LONDON — The British National Archives file marked as CAB301/116 looks innocuous enough at first glance. But within its ordinary cardboard cover lies a torrid story, the tale of a man once known as “the Merchant of Death,” who was called “the wickedest man in Europe.”
The file, found among the Cabinet papers of 1952 and released this month, relates to a tin box of documents which are so toxic that neither the Cabinet Office nor the Foreign Office wanted to keep them – though they knew they could not risk them becoming public.
In 1952, Sir Edward Bridges was a civil servant, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Treasury. He needed help from the Treasury Solicitor, Sir Thomas Barnes. Here was the problem:
“One day last week Strang [Sir William Strang, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office] gave a small party for the retiring ‘C’ [the intelligence chief of MI6, Britain’s secret service]. During the dinner C said that he had that day had lunch with one of the banks. Later he disclosed that the bank was Glyn Mills [later part of the Royal Bank of Scotland].
“The bank said that they had a box of papers about Sir Basil Zaharoff’s dealings with the Government in the First World War. I attach a precis of the papers, prepared by the bank… it is clear that the correspondence deals with bribery on a large scale and is pretty hot.
“Sir Basil is dead. And so, I gather, is his wife. The bank do not know who the papers belong to and they want to get rid of them. It was suggested that if we liked to take custody of the papers, the bank would hand them over to us.
“…It seems to me that the papers deal with Government transactions on the seamy side of life and that we ought not to run the risk that these papers will fall into outside hands.”
It is unclear what advice Sir Thomas gave to Sir Edward about what to do with the Zaharoff material, not least, as they both sniffily observed, Zaharoff had been carrying out many of his murky deeds at the instigation of World War I prime minister David Lloyd George.
Today, while the papers themselves are no longer in CAB 301/116, the bank’s precis of what they contained is still there. Suffice it to say that Sir Edward’s description of Sir Basil’s activities as “pretty hot” is the understatement of all time. In fact, the bank’s laborious notes show gigantic sums of money being thrown about, furtive meetings with both Greek and Turkish leaders, Keystone Kop-style chases through Swiss hotels, special pleadings for British honors – Lloyd George was known to hand these out like confetti. The documents even describe in the year following the Balfour Declaration, fake undertakings by Sir Basil as to what would become of Palestine.
So who was “ZedZed,” as he was known to his intimates, the international man of mystery?
A quick dip into Google throws up some intriguing material, not least an insistence by a variety of extremist supremacist sites that Zaharoff was a Jew responsible for dragging Britain into World War I, purely for his personal profit.
While he is unlikely to have had that particular responsibility on his shoulders, what is clear is that Zaharoff took full advantage of the conflict to exercise his special talents, including promising the earth to both the Greeks and the Turks, particularly in trying to tempt the Turks to throw in their lot with the Allies.
According to a 2012 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Zaharoff was born “in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849.” Other articles suggest he was Armenian or Greek, or even Russian by birth. Certainly he spoke many languages and took full advantage of that in his scandalous career, which apparently included stints as a brothel tout, a bigamist and arsonist – as well as the “profession” he was in when he first started his under-the-radar work for the British government, that of a wildly successful arms dealer.
Zaharoff plainly made lying into an art form. As one of his early biographers, Austrian Robert Neumann, put it: “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 folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…”
So Zaharoff may or may not have been Jewish, but we will never know because in his old age, in 1927, he sat in his chateau in Paris – almost certainly acquired by dubious means – and systematically burned 58 years’ worth of diaries and papers.
What we do know is that he turned up in Britain in 1872 and married Emily Burrows, daughter of a Bristol merchant. The couple went to Belgium but it wasn’t long before Zaharoff was arrested and brought back to Britain to face trial, on charges of embezzling an astonishing £7,000 ($10,782) in merchandise and securities. In fact ZedZed was the first person to be repatriated as a result of a new extradition treaty signed between Belgium and Britain. At his trial he claimed to have attended the public school, Rugby, and to have habitually carried a revolver since he was seven years old. (Both claims were probably untrue and he managed to escape a prison term.)
But the £7,000 pales into insignificance compared with Zaharoff’s other adventures, which appear to have included a bigamous marriage to a New York heiress and various deeply suspect “investment” projects in the US, where he sometimes styled himself Count Zaharoff.
By the time of his appearance in the tin box papers stored at the Glyn Mills Bank, Zaharoff was a well-established arms dealer, who made millions as a “super-salesman” for the British company, Vickers.
According to Mike Dash in the Smithsonian Magazine, “between 1902 and 1905 he was paid £195,000 in commissions — worth $25 million today — and by 1914 he was active not only in Istanbul and Athens but in St Petersburg, Buenos Airies and Asunción; he owned several banks, lived in a French château and was romancing the Duchess of Villafranca, a Spanish noblewoman who would become his third wife.”
Dash says that “the documentary evidence that survives suggests that his chief value to his employers was an instinctive understanding of when and to whom he should offer bribes — he wrote gleeful memos that told of ‘doing the needful’ and ‘administering doses of Vickers.’ Foreign Office records show that in 1912 Zaharoff was instrumental in passing 100,000 rubles to officers in Russia’s Ministry of Marine in order to divert government contracts to a local shipbuilding group in which Vickers had an interest.”
The Glyn Mills papers show that between 1916 and early 1918, Zaharoff was shuttling between the Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, and the Turkish leader Enver Pasha, offering each money to help turn the course of the war. This wasn’t, of course, Zaharoff’s own money: He had gone to see the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, who was pushed out of office by David Lloyd George in December 1916, in the middle of the war.
In letters and telegrams dated from October to December 1916, we learn that Zaharoff told his colleague at Vickers, Vincent Caillard, that if he “was given £1.5 million he would be able to get Greece to join the Allies in 20 days, and that the French government wanted him to go to Greece as ‘Ambassadeur Extraordinaire.’ But they [the French] wished to tie his hands to such an extent that he refused.”
In this paragraph we scent Zaharoff’s special genius for playing one side off against the other. Immediately, Caillard arranged a meeting for Zaharoff with Asquith, “who agreed to put up the required sum.”
But Venizelos wouldn’t play ball, and so, amid the torrent of letters not just hinting, but demanding “chocolate for ZedZed” – a revoltingly coy way of asking for a British honor or knighthood – Zaharoff started playing up to the Turks to try to persuade the Ottoman Empire to change tack and support the Allies.
Between May and September 1917 Zaharoff shuttled back and forth between London and Geneva, using a man called Abdul Karim Bey as his intermediary with Enver Pasha, the Turkish leader. The papers, according to the Glyn Mills bank, showed that “Abdul Karim Bey asked for $500,000 to introduce Enver to Zaharoff. And for a further $1.5 million, Enver would try to withdraw troops on the Mesopotamian and Palestine fronts, to open the Dardanelles and surrender the fronts – all this could be achieved for a further $10 million paid in instalments and on results.”
David Lloyd George, by this time Prime Minister, was interested, say the papers. “He let Zaharoff have a preliminary douceur [sweetener] of $2 million.”
Armed with this enormous sum, “in December 1917 Zaharoff met Abdul Karim Bey in Geneva and handed over $500,000 for himself [Abdul Karim Bey] and $1.5 million for Enver. He then made Abdul Karim drunk at lunch and received a very interesting report on a meeting of the Central Powers at which the Kaiser, Hindenburg, and Ferdinand of Bulgaria were present.”
By January 1918, the last year of the war, Zaharoff was getting impatient. He asked Abdul Karim Bey to fix up another meeting with Enver Pasha in Geneva, but the Turkish leader, nervous about security, refused to see Zaharoff face to face. Instead, the papers report, “Abdul Karim ran from room to room in the hotel,” as an attempt was made to broker a deal.
Eventually, a deal was on the table. Five million dollars were to be paid to Enver to allow a British submarine to pass secretly through the Dardanelle Straits and torpedo the German warships Goeben and Breslau, and then get away again.
“A further $2 million was to be paid if the Turkish troops in Palestine were withdrawn north of the Haifa-Heraa Railway. The British Government guaranteed not to molest the Turkish troops during the withdrawal, and guaranteed that Palestine should not be annexed by Great Britain or incorporated in the British Empire.”
Quite how Zaharoff arrived at this detail relating to Palestine – only months after the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 – remains a mystery. A National Archives historian told The Times of Israel that he believed Zaharoff was operating in such a singular fashion that he may not even have been aware of the commitment made by Britain as framed by the Balfour Declaration.
Quite how Zaharoff arrived at this detail relating to Palestine – only months after the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 – remains a mystery
In any case, the papers say, “the meeting was a complete failure. Enver said he had found himself unable to proceed and had handed the [Dardanelle] Straits over to the Germans.” He gave Zaharoff back some of the bribe money, unlike his go-between, Abdul Karim Bey, who refused to return anything. Zaharoff reported himself “heartbroken” at such behavior, though one can’t help feeling on reading this that Abdul Karim was playing the master manipulator at his own game.
And eventually, ZedZed got his “chocolate.” Lloyd George recommended a Knight Grand Cross. Strictly speaking, because he was a French citizen by this time, Zaharoff was not entitled to call himself “Sir Basil,” but as usual he took no notice, and when he died in 1936 it was as Sir Basil Zaharoff.
Certainly the unassuming cardboard file gave no indication of the delights within. As more serious researchers in the British National Archives gazed at secret files, they glanced over to The Times of Israel, wondering what was so entertaining. It was ZedZed, the wickedest man in Europe, once more working his peculiar charm.