A mentor, an example, and a friend
GEORGE WEIDENFELD was one of the men of the century.
In his life and work the tumult and triumphs of the last hundred years found their witness and their shaper. It has been one of the privileges of my life to have been able to call him a friend. But he was much more — a mentor, an example, a hero.
Born in a Vienna emerging from the wreckage of the Habsburg empire, educated for a career in the Austrian diplomatic service and escaping from that country as it fell under the dark shadow of Nazi control, he was the last survivor of a lost Europe.
The cosmopolitan, liberal and cultured values of his upbringing were those of so many exiles from totalitarianism — figures such as Stefan Zweig and Isaiah Berlin — and George exemplified them beautifully. His perfect manners, his gorgeously decorated Chelsea flat, his spell-binding conversation ranging from high politics to literary gossip, his generosity as a host, his humanity and breadth of sympathy were all reminders of the virtues which European civilisation, at its best, imbued in its children.
From his publishing house George developed a web of relationships — across politics, literature, the arts and humanities, and across France, Germany, the UK and the US — which brought the finest minds of our time into communion with one another. The idea of the West — the belief that democratic liberal nations should work together to defend freedom and advance enlightenment — found in him its greatest advocate and embodiment.
George was always, however, aware of the fragility of our civilisation and he recognised, from personal experience and acute historical study, that the health of any society is reflected in the way it treats its Jewish citizens.
It was, George once observed to me, a fact that the most liberal nation at any time in history was always the one in which Jewish citizens felt most safe — the Netherlands in the 17th century, England in the late 19th century, America in our own time — and those countries which were most hostile to Jewish individuals were those nations heading into darkness — Spain at the time of the Inquisition, Germany and Austria in the Thirties and Russia now.
Europe’s unforgivable failure to protect its Jewish citizens — the horrific, brutal and inescapable fact that the greatest crime in history was committed on the continent he loved so much — left a profound impact. It made him a committed Zionist.
Israel’s flourishing and success — its democratic vigour, its liberal values, its people’s generosity — were a source of joy to George. But the terrible regrowth of antisemitism in the last few years, with both Israel and the world’s Jewish population coming under increasing attack, was a profound sadness to him. He worked tirelessly to understand the causes of this recrudescence of prejudice and to fight it in every way. He used his unparalleled range of contacts to help foster understanding of Israel’s position, awareness of the dangers inherent in Islamist extremism and solidarity in defence of democracy.
Even in his tenth decade he would devote long hours to lobbying European leaders, writing in the German media, commissioning expert authors and convening academic seminars to advance understanding of the threat our civilisation faces from extremism. It was an honour to be able to help him, in the smallest of ways, in that work.
It was also an inspiration to see George in this past year devote so much time energy and money to helping save those fleeing Islamist extremism in its darkest form, by supporting Christian refugees escaping Islamic State.
That tireless energy, that resolution in the fight against evil are lost to us now. I am sadder than I can ever say at George’s passing because he was more wonderful than words can tell in his commitment to the best in this world.
Michael Gove is Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Lord Weidenfeld relaxes at his ‘gorgeously decorated’ home in Chelsea