How an Austrian refugee escaped the Nazis and arrived in London with sixteen shillings, only to become one of the most important publishers of the 20th century, and the embodiment of the 21st century’s global networking imperative. “During one of those typical discussions around Weidenfeld’s table,” the writer Ian Buruma once recalled, “there gathered an Israeli prime minister, a French historian, an Indian scholar, a British editor-in-chief, an Italian writer, an American foreign minister, and a German conductor. Most of them were Nobel Prize winners. And this was just the cast for breakfast!”
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Lord Weidenfeld, you’re one of the most prominent witnesses of the 20th century. But not only did you experience it, you also helped shape it. When you look back upon the last century, what’s changed?
LORD GEORGE WEIDENFELD: These thoughts go back more than a hundred years. When I was six years old in 1925, periodicals from the time of the first World War were still lying around the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices. The smell of the decaying Habsburg Monarchy was still in the air.
Which years had the greatest influence on you?
My adolescence in Vienna. It was a uniquely difficult time, economically and politically. The Austrians had to get used to no longer being at the center of a great empire. I grew up in an intellectual milieu where German literature played an important role. Radical views were much more common back then – giving yourself over to an idea, marching for an idea. A political party was a movement.
One of the worst experiences was when I saw the National Socialists marching through Vienna, even before they came to power in Germany. It was the first time I saw the dynamic, heated masses. Right in front of our balcony. Most of them were wearing white shirts with makeshift swastikas. They were chanting, “Juda perish! Germany awake!” I was very politically aware, even as a child. As a reaction to the growing anti-Semitism, I became active in the Zionist movement. Political activist Theodor Herzl demonstrated how we were able to defend ourselves, and beat our enemy with his own weapon. One of my most formative experiences was hearing a talk by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Nazis were standing in front of the assembly hall hassling us. I remember Jabotinsky saying, “Hitlers come and go, but the Jewish people is eternal.” A small, redheaded, very frightened boy was sitting in front of me, and when the event was over, he charged like a tiger at a Nazi to clobber him.
After Austria was annexed to Germany and the Nazis came to power, you were able to immigrate to England in August of 1938. You were eighteen years old and alone. How were you greeted by this foreign city?
I took a train through Zurich, Ascona, and Paris, where my father had good contacts. When I arrived in London, I only had sixteen shillings on me, which would be about eight pounds or nine euros today. The Jewish refugee Committee arranged for me to stay with a couple that belonged to a very missionary Protestant sect. They were kind, fanatical Christians who took me in as a child. Then I studied law at King’s College. My host read the biblical quotes in The Times every day. One went: “You can’t win if you don’t take a chance.” He also showed me an advertisement in The Times that said, in case of an emergency, the BBC was looking for foreign-language linguists to build monitory services in England. It was the spring of 1939, Hitler had marched into Prague, and the mood of the war was already there in a way. I was only nineteen and hesitated before applying. To my great surprise, I was summoned by the BBC and hired.
Reading your biography, one has the impression that the BBC was your real education.
Yes, an education of career, life, and England! You could say I owe everything to the BBC. I was one of the first 26 members of this new service, which later grew to have a staff of two thousand or more. I soon established a department for analyzing German radio programs and deriving relevant conclusions about their mentality. Hence, I took an early interest in German propaganda and the development of the German elite and the power structure of the Third Reich. I worked in the apparatus of Political Warfare Executive (PWE) for the British counter propaganda.
And you published a book at the time about your studies?
Yes, I wrote a book when I was 23 years old, The Goebbels Experiment. It came out in 1942 in three countries, and it was and remains something like a handbook on nazi propaganda. I also counseled the authorities of the Nuremberg Trials to a modest degree. My role was to help clarify an interesting part of the German propaganda, namely, to prove that, before the major operations of purging Jews, gypsies, “sub-humans”, lunatics, and so on, there were programs to convince the surrounding area, the neighbors, to empathize psychologically with these proceedings. For example, there was very specific inflammatory propaganda against Jews so that their deportation did not have any psychological consequences on others. The Nazis knew that the everyday German, the man on the street, and sometimes even the people in authority, had pangs of conscience. It was, of course, necessary to reinforce them in their actions. For example, in SS Reichsführer Himmler’s famous Posen speech, he said, “It is terrible to have to kill these children, but what do you think? When they grow up, they will all be enemies of the Third Reich.”
What basic principle did you always follow?
Building bridges, building bridges, building bridges. Contact. To bring the different tendencies together. That was, significantly, also the name of the first magazine I founded at the time. During the war, I had already begun to think about what I was going to do when it ended. I wanted to do something creative. So with the help of friends, I founded a publishing company, Contact Books, to make a European magazine, a kind of mix between The New Yorker and Fortune magazine. It was to be a very ambitious presentation with illustrations, art, and a culture section, but also very good articles on politics and diplomacy.
How did it come about?
During the last three years of the war, I was also a diplomatic and political commentator for the BBC’s English-speaking World Service. I was a kind of middleman to occupied Europe’s governments in exile – to the Frenchman Charles de Gaulle, the Czech Edvard Benes, the Polish General Sikorsky. Later, as a publisher, these connections helped me a lot. My responsibilities also entailed reporting on the Zionist leadership in London, which was preparing a Jewish state. This is how I came to meet the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann.
You became his chief of staff in 1949, when he became the first president of Israel. This is the first time your trans-disciplinarity came into play, your linking of politics, art, literature, and music.
As I said, through the BBC, I had contacts to European governments and was well-schooled. The money for the publishing company came in part from the Nicolson family [writer and politician Nigel Nicolson was co-founder], and in part from a very rich printer. We were just about to publish the first issue when a major blow came – although the war was over, there was a law that banned new magazines because of “paper bundles.”
That was a major shock.
It would have been our downfall if we hadn’t followed the good advice of a lawyer friend who said, “You have to get around this law, publish your magazine with a hard cover and call it a book with the numbers one, two, three, and so forth. Call the magazine Contact Books and give each number a special title.” And that is what we did. But this is a story where the operation was a success but the patient died. It was a book with a stiff cover and advertisements, but it was very expensive. These things didn’t go together, and so of course it didn’t work out economically.
Could one say that through this impossibility of creating a magazine you became a publisher of books?
There’s more. The lawyer said to me, “This is not enough. You have to publish other, normal books along with your magazine using the same imprint, seven or eight a year.” I thought, what kind of books should I publish? I could only think about the magazine. Then I said to myself, we’ll do a series of books about England’s major postwar problems. I was introduced to a civil servant who offered me a book he’d written that had been rejected by three other publishers. His name was Harold Wilson.
Unbelievable. The future prime minister of England.
I was his first publisher. We stayed lifelong friends.
And important literary titles soon followed, including Lolita. How did you meet Nabokov?
It was known that a book called Lolita existed, and that for various reasons instilled fear – it was supposed to be banned because it violated morals. In France, it was published by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, a notorious publisher of erotic literature.
He published great literature, including books by Arthur Miller and Nabokov. After fighting opposition from all sides, I was able to print every page of the book. That was a sensation at the time. Nabokov not only became a great success, he also became my friend. I met him twice a year for 25 years. It was always the same routine. I drove to see him at the hotel in Montreux – he was in Geneva the first few years, but then settled more or less completely in Montreux. We always had a long lunch, and I would drive back to the airport at around five-thirty or six. We had many very interesting conversations over a quarter of a century. I published all of his works, including his talks on literature. Nabokov had a very Manichean image of other authors. They were either terrible or very good.
As curator, I have encountered artists who have changed my life because they had so much influence. I wonder what authors and writers, besides Nabokov, had a major influence on you.
Of the various genres of intellectuals, I deal best with historians and politicians.
Because the area that I am most proud of, and with which I most identify is nonfiction – memoirs, biographies, history, philosophy. I’ve always been interested in book series. For example, the “World History” is a series of 42 books, of which only 34 have been printed by now. We asked the very best historians, like Maurice Bowra, Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Grant, to write books for the series. History has always moved me, and you’ll find parallels in my activities outside the publishing company – bringing people together, building international bridges.
However, I was fortunate in having had a few very good fiction editors, for example George Orwell’s widow, Sonia, (who helped me to acquire Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy) and the legendary Tony Godwin. So we had some wonderful fiction writers, too, including Heinrich Böll, Irwin Shaw, and Marguerite Yourcenar.
J.G. Ballard once told me that he thinks people who are like “junction makers” are the most important people in society. Did the publishing house signal what you were later to do in the Club of Three, bringing different disciplines together?
The Club of Three, which I started in the mid-1990s, may be a good example. In my meetings with people, I recognized that something wasn’t working, that England, France, and Germany were not coming together. I said to myself, we want to create something like a diagnostic group that would convene and ask, “What is going on here?” And it was a great success. Meetings took place between politicians, business people, academics, and journalists from the three leading european nations – the UK, France, and Germany – working together to develop a better understanding of key european issues.
Did the Institute of Strategic Dialogue emerge from this?
Yes. We started with the Club of Three, which spawned further regional meetings, such as “the three AND Israel,” “the three AND Moscow,” “the three AND the European Union.” This gave us the impression that we should expand the whole thing. People came to us and said, “Wouldn’t you like to establish a committee for us, where we could speak about the integration of Muslims in England, or about anti-radicalism? We would like to benefit from these talks.”
How did the cultural think tanks get started? You often invited writers and artists, and there were also those meetings that I experienced two years ago in London, when you brought museum directors together to discuss the future of art.
I am now working more on this at the university. For example, I began a new initiative called “Humanitas,” with 24 guest professorships, half in Oxford and half in Cambridge. The basic model for these lectures and seminars was a colloquium I founded fourteen years ago, which is now integrated into “Humanitas.” Namely, it is a course of european comparative Literature. Among those lecturing have been Amos Oz, Umberto Eco, Vargas Llosa, Nike Wagner, Wolf Lepenies, Bernhard Schlink, George Steiner…
You’ll be turning 91 this September. Are there projects that were not carried through, that were too big, too expensive, or too complicated? Are there unrealized dreams?
Frankly, not so far. In fact, I am working on new, very exciting and ambitious projects and have great hopes of turning them into realities.