the extraordinary feat of the most prominent of English arms merchants’ commercial representative.

After aiding the Turks, Zaharoff returned to their enemies on the steppes, mindful of his recent promising experiences.  A fertile field awaited him.  The French had become too greedy and the Russian politicians were quite prepared for a man who offered to let them share in his enterprises, even if it cost their government a few hundred thousand roubles more than it would have done if they had dealt with M. Schneider.

The Russians were desirous of building a large artillery factory.  Schneider insisted on building it far off in the Ural mountains where he had some holdings, and he wanted to make it an exclusively French concern.  But Zaharoff pointed out the superior possibilities of a site rich in coal and iron on the Volga near the Donetz basin, and offered magnanimously to incorporate his new factory as a Russian firm—provided he got the bulk of the profits.  So confident was he of the success of his offer that he bought the land for the factory three weeks before the date set for the letting of the contract.

He was not disappointed, and while M. Schneider withdrew, chagrined, the generous Greek gave more of his largesse to the accommodating Russians.  British war “ secrets ” might be jealously guarded from inquisitive members of parliaments, but among Slavs and Anglo-Saxons there could exist no such niggardly spirit.  Thus the Morning Post’s Russian correspondent reported :  “ The English company is under contract to build and equip the Tzaritzine (Volga) works and also for 15 years to co-operate in the production of artillery and has agreed to place its entire knowledge of the technical side of the work, all patents, improvements, etc., at the disposal of the Russian company and be responsible for their correctness.”2

Much as he was away from Western Europe in these years, Zaharoff did not neglect to cultivate the powerful men of Britain and France.  He was involved in the famous Marconi scandal in Britain.  He was an associate stockholder and friend of the incautious Lloyd George, whose prestige suffered so much when it was revealed that he had speculated to a considerable extent in the securities of the Marconi Companies, to which his Cabinet had just let a lucrative contract.  The Master of Elibank, who—in the same manner as some of the “ mystery men ” of American oil companies during the trying years 1924-28—found it convenient to stay away from his native land when the Marconi investigating committee was taking evidence, was Zaharoff’s friend as well as Lloyd George’s, and later on Zaharoff was not disinclined to put these friendships to good account.

Indeed, his alliances with all sorts of powerful figures in England and France offer exciting material for speculation.  His agent in France was M. Nicolas Pietri, who appears on the directorates of Vickers in France.  Through him he had connections with the Mexican Eagle Oil Company, of which The Master of Elibank was the principal director.  The Mexican Eagle had a French affiliate which was to exploit the Algerian basins, and M. Pietri was prominent in that combination.  Pietri was also on the board of directors of Lait Berna, in congenial proximity to M. Dutasta, relative and agent of Clemenceau.  Nor did Zaharoff lack connections with one of M. Clemenceau’s political rivals, M. Poincaré.

The Master of Elibank was his connecting link with this French politician.  The French are flattered by gifts from rich men, be they Rockefeller or Zaharoff, and so we find Zaharoff endowing a chair of aviation in the Sorbonne.  After this it would have been ungracious of the Gauls not to recognise officially the worthy Greek patron.  The inevitable red insignia of the French Legion of Honour was pinned to his buttonhole in 1908, and again, with a promotion in that corps, in 1913—“ For services rendered to the French Republic.”  A French senator was inquisitive enough to ask M. Poincaré to explain exactly the nature of these services, but the great man ignored the question.  There were other Frenchmen who were equally suspicious of the swarthy benefactor.  M. Albert Thomas said with some feeling in the Chamber of Deputies, at the time when Zaharoff was outwitting M. Schneider in Russia :  “ The Russian newspapers have described Zaharoff as the most active and enterprising agent of Vickers and the most important rival of Creusot.”

It was most fitting that this condottiere of international business should endow the Prix Balzac, one of the numerous prizes granted each year to meritorious novels.  For if ever there was a Balzacian character it was Zaharoff—a financial adventurer beside whom César Birroteau was a pigmy.  What novelist save Balzac could conceive such a protagonist, combining such qualities of mystery and grandeur, romance and realism ?  Rushing off to Madrid to court his inamorata, the Duchess of Villafranca, and to pick up an arms order, hob-nobbing with Grand Dukes in St. Petersburg, conferring with European cabinet ministers who were disinclined to admit the relationship, as much at home in Whitehall as he was on the Quai d’Orsay !  Indeed a fascinating and mysterious figure.

Nor did he, in this mad whirl, neglect to honour the Fourth Estate.  In 1910 the publishing firm of Quotidiens Illustrés were getting out a newspaper which was to seem almost as novel compared with the stolid journalism of that time as the publications of Alfred Harmsworth.  It was not strange then that the progressive Zaharoff should acquire a large block of shares in the Quotidiens, nor was there anything very incongruous in the fact that the new Excelsior should become the outstanding Anglophile organ in the French capital.  Whenever Vickers needed any defence in situations arising from the international squabbles of the arms makers, Excelsior was the most energetic apologist for the British firm.

By this time reporters who engaged in the pastime of naming the wealthiest men on the globe placed Zaharoff’s name beside those of Rockefeller and Morgan.  It was no wonder.  His sumptuous house in the Avenue Hoche was one of the show places of the French capital.  His summer palaces were scattered all through the beautiful French countryside, and he was not unknown in the social life of the metropolis on the Thames.

But his business ramifications became even wider.  As if scenting the approach of a situation of much larger scope for holders of armament stock, he assisted in the organisation of a curious polyglot firm.  The Société Française des Torpilles Whitehead was incorporated in France in 1913, to make torpedoes, mines, etc.  The name was French, but the potent 51 per cent. was English, in the hands of the ubiquitous Vickers Ltd., with Zaharoff receiving enough shares to sit on the board of directors.

James Beetham Whitehead, English Ambassador to France, gave his name to the firm and held some shares.  Vice Admiral Aubert represented the French navy.  But it is most astonishing to find that this firm, founded to combat the menace of Von Tirpitz’s submarines, numbered Frau Margareta von Bismarck of Friedrichsruhe, daughter of the late Iron Chancellor, as an important shareholder.  Another director, Count Edgar Hoyos of Fiume, was an Austrian.

Besides this Fiume connection, Zaharoff held shares in other Austrian companies—the Teschen Steel Company, the Berghütten Arms factory and the famous Skoda works.  In Germany he had stock in Krupp.  Thus this Greek arms salesman had attained, just before the war, a dominating position as an international armament capitalist, the logical consummation of the policy he had started in selling submarines to both Turkey and his fatherland.  He had advanced himself to the role of a sort of impresario for one of the largest polyglot organisations in the world, Vickers Ltd.  It was as the director of the international performances of Vickers that he was best able to display his peculiar talents ;  and justly so, for Vickers manifested, in more diverse ways than any other, the multiple activities of the armament trust.




1 Mennevée, Sir Basil Zaharoff ;  Lewinsohn, The Man of Europe : Basil Zaharoff.

2 Perris, The War Traders, p. 81.