The Merchant of Death – Basil Zaharoff I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?



You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! A fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in
the archives of the Vienna War Office… the document has vanished…. He was “The mystery – man of Europe”,
the great publisher and benefactor, the knight, the casino owner and – above all – “The
Merchant of Death” and “The Wickedest Man in the World”. Ladies and Gentlemen, Sir Basil Zaharoff! I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
“Who did what in WW1” special about Sir Basil Zaharoff. He was born Vasilis Zahariou. This was October 6, 1849, in Western Anatolia
to a Greek family. His father, a draper, changed the name to
the Slavic Zaharoff, and in the mid 1850s the family moved to Constantinople. Young Vasilis had to quit school and begin
working when his father went bankrupt, so he worked as a tout for a brothel, as a loan
shark, and also as an arsonist for the city fire department. You did hear that right. He set fire to luxury buildings so that firemen
could save them and the residents’ belongings, and thus earn a nice commission for doing
so, of which Vasilis got a cut. By his late teens, he was working in his uncle’s
trading office, and apparently when his uncle retracted on some sort of payment, Vasilis
simply took the money from the repository and moved to England. There, “Basil” married Emily Burrows in
1872. That same year he was arrested in Belgium
for embezzlement. He escaped the restitution payment he had
to make by fleeing to Athens. Once there, he impressed high society with
his charm, his debonair appearance, his language skills, and his manners, but became an outcast
once the embezzlement scandal reached the city. However, he had made his first contacts in
the armaments industry and soon became the Balkan representative for Swedish inventor
Thorsten Nordenfelt. Make no mistake; this was a golden age for
an arms dealer. Nationalistic fever swept much of Europe. Mass production of weapons was possible for
the first time. The major powers of Europe needed weapons
for colonial expansion. There was a huge demand. Zaharoff worked in Cyprus for a few years
before winding up in Galway, Ireland in 1883, posing as a count and working as a shipping
agent. He wasn’t there for long, and fled to Utah
after receiving death threats for persuading local girls to immigrate to Massachusetts
as factory workers. In Utah, he mingled with high society as the
nephew of a Russian count exiled by the Tsar, and in 1885 married the wealthy New York heiress,
Jeannie Billings. He hadn’t divorced his first wife, though,
and was eventually recognized and fled for Europe. His first big success in the arms trade followed. It involved the sale of defective Nordenfelt
submarines. None of the Great Powers wanted them, so he
went to Greece, and – as a loyal patriot – felt obliged to give them a submarine on excellent
payment terms. Then he went to the Ottomans, and – as a loyal
patriot – convinced them that Greece having a sub was a threat, so he sold the Ottomans
two. Then he went to Russia, and – as a loyal patriot
– pointed out what a threat the Ottoman subs were in the Black Sea. Russia bought two of them. None of the subs entered service. This practice was dubbed “Systeme Zaharoff”;
turning one country against another and selling arms to both, with the help of bribes and
“favors” for officials. Soon, he spotted Spaniard Isaac Peral’s
work – the first practical submarine, and the first with electric power for underwater
action. Peral rejected Nordenfelt’s offer to buy
the servomotor patent, so Zaharoff managed to permanently prevent a deal between Peral
and the Spanish government, primarily using a sexual relationship with Pilar de Muguiro
y Beruete. Her father was the leader of the Conservative
party and her husband was King Alfonso’s mentally ill cousin, and her access to the
palace and the government helped Zaharoff to build a powerful lobby of military officers,
businessmen, nobles, and politicians by 1890. Zaharoff bought the Basque armament company
Euskalduna and became the top player in the Spanish arms market until his death. In fact, in 1934, the Nye Committee of the
US Senate reported that Zaharoff received a commission of 5 – 7% of every deal between
the Spanish government and the US arms industry. Zaharoff ruined several public displays of
the new Maxim machinegun, and with pressure from Vickers and the London Rothschilds, Hiram
Maxim made a deal and the Maxim – Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company was created in
1888. Nordenfelt had a personal bankruptcy in 1890
and left the company. Zaharoff eventually became a shareholder and
it was bought again, in 1897, to form Vickers, Sons, and Maxim. Zaharoff and Maxim got over a million pounds
– in 1897 pounds – from the deal. Zaharoff’s weapons were used by both sides
in the Boer Wars and the Russo – Japanese War. His most profitable deal came after that last
war. Russia upgraded its armed forces and Zaharoff
managed to get contracts for Vickers for an artillery plant, shipbuilding facilities,
and a dockyard. He gained the largest share in the Russian
arms market. British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, who
helped Vickers, wrote that Zaharoff’s tactics were “too disgusting for words”. By the time the Great War broke out, Zaharoff
was living in France, as a French citizen, making and selling arms to every major power. He had bought the French paper, “Excelsior”,
and his articles about French rearming caused the German Reichstag to vote for more armament
funding of its own. (deadpan) He was also very involved with philanthropy. The war itself was – as you’d guess – pretty
good for the arms industry, though salesmen like Zaharoff weren’t needed, but Zaharoff
himself was. In many ways. In late 1915, for example, the situation in
the Balkans was pretty dire for the Allies, and they wanted to bring Greece into the war. Zaharoff became a personal agent of British
Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and wrote that November, “I could make Greece join the
Allies and start fighting the Bulgars within 20 days… £1.5 million, properly spent, would shorten
the war by months.” Asquith gave him most of that, and he went
to work – soon the British and French governments financially supported Greece’s Salonika
troops, the Greek liberal party acquired its own publishing house, and it began publishing
pro – Entente propaganda to bring Greece into the war. Within a year Greece was in a state of virtual
civil war and eventually did join the Allies. In 1916 and 1917, Zaharoff tried to negotiate
a separate peace with the Ottoman Empire. One big problem was the Empire insisting on
its territorial integrity, and Zaharoff telling them that in any scenario, Mesopotamia, Palestine,
and Syria would be handed to the Entente. The offer rose to ten million dollars, to
be personally given to Enver Pasha and his uncle Abdul Kerim, but after an incident at
the Swiss border where Zaharoff was strip searched and forced to stand for hours in
sub zero temperatures and his subsequent period of recovery, negotiations came to nothing. if you think he was just helping the Allies,
though, you are mistaken. In 1916, he stopped the French plans to bomb
the factories at Briey, which had belonged to an associate of his. The Germans were using those captured factories
and the neighboring blast furnaces to produce much of the iron and steel their army used. German sources say that if those factories
were taken or destroyed, the German war effort could only last another six months. Postwar, the factories were returned to Zaharoff’s
associate. And postwar, Zaharoff finally got what he
wanted – social acceptance, after all those years of being an outcast for his professional
activity. “I am like a child who has been promised
chocolate.” British King George V personally received
him; he received the Grand Cross of the British Empire, and began calling himself Sir Basil,
though he was not a British citizen. He supported Greek postwar claims in Anatolia,
and donated as much as $20,000,000 during the Greco – Turkish War. When the Greek army was destroyed and the
surviving Greek population fled Anatolia, Zaharoff lost a great deal of money. He still had enough left, though, to buy Monte
Carlo Casino as well as oil stocks in the Middle East. In 1924, he finally married his Spanish love
who had helped him sabotage Peral’s submarine plans all those years ago, but she soon died,
and Zaharoff went into seclusion. He died in Monte Carlo November 27th, 1936. He had sold weapons basically to everyone,
from the US, to Japan, to Europe, to South America, and despite all of his charities,
he remained– even after his passing – the archetypal “merchant of death” and really,
a sort of pop icon of evil. In Tintin, he was caricatured as weapons trader
Basil Bazarov, he is included in the dedication page of the Church of Satan’s Satanic Bible,
and Orson Welles said that Citizen Kane is partly based on Zaharoff, and not just William
Randolph Hearst. Well, Zaharoff grew up in a world where only
the ruthless survive, and he was certainly ruthless. It seems though, that wherever Basil Zaharoff
went, he never really left that childhood world of ruthlessness.

46 thoughts on “The Merchant of Death – Basil Zaharoff I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

  1. Wait did he had Jewish blood??? He sounds and looks like some one with a Jewish Gene's would do.

    I am sure he is a jew vermin

  2. National Leader: Can't we all just get along?
    Zaharoff: You'll need to arm yourself to the teeth to prove you really want to.
    National Leader: That makes perfect sense!

  3. His exploits using the Orient Express are how I came to learn of him! It is on the train that he met his future wife.

  4. So basically just like today… Only now they're "multinational corporations"….

    The more things change, the more they stay the same…

    Later! OL J R

  5. Amazing truth well done on the doco ! Image the dark world of arms deals in today's world in the billions an the clever cover up in all governments and private companies it's all about the dollar at the end of the day !

  6. In Tintin's "The Broken Ear", the merchant that sells arms to both sides, and instigates war to sell them, was based on this guy.

  7. What an out-and-out cad/scoundrel was that Zaharoff! He seems to have been the epitome of evil through indifference, as Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, "indifference is the shadow of hate". Zaharoff cast a very long shadow.

  8. Seems like the character of Yuri Orlov in the movie,"Lords of War", which is based on the rapid looting of the Soviet Arsenal after post Soviet collapse.

  9. He could have ended the war if he would have not intervened to stop the bombing of those German war production sites??…then he is an EVIL man..all those men that would die because this former "arsonist" is despicable….

  10. How did he keep getting recognised in an age before social media or mass information?. I would have thought it would be easy to flee your crimes or reputation back in those days

  11. Wow. What a ___. For my comic strip, I created as close to a villain as I ever will in a cat who got rich by being paid by each side NOT to sell weapons to the others.. He also wound up with a vast collection of valuable antiques, to sell as decommisioned collector's items. 😉

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