Basil Zaharoff

Basil Zaharoff

Infobox Person
name = Sir Basil Zaharoff

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birth_name = Basileios Zacharias
birth_date = birth date|1849|10|06
birth_place = Muğla, Ottoman Empire
death_date = death date and age|1936|11|27|1849|10|06
death_place = Monte Carlo, Monaco
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nationality = Greek flagicon|Greece
other_names = Basileios Zacharias
known_for = Vickers
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occupation = Arms Dealer and Financier
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Sir Basil Zaharoff, KBE a.k.a. Basileios Zacharias (October 6 1849, Muğla, Ottoman EmpireNovember 27 1936, Monte Carlo, Monaco) was a Greek arms trader and financier, the director and chairman of the Vickers munitions firm during World War I.

Early life

Basileios Zacharias was from a Greek family in Constantinople. The name Zaharoff was adopted when the family was in exile in Russia as a result of the anti-Greek Easter pogroms of 1821. The family returned to Turkey, in the 1840s, and lived in the Anatolian town of Muğla where Basil was born October 6, 1849. By 1855, the family was back in Constantinople where they lived in the poor quarter of Tatavla.

Young Basileios' first job was as a guide for the tourists to the Galata, or prostitution district of Constantinople, helping his clients to find the forbidden pleasures that went beyond the bounds of normal prostitution. He was then to become a fireman. The 19th century firemen of Constantinople were not at all effective at extinguishing fires, but were quite effective at rescuing the treasures of the rich for a healthy commission. Many also engaged in questionable business transactions and outright theft. Fact|date=December 2007 He later took on the job of a money changer.

Legal difficulties

Zaharoff appeared in London in the midst of a controversy that had him in court over irregular commercial actions involving the export of certain goods from Constantinople to London. The Constantinople Greeks in London preferred that matters involving members of their community were not settled by English courts. He was released on the payment of £100 on condition that he pay restitution to the claimant, and remain within the jurisdiction of the court. He immediately went to Athens. Once there the 24-year-old Zaharoff was befriended by a political journalist Etienne Skouloudis. The eloquent Zaharoff succeeded in convincing Skouloudis of the rightness of his case in the London legal conflict.

By a stroke of good fortune, another friend of Skouloudis, a Swedish captain, was leaving his job as representative of arms manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfelt’s company for a more important posting. Skouloudis meanwhile had risen in politics and was able to recommend Zaharoff to fill the vacancy. Zaharoff was hired on October 14 1877, beginning a spectacular career. The prevailing political and military circumstances involving the Balkan states, Turkey and Russia provided an excellent opportunity for the young salesman. Each state was ready to spend to cope with the perceived aggressive intentions of its neighbours, even after the Treaty of Berlin of 1878.

Arms dealing

One of the most notable sales by Zaharoff was that of the "Nordenfelt I", a steam-driven submarine based on a design by the Anglican Rev. George W. Garrett, and which U. S. Navy intelligence characterized as capable of "dangerous and eccentric movements." Thorsten Nordenfelt had already successfully demonstrated his vessel at an international gathering of the military elite, and the major powers would have none of it, but smaller nations interested by the prestige were a different matter.

It was thus that, with a promise of liberal payment terms, Zaharoff sold the first model to the Greeks. He then convinced the Turks that the Greek submarine posed a threat and sold them two. After that, he persuaded the Russians that there was now a new significant threat on the Black Sea, and they bought two. None of these submarines ever saw battle. In a trial by the Turkish Navy, one of theirs attempted to fire a torpedo and became so unbalanced that it sank stern first.

Maxim's machine gun

The next person to enter Zaharoff's story was Hiram Maxim. Maxim's automatic machine gun was a significant improvement over the hand-cranked models then in use. Maxim’s gun was certainly better than anything that Nordenfelt had on the shelf at the time. Zaharoff is believed to have had a hand in the events surrounding Maxim's attempts to demonstrate his discovery between 1886 and 1888. In the first, Maxim's and Nordenfelt's machine guns were to be demonstrated at La Spezia, Italy before a distinguished audience that included the Duke of Genoa. Maxim's representatives did not show up; an unknown person had provided them a guided tour of La Spezia's nocturnal establishments leaving them in no condition to go anywhere.

Round 2 took place in Vienna. Here the contestants had been asked to modify their weapons so that they could use the standard size of cartridge used by the Austrian infantry. After shooting a few hundred rounds Maxim's apparatus became erratic then stopped altogether. When Maxim took the weapon apart to see what had happened, he discovered that it had been sabotaged, but it was too late to recover. The third trial was also in Vienna, and here the gun worked perfectly. But an unknown person went through the gathering of senior officers convincing them that the workmanship required to produce such a marvellous weapon could only be done by hand, one at a time, and that without the means for mass production Maxim could never produce the machine gun in sufficient quantities to satisfy the needs of a modern army. Nordenfelt and Zaharoff had won. Maxim, who knew he had a good product, successfully sought a merger with Nordenfelt, with Zaharoff as the principal salesman with a fat commission rate.

Although very little could be documented, Zaharoff was viewed as a master of bribery and corruption, but the few incidents that did become public, such as the large bribes received by Japanese Admiral Fuji, suggested that a lot more was going on behind the scenes. In 1890, the Maxim-Nordenfelt association broke up and Zaharoff chose to go with Maxim. With his commissions, Zaharoff bought shares in Maxim’s company until he was able to tell Maxim that he was no longer an employee but an equal shareholder.

By 1897, the Maxim company had become important enough that it received a buyout offer from Vickers, one of the then giants of the armaments industry. This involved substantial settlements in both cash and shares for Maxim and Zaharoff. From then until 1911, while Maxim’s business enthusiasm waned, Zaharoff’s enthusiasm and portfolio of Vickers shares grew. With Maxim’s retirement, Zaharoff joined the Vickers board of directors.

The first decade of the twentieth century was a time for many European armies to rebuild and modernize. Germany and Great Britain both saw an especial need for improved naval units. Vickers and Zaharoff were there, willing and able to accommodate both sides. After its disastrous defeat by Japan in 1905, Russia too had a need to rebuild its navy, but the nation was beset by a wave of chauvinism that required a domestic industry for the rebuilding. Zaharoff’s response was to build a huge Russian arms production complex at Tsaritsin as a subsidiary of Vickers.

The opening of Russian tsarist archives after World War I led to some insights into the tactics of the arms industry. One 1907 letter, in particular, was written from the Paul von Gontard factory (a secretly controlled Vickers company in Germany) to a Vickers associate in Paris recommending that press releases go out to the French press with suggestions that the French improve their military to meet the threats of military build-up in Germany. These French newspaper articles were read into the record of the Reichstag, and were followed by a vote to increase military spending. All this worked to the advantage of Zaharoff.

World War I

In the years immediately preceding World War I Zaharoff’s fortunes grew in other areas to support his arms business. By purchasing the Union Parisienne Bank (which was traditionally associated with heavy industry) he was better able to control financing arrangements. By gaining control of the daily newspaper, "Excelsior", he could be assured of editorials favorable to the arms industry. All he needed now were honours. Setting up a retirement home for French sailors leads him to membership in the Legion of Honour, a chair in aerodynamics at the University of Paris makes him an officer. On July 31 1914, coincidentally the same day that Jean Jaurès was assassinated, Raymond Poincaré signed a decree making Zaharoff a commander of the Legion of Honour. In March 1914, Vickers would announce the coming of a new era of prosperity.

Vickers of Britain alone would, during the course of the war, produce 4 ships of the line, 3 cruisers, 53 submarines, 3 auxiliary vessels, 62 light vessels, 2,328 cannon, 8,000,000 tonnes of steel ordnance, 90,000 mines, 22,000 torpedoes, 5,500 airplanes and 100,000 machine guns. By 1915, Zaharoff had close ties with both Lloyd George and Aristide Briand. It is reported that, on the occasion of one visit with Briand, Zaharoff quietly left an envelope on Aristide Briand’s desk; the envelope contained a million francs for war widows.

One of Zaharoff’s tasks during the war was to ensure that Greece became involved in the war on the Allied side. That would help to reinforce the eastern front. On the surface, this seemed impossible since King Constantine was himself a Hohenzollern and brother-in-law to the Kaiser. Setting up a press agency in Greece to spread news favorable to the allies led, within a few months, to Constantine’s being deposed in favour of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos.

With the end of WWI, "The Times" estimated that Zaharoff had sacrificed £50 million for the Allied cause; however this was but a small fraction of his commissions.

Post-war dealings

In the years that follow, Zaharoff involved himself in the affairs of the lesser powers, which the Big Four that were remaking Europe, would have happily ignored. In particular, he set out to ensure that Greece and Venizelos received a proper share of the spoils from a badly weakened Turkey. Zaharoff convinced Venizelos to attack but, after some impressive initial success, the Greek army was eventually driven back. In the elections that followed, Constantine’s loyalists managed to force Venizelos to flee, but Zaharoff stayed around and persuaded the same king that he had to attack Turkey again, but with Atatürk now in charge of Turkey, this venture was bound to fail. Zaharoff’s war adventures were not well received by the press in Paris and London.

At the same time that he was carrying on his war, Zaharoff was also involved in two more significant financial ventures in October 1920, he became involved in the incorporation of a company that was a predecessor to oil giant, British Petroleum. He saw that there was a great future in the oil business.

His association with Louis II of Monaco led to his purchase of the debt-ridden "Société des Bains de Mer" which ran Monte Carlo’s famed casino, and the principal source of revenue for the country. He succeeded in making the casino profitable again. At the same time, Zaharoff had prevailed upon Clemenceau to ensure that the Treaty of Versailles included protection of Monaco’s rights as established in 1641. Louis had noted their gradual erosion in the nearly three centuries since.

Personal life

Zaharoff was fascinated by aviation, and gave donations and support to pioneers in England, France and Russia. He encouraged Hiram Maxim in his attempt to build a flying machine, and later claimed that he and Maxim were the first men to be lifted off the earth, when Maxim tested his first "flying machine" at Bexley in 1894. [Obituary: Sir Basil Zaharoff An International Financier "The Times" 28 November 1936]

In September 1924, Zaharoff, almost 75 years old, remarried. (He had been married to an English woman much earlier in life—primarily it seems to get a British passport. Fact|date=December 2007) He had met María del Pilar Antonia Angela Patrocinio Simona de Muguiro y Beruete, some three decades earlier on the Orient Express between Zürich and Paris, when she was having difficulties with her new husband, the unbalanced Prince Francisco de Bourbon, Duke de Villafranca de los Caballeros. As a Roman Catholic, she was unable to divorce her husband, despite his documented insanity. The Duchess and Zaharoff had to wait until the Duke's natural death. Some eighteen months after their marriage, Lady Zaharoff succumbed to an infection.

Afterwards, Zaharoff began a liquidation of his business assets, and undertook to compose his memoirs. When the memoirs were completed, they were stolen by a valet who had perhaps hoped to make his fortune by revealing embarrassing secrets about the greats of Europe. Fact|date=December 2007 The police found the memoirs and returned them to Zaharoff. On payment of a cheque to the policemen, Zaharoff re-acquired the manuscript, which he then consigned to the fireplace. Fact|date=December 2007

Cultural references

* In the Tintin album "The Broken Ear", Zaharoff is parodied as the weapon trader "Basil Bazarov", who sells to both parties of a single conflict that he helps provoke.

* Zaharoff was portrayed by Leo McKern (of "Rumpole of the Bailey" fame) in the 1983 ITV series "Reilly, Ace of Spies".

* Zaharoff was depicted in the "Lanny Budd" series by reformer Upton Sinclair.

* Zaharoff's adventures in the arms trade (particularly the machine gun sales) resemble those of the main character, Hector Sarek, in Gerald Kersh's short story, "Comrade Death". Sarek also sells arms to two (fictitious) South American countries while inciting their leaders against each other.

* Rayt Marius in "Knight Templar" and "The Misfortunes of Mr. Teal", featuring Simon Templar, appears to be based on Zaharoff, with the last referring specifically to the theft of his explosive memoirs.

* Zaharoff's Machiavellian ethic as an arms dealer was a cultural influence on Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. LaVey included Zaharoff on the dedication page to The Satanic Bible. [Flowers, Stephen E. "Satanic Bible Dedications", in Aquino, Michael A. "The Church of Satan", pg 492.]


External links

* [ Sir Basil Zaharoff -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia ] at

Further reading

*Robert Neumann, "Zaharoff the Armaments King" (1935, revised 1938) London: George Allen & Unwin
*Anthony Allfrey, "Man of Arms: the Life and Legend of Sir Basil Zaharoff." (1989) London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0-297-79532-5
*Donald McCormick, "Peddler of Death: the Life and Times of Sir Basil Zaharoff." (1965) New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ISBN 1-112-53688-4
*John T. Flynn [ extract from "Men of Wealth" The Merchant of Death: Basil Zaharoff pp 337–372]
* Dr. Richard Lewinsohn "The Mystery Man of Europe Sir Basil Zaharoff" (1929)
*Dominique Venner, "Le plus grand marchand d'armes de l'Histoire: Sir Basil Zaharoff." Historia N° 368 - juillet 1977 (French periodical).

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