GEORGE WEIDENFELD 1919-2016
IF WE are all unique, George Weidenfeld was, well…more unique than everyone else.
Publisher, statesman, writer, philanthropist, fixer — and much, much more. In each of his many roles he soared to heights that most of us would never come close to in just one career. At 96 he was the master of all his trades, the Jack of none.
It is difficult to imagine a world without George. Even in his nineties he had more energy than most twentysomethings, planning schemes that would take a decade to come to fruition and fretting about events that will affect future generations.
When George decided to do something, it happened. Not least because his contacts list, with the likes of Angela Merkel and the Prince of Wales, made Who’s Who look like a list of non-entities. When George called, you were delighted to do whatever he asked.
He excelled at putting people together. When I profiled him last year, he said that the older he got, the easier it became: “I gather 70 years of activity so my networks are greater, things become much easier and I simply try to inspire other people. I try to bring people together and to encourage their natural contacts.”
But that was always his way. When he wrote a piece for The Times welcoming German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first call he received was from Helmut Kohl asking him to lunch at the “Bungalow in Bonn’’, a lunch which ended up lasting more than three hours.
“Are there others like you?” Kohl asked. When George said yes, Kohl said “find them for me”, picked up the phone to the president of the Bertelsmann Stiftung and told him: “I want you to finance a bi-annual conference to talk about German-Jewish and German-Israeli relationships”.
That emerged as the German Jew- ish Dialogue. Kohl became a personal friend, and came to George’s birthday party with his “side-kick”, one Angela Merkel. She then, when she was a junior minister, regularly invited George to her constituency to take part in an annual seminar on foreign affairs. When she became Chancellor she treated him as an informal adviser.
It would require an entire issue of the JC to list his lifetime’s projects, but at 96 the current range of his projects and links was astonishing, from fundraising for a series of professorships of modern Israel studies to working on his think-tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which (among many other things) arranges scholarships to Oxford and meetings between leading politicians and cultural figures.
He was joint chairman of the Blavatnik School of Government’s International Advisory Board at Oxford, which works with another of his creations — the Weidenfeld Hoffman scholarships, a form of Rhodes Scholarship for Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East.
He held honorary doctorates from Oxford, Exeter University and King’s College; Fellowships of St Anne’s and St Peter’s Colleges, Oxford; a post as a Senator of Bonn University; an honorary degree from Vienna University; and the highest orders in Germany, Italy and Austria. And he was awarded the GBE, which has only ever been given to four Jews (Herbert Samuel, Victor and Jacob Rothschild and George) and which made him the most decorated Jew in Britain.
George was born in Vienna in 1919 and fled to London in 1938 after the Anschluss. Taken in by the Plymouth Brethren, he spent the rest of his life showing us that he was the greatest gift Vienna has ever given this country.
Last year he launched the Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund to rescue 2,000 Christians from IS-held areas in Syria and Iraq.
“I had a debt to repay”, as he put it. “It applies to so many of the young people who were on the Kindertransport. It was Quakers and other Christian denominations who brought those children to England. It was a very high-minded operation and we Jews should also be thankful and do something for the endangered Christian.” He went on: “Isis is unprecedented in its primitive savagery compared with the more sophisticated Nazis... When it comes to pure lust for horror and sadism, they are unprecedented. There never was such scum as these people.”
In his later years, George was driven by the need to awaken people to the danger posed by radical Islam and the likes of IS. Most traditional antisemitism, he believed, is now almost an irrelevance which can be dealt with through savvy and effort. Where it remains dangerous is when it is focused on Israel, under the guise of anti-Zionism. His motivation, he told me last year, was to make us all aware that much of this is a matter of life and death — of Israel’s life, and the West’s, too. “My starting point is the assumption that we are not morbid, and that we choose life over death.”
The roots of his extraordinary career lie in his first job after arriving in Britain, working with the BBC’s monitoring service then swiftly becoming a political commentator and newspaper columnist. In that capacity, he made contact with governments in exile, befriending the likes of de Gaulle and Tito. Speaking to such people became entirely normal for George.
In 1948, he met Nigel Nicolson and they decided to start an upmarket magazine, a mix of the New Statesman, the New Yorker and Fortune. But
the wartime paper ban remained, and a clever lawyer suggested a way round it by printing some of the content between hard covers and calling it a book, and, to avoid any problems with the authorities, also printing some genuine books. Thus was Weidenfeld and Nicolson born.
No sooner had he started the business than he took a sabbatical to work as Chaim Weizmann’s chief of cabinet. He told me once he was “dumbfounded” to get the job. Weizmann, and Israel, were lucky to have him.
I have been privileged to meet many wonderful people. But I have no doubt at all that the greatest of them all was George Weidenfeld, and I feel honoured to have called him a friend.
Lord Weidenfeld, man of many parts, who died on Wednesday
The Berlin Wall’s fall was marked in a three-hour lunch with Helmut Kohl
Angela Merkel, Lord Weidenfeld, Helmut Schmidt, Richard von Weizsaecker, and Henry Kissinger