Intolerance is more dangerous than Nazism or Fascism or Communism.
We are having lunch in the bow-windowed living room in Lord Weidenfeld’s beautiful apartment on Chelsea Embankment, overlooking the Thames. There are books everywhere, a piano, and Old Master paintings hanging on the walls. Lord Weidenfeld, who will celebrate his 95th birthday in both New York and Berlin in the Autumn, is very lively, extremely polite and conducts a fascinating conversation.
He is, as always, very concerned by the subject of peace, and by Israel, where he goes often. He talks about a lecture by Henry Kissinger that he attended the night before at the Royal Academy, and the following dinner given by Lord Rothschild at Spencer House. Kissinger is one of Weidenfeld’s oldest friends; they met in London when they were both in their twenties.
“Henry was a young professor at Harvard and I was a young publisher,” says Weidenfeld, who published Kissinger’s first book. I ask if they speak German together and he answers that they speak English. Lately Weidenfeld is often in Berlin and he is very close to the Springer family. In their headquarters in Berlin in 2015 he would like to organize an important conference with all the major “peace fighters”.
We talk about Jerusalem, the importance of the Catholic Church, not only as a religion but also as an extraordinary organization that has lasted for 2000 years. The Catholics and the Jews are natural best friends in his view. He tells me that in the whole world there are 12 million Jews, which is a very small number in front of the 3 billion Christians and Muslims. Weidenfeld has devoted his life to culture, human sciences, politics and peace.
We start our lunch with a delicious Vichyssoise and Lord Weidenfeld tells me:
“I was recently made an Honorary Vice President of the World Jewish Congress. The Chairman is Ronald S. Lauder and David de Rothschild is Chairman of the Governors. You know, first of all I would like to tell you about my three basic loyalties.”
Yes, tell me.
“The first one is to my family and the Jewish tribe, and that means that I am an active Zionist. Sometimes in a large family you can prefer one cousin to another. My second loyalty is to Britain, who saved my life and my parents’ life from the Nazis and gave me the opportunity of a wonderful career and a full recognition. The third loyalty is to the great European Civilization: literature, philosophy and music, transmitted to me in the German language and context. I have a strong emotional attachment to what I will call “real Germany”.
“In the worst period of my life I never condemned the real Germany or Italy because of the Fascist or Nazi Intermezzo. I believe that the way Germany has rebuilt herself after the loss of lots of German land to become the leader of Europe, having excellent relationships with its ten neighbours, is one of the greatest achievements for a nation. This is thanks to a policy of “fulfillment” and not of terror. Thanks largely to such individuals as Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl, Schmidt and Merkel.”
What are the main issues for you today?
“Jihadism, to fight against intolerance. It is more dangerous than Nazism or Fascism or Communism.”
“An SS man or a Gulag attendant justified their cruelty in the name of Hitler or Stalin. A jihadist thinks he has Allah in his pocket. It is very difficult to fight. It is cruel and international. It does not only affect the so called Arab Spring countries, but also Africa, Boston Massachusetts, the suburbs of London. It has to be fought very systematically. It must not be the subject of attenuating circumstances. They have to be seen as enemies of mankind and punished accordingly.”
What’s going on with Russia? Is America weak?
“We are suffering from the fact that the President of USA is successful in internal American politics, he is a very good orator, but he has, in my view, failed in Foreign Affairs. I attribute to him some of the disasters in Syria and his inept handling of relations with Putin. The deal between Obama and Putin regarding the location and destruction of poison gas is a very immoral affair. In other words, it says that if Assad delivers his stocks of Chlorine Gas he can go on killing people as before and we guarantee no military intervention from West or East. There will be no substantial help to the rebels. We have now as latest information that Assad on his way to victory is using gas of Chinese provenance.
“The peace talks with Iran have lifted the Russian leader to a sort of Bismarck of our times. As for Iran, it is very naïve of Obama to believe that a rigid, authoritarian theocracy would give in on one of its most important issues, like the forging of an atomic bomb. From the Human Rights world we know that the new leader in Iran has increased the number of executions, radical amputations and other horrible practices. If Obama is on one side the man who captured and killed Bin Laden, yet on the other side he opened the road to victory for President Assad and has complicated the road to preventing the Iranian Bomb.”
And what about Europe?
“There is no doubt that Putin keeps his options open and he is testing the ground. If he felt that the West had a tough and solid policy he could always put on the brakes and, for instance, if the West shows a lack of will, nervousness, weakness, he can always manoeuvre in a more bellicose direction.
“But I must say that the time should soon come where the West has a major conference, with all the cards on the table, with the more militant pacifists, to discuss all together the relations with Russia. Leading western diplomats ranging from Kissinger to the Clintons, McKane, one of the Bushes as well as Genscher, Giscard, Monti, Schmidt and leading Russians, preferably to be held in Berlin. It would be very timely. It would be better if, in addition to this group of people, some western leaders and Putin himself would find the time to be there. It would be an important international Forum to table the relations between the west and Russia. This would be fundamental for peace.
“A Berlin Congress in 2015 would be like the one that took place in Berlin at the end of the 19th Century where Bismarck, Disraeli and Gorchakov succeeded in preventing a major world war through statesmanship and mutual concession and they came out with a system, until it broke down into the noises of the guns in 1914…. It would also be very good to revisit the San Francisco Conference of 1945 and extend the Security Council, including Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and, subject to more reassuring evidence of its internal politics, the Union of South Africa.”
What about your job? Are you still a publisher?
“I go to my office every day. Our firm is part of the Hachette Group, going through a new global age because of its many successes. My job is to be the Non-executive Chairman, which means to produce ideas for books. I am also a Director of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is going completely online.”
And your academic involvement?
“It is a very important part of my work. We created at my original suggestion the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford, similar to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Then the Weidenfeld Scholarships, where we invite students from Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East to spend two years in Oxford. Now we are collaborating with the Dreyfus Fund and we also accept students from India, China and Latin America.”
What about your personal life?
“I have been happily married to Annabelle for 21 years; she is very much involved with music. For years she was the companion of Arthur Rubinstein.”
The interview is finishing, but Lord Weidenfeld likes to talk, to remember with me when he was the Chief of Cabinet for Chaim Weizmann, when he was a young publisher and worked a lot with the Mondadori family and spent his holidays in Tuscany with Marguerite Duras, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Guido Piovene, the young Inge Feltrinelli… He remembers his youth in Vienna, his love for German culture, his first years in London when he was working at BBC Radio and did some admirable imitations of Adolf Hitler that were broadcast.
He speaks about Vienna and the Sacher Hotel in Vienna, where he was staying at the same time as Graham Greene, who had the idea of The Third Man, a marvellous film starring among others Orson Welles and Alida Valli. Then he tells me stories about his mother; and it is an endless, marvellous stream of wonderful stories and experiences that have made his life like a very long and passionate novel that he has not yet written or published.
When I leave I am moved. I think that people like Weidenfeld are quite unique and I am amazed by the fact that he never gives up and keeps on making new projects as if he was a very young man.
London, May 20th, 2014