Basil Zaharoff

From Academic Kids

Sir Basil Zaharoff, originally Basileios Zacharias, (born in 1849 in Mugla, Turkey, died in 1936 in Monte Carlo, Monaco) was an Greek-Russian arms trader and financier. It was said that he fuelled conflicts in order to sell weapons to both sides.

Basil 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 Mughlia. By 1855 the family was back in Constantinople where they lived in the poor quarter of Tatavla where Basil was a street kid.

Little Basil's 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.

Basil then took on the job of a money changer. In this career there is an unverified accusation that he would pass counterfeit currency to tourists who would not notice until they were safely on a boat steaming away from Constantinople.

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 in Athens 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 Nordenfeldt'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 Berlin Agreement of 1878.

One of the most notable sales by Zaharoff was that of the Nordenfeldt I, a steam-driven submarine based on a design by Anglican Reverend George W. Garrett, and which U. S. Navy intelligence characterized as capable of "dangerous and eccentric movements." Thorsten Nordenfeldt 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 Tukish Navy, one of theirs attempted to fire a torpedo, and became so unbalanced that it sank stern first.

The next person to enter Zaharoff's story was the American boxer and engineer 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 Nordenfeldt 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 Nordenfeldt'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. Nordenfeldt and Zaharoff had won. Maxim, who knew he had a good product successfully sought a merger with Nordenfeldt, with Zaharoff as the principal salesman with a fat rate of commission.

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-Nordenfeldt 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 England 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 buildup 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.

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, and on July 31, 1914, the same day that Jean Jaurès is assassinated, Raymond Poincaré signs a decree making him a commander of the Legion of Honour. In March 1914 Vickers would announce the coming of a new era of prosperity; the guns of August were about to demonstrate that ... always, of course, with commissions to Zaharoff.

Vickers of England 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 Briand's desk; the envelope contained a million francs for the 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 Venizelos.

With the war's end The Times estimates that Zaharoff had sacrificed £50 million for the allied cause, but ignoring that this was but a fraction of his commissions. He is made a baronet, and can now be called Sir Basil Zaharoff.

In the years that follow Zaharoff involves himself in the affairs of the lesser powers which the big four that were remaking Europe would have happily ignored. In particular, notwithstanding the views of the great powers, he set out to ensure that Greece and Venizelos received a proper share of the spoils from a badly weakened Turkey. Zaharoff convinces Venizelos to attack, and militarily the Greeks are quickly successful until France and Italy intervene in 1920, and impose a treaty that does not allow Greece to retain most of its conquests. In the elections that follow the Constantine's loyalists manage to force Venizelos to flee, but Zaharoff stays around and manages to persuade the same king that he had dethroned to attack Turkey again, but with Ataturk 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.

In September 1924, the 75-year-old Zaharoff was married for the first time to the love of his life. He had met Maria del Pilar some three decades earlier on a train between Zürich and Paris when she was having difficulties with her unbalanced husband, the Duke of Marchena. Zaharoff was smitten from the beginning, but was prepared to wait. Despite the fact that the Duke soon was confined to an institute for the insane, the Catholic Maria would hear nothing of divorce. They had to await the Duke's death. Eighteen months after the marriage Maria succumbed to an infection.

With that Zaharoff began a liquidation of his business assets, and undertook to compose his memoirs. When the memoirs are completed, they are stolen by a valet who perhaps had hoped to make his fortune by revealing embarrassing secrets about the greats of Europe. The police find the memoirs and return them to Zaharoff. On payment of a cheque to the policemen, Zaharoff reacquires the manuscript, which he then consigns to the fireplace. The remainder of his days will be passed in friendless solitude.

The above is primarily based on an article by Alain Decaux in the French magazine Historia for July 1977.

In Tintin, the character of the weapon trader Basil Bazaroff, who sells to both parties of a single conflict that he helps provoke, is based on Basil Zaharoff


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