Basil Zaharoff had many nicknames. Those close to him called him “Zedzed.” But to the rest of the world, he was a merchant of death – an arms dealer with absolutely no qualms whatsoever as to whom he supplied.
The press dubbed him “The Mystery Man of Europe,” as his aura was an impenetrable enigma. Even today, his many secrets will never be known. Before his death, he spent two days burning all the evidence of his life.
In popular memory, however, he will always be known for his unscrupulous behavior and his pioneering of the Systeme Zaharoff: the practice of selling weapons to both sides in order to escalate the conflict and create a need for more weapons.
Early Life of Basil Zaharoff
The mysterious nature of Vasileios Zacharias ascribed to him by the European press was a phenomenon that predated the musings of journalists. It starts at the very beginning; even the story of where he was born is a mysterious subject. It was first stated that Zaharoff was born on October 6, 1849, in Mugla on the Anatolian coast, then part of the Ottoman Empire. This claim, however, is controversial. Zaharoff himself testified in court that he was born in a poor section of Constantinople, and it was noted that the former claim was made 42 years after the event by a Greek priest who made the claim from memory.
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Growing up, he was an outsider. He came from a Greek family living in Turkey. During the pogroms against the Greeks in the 1820s, his family moved to Russia and adopted the Russian last name of “Zaharoff.” They returned to Turkey, and Basil grew up in Tatavla, a rough neighborhood in Constantinople, and went to school until he was 16, when he was forced to work to support the family. He found work as a tour guide, a money changer, and a fireman. It is claimed that he committed arson when working as a fireman since firefighters were paid for salvage on burnt properties.
At the age of 21, he found work working in the mercantile business. As with most of his life stories, there are various versions of facts. One version states that he worked for his uncle, stole all the money from the cash drawer, and disappeared. His uncle, furious, tracked his nephew to London, where Zaharoff was arrested. What the precedent is for his arrest in London is unclear. Zaharoff was released by claiming he was a partner and not an employee. Another version of this story purports that he had stolen goods from a Greek merchant, Mr. Hiphentides, and was released on the condition that he pay £100 to the plaintiff. Whether he paid the money or not is unclear, but within 24 hours, he was on his way to Athens.
Zaharoff stayed in Athens from 1873 to 1877, working various odd jobs. Stories about his past, however, began to surface, and he began to be treated as persona non grata. So, he decided to move on. He had, however, made a friend in Etienne Skouloudis, a political journalist who would help Zaharoff by introducing him to a Swedish captain who worked for the arms manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfelt.
Zaharoff, The Unsavory Character
Working for Thorsten Nordenfelt, Basil Zaharoff was in charge of representing the company in the Balkans area. He was given a small salary which was augmented by commission. The end of the 19th century was an exciting time in the arms industry. As an international industry, it was small, but technological innovations were spurring the growth of weapons that would revolutionize combat.
After the Franco-Prussian War, it became clear that countries needed large standing armies. The increase in the number of soldiers across the continent meant that the market for Zaharoff’s business was entering a phase of huge growth.
He didn’t focus solely on working in the arms industry, however. For several years, Zaharoff pursued other activities, some of which were unsavory choices, and characterized him as a man with few scruples. He worked as a shipping agent in Galway, Ireland, recruiting Irish girls for work in American factories. He also worked as a salesman for a St. Louis railcar business and supplemented his income by being a confidence trickster.
In 1885, posing as a European prince, he married St. Louis heiress Jennie Billings, but he was recognized and accused of bigamy by a Briton who claimed Zaharoff was already wed to a girl from Bristol, whom he married in 1872. With this discovery, Zaharoff abandoned his plans and fled to the Netherlands.
Zaharoff, The Arms Dealer
Zaharoff’s arms dealing career took off as the instability in the Balkans created a massive demand for weaponry. Nearby, Russia and Turkey also poured fortunes into improving their militaries, and Zaharoff was there to provide them with the weapons they needed to keep up with each other.
In 1878, the Russo-Turkish War ended, and Greece, looking to capitalize on a weakened Turkey, planned to expand its military from 20,000 to 100,000 men. Zaharoff helped arm them with Nordenfelt arms. His most significant sale to Greece was a submarine which he sold to the Greeks in 1885.
Having sold a submarine to the Greeks, he then went to the Turks and convinced them that the Greek submarine posed a threat. The Turks bought two. Then, convincing the Russians that the Turks’ two new submarines posed a threat to Russian interests in the Black Sea, he sold two submarines to the Russians, who added them to the Black Sea Fleet. None of the submarines ever saw action, and it’s probably just as well because they were all fraught with problems, including propulsion issues and instability. One Turkish submarine sank after firing a torpedo during a test. The vessel reared into a vertical position and then capsized.
Around this time, Nordenfelt was also trying to market his Nordenfelt Guns, multi-barreled organ guns. The direct competition was Hiram Maxim’s Automatic Machine Gun, which was a better weapon with a faster rate of fire. Zaharoff engaged in a number of attempts to sabotage demonstrations of the Maxim gun and achieved a certain amount of success.
At a high-profile demonstration in La Spezia, Italy, there was to be a demonstration of the Nordenfelt and the Maxim gun in front of an audience of nobles, which included the Duke of Genoa. However, Maxim’s representatives did not show up on the day of the demonstration. They had been taken on a tour of the city the night before and were incapacitated the following day. It is generally assumed that this was the underhanded work of Basil Zaharoff.
Soon afterward, at a demonstration in Vienna, the Maxim guns jammed, and when one was taken apart, it was discovered that they had all been sabotaged. A third demonstration, also in Vienna, fell flat for Maxim as well, as an unknown character went around the audience, informing the potential buyers that the Maxim gun could not be mass-produced in sufficient quantities.
Nordenfelt’s financial issues would force him to merge his business with Maxim despite the competition.
From 1886 to 1890, Zaharoff made several trips to Spain and succeeded in a number of objectives set out for him. He successfully sabotaged the dealings between Spanish inventor Isaac Peral and the Spanish Government, scuppering Peral’s chances of selling the technologically superior submarine he had invented.
While in Spain, he also acquired a Spanish munitions factory and sold substantial amounts of ordnance to the Spanish army. He achieved all of this through his affair with Maria del Pilar de Muguiro y Beruete, the unhappily married wife of King Alfonso XII’s cousin. Her father was Count of Muguiro, an influential banker and a good friend of the king. Maria del Pilar thus had unrestricted access to the Royal Palaces and helped Zaharoff be where he shouldn’t be.
With the connections and influence provided by his lover, Zaharoff acquired the Placencia de las Armas Co. Ltd, an arms company that would later swindle the Spanish government during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Zaharoff’s Rise in the Business World
Basil Zaharoff was a businessman who held no loyalty to his employers. After the Nordenfelt-Maxim split in 1890, Zaharoff joined Maxim and began buying shares in the company until he was able to inform Maxim that he was no longer an employee but an equal shareholder.
The Maxim company would then be acquired by the arms giant Vickers, where he would begin buying shares. After Maxim’s retirement in 1911, Zaharoff was appointed to Vickers’ board of directors.
The First World War
During the First World War, Basil Zaharoff conducted most of his business in France. He purchased a bank, allowing him greater command over his financial dealings. He also purchased a newspaper, Excelsior, which allowed him to manipulate the media. He won much recognition from the French military establishment and was made commander of the Legion of Honor.
Despite his predilection for playing sides, Zaharoff’s interests lay firmly with the Allied cause, and he is thought to have helped the Allies to the tune of £50 million, which included millions of francs laid out for French war widows.
Zaharoff also helped push Greece under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos into joining the Allied cause in 1917.
After the War
After the First World War, Zaharoff turned his attention to Greece again, where he took advantage of the animosity between Venizelos and King Constantine. The rift between the two had escalated to open conflict. When Venizelos was defeated, Zaharoff wasted no time in trying to convince the king to attack Turkey, but with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in charge of Turkey, the attempts came to naught.
In 1924, an aging Zaharoff married his Spanish lover from decades earlier, María del Pilar Antonia Angela Patrocinio Fermina Simona de Muguiro y Beruete, 1st Duchess de Villafranca de los Caballeros. She died 18 months after they married from an infection, and Zaharoff receded from public life as his age caught up with him. He eventually died in 1936, burning documents of his life’s work before he did so.
Basil Zaharoff in Popular Culture
Basil Zaharoff’s legacy did not escape the attention of writers during the 20th century, who used him as a template for villainous characters.
In the Tintin book The Broken Ear, a character named Basil Bazaroff appears as an unscrupulous arms dealer, while the real Basil Zaharoff was purported to have been the inspiration for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the principal antagonist in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
Apart from characters being inspired by him, Zaharoff has also appeared as a historical character in many works of fiction and non-fiction.
Basil Zaharoff was one of the most influential characters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His life was shaped by seizing opportunity wherever he could find it, and through his self-serving business dealings, he helped shape the power dynamics of Europe and thus played an instrumental part in the history of the continent.