Booking a Place in History

The publisher George Weidenfeld has died at the age of 96. In 2009, he looked back at an eventful life and forward to his vision of the future in a dialogue with historian Andrew Roberts and the editor of Standpoint, Daniel Johnson.

I wanted to talk to you about the beginning of your life here, because it seems to me that there have been three major countries that have played a big role in your life. One was England. One was Germany-Austria, a place you came from and which you’ve now dedicated so much of your life to reconciliation with. And finally, Israel. 

When you came to England, in 1938, central Europe was collapsing; you were fleeing a burning house, as it were, and you had to leave behind your family — your father in particular was in prison. Can you talk about how that felt, and what England must have meant to you then? How easy was it to be accepted here? 

George Weidenfeld: I was 19, in my first year at university in Vienna, and I was studying law. At the same time, as was the custom, I went to a thing called the Consular Academy — a diplomatic school which was founded by the Empress Maria Theresa on the assumption that a Christian gentleman can automatically be a diplomat, but to be sent to the East you had to have special preparation. So she started the Oriental Consular Academy, which then became the Diplomatic Academy. 

This turned out to be a tremendous lifeline because it focused very much on foreign languages. And so I studied four or five languages at the same time. 

My father was in jail. He was the director of an insurance company, which was asked by the pre-Nazi government, as many other big companies were, to divest some of its assets to help the propaganda war against the Nazis. So when the Nazis came to power they put some people who were on the board in prison, saying that they had used their money to fight against the Third Reich. So he was in jail, which proved a blessing in disguise because even in the pseudo justice that was still prevailing in those days it meant that you could have a lawyer, you could sit in prison instead of in a concentration camp, you could see your family once a week, and so on. 

I saw him for the last time before I left and he signed some document saying that I was no longer a minor. My father stayed in prison until June 1939. By that time I was already in London, with a BBC contract in my possession, and I brought my parents out of Austria. I arrived in London with 16 shillings and sixpence which I was allowed to export in postal orders, and went to a refugee organisation who gave you a pound a week and signed you up to an inferior boarding house. I was misled into thinking it was going to be a grand house in Belgrave Square, because on the boat from Calais to Dover an Egyptian student gave me a list with a boarding house in Belgrove Square, near King’s Cross. So I appeared in Belgrave Square in refugee clothes, a long overcoat and so on, a suitcase, and the butler opened the door, and it was Chips Channon’s house! And he told me I’d got the wrong address. So I went to Belgrove Square in King’s Cross, a horrible place, and stayed there. 

After a few weeks of these adventures I landed in Woburn House where there were high-minded Jewish gentleman and ladies using their free time or lunch hours to help refugees. And one such day there was Evelyn Rothschild’s mother, and she said, “Young men like you shouldn’t live in this boarding house,” so she assigned me to a family of Plymouth Brethren who lived in Parliament Hill Fields — angelic people who tried hard to turn me into a Plymouth Brother. They didn’t succeed but they took it very well. 

I stayed with these people until one day, my landlord was reading something out loud at the breakfast table. I think it was the right front-page end of The Times, before the ads, and there was a quotation from scripture which said something like “Who dares, wins.” And he said to me: “Something’s going to happen to you.” Lo and behold ,on page 34-5 was a double spread ad for the BBC, who were preparing for a national emergency: foreign linguists needed. I said, “Listen, I’m 19, there must be Nobel prize-winners among those refugees,” and he said, “Oh no, it’s what the scripture said.”

So I went to Regent’s Park Hotel, where there was a very nice woman who wrote letters for commercial travellers, helped people answer advertisements and so on. I asked if she could do something nicely typed for me, and she did. And a week later I get a letter from the BBC asking if I’d come to a test in French. A few out of a hundred people were chosen for a second interview in Italian, and after the Italian test I get a wonderful letter saying, “You’re hereby offered employment for either three months, or the duration of a national emergency — whichever is the shorter.” Because they were of course thinking it was going to be another Munich. 

So I was asked to go to a secret place — Broadcasting House — and was then evacuated to Evesham, where I spent the first two and a half years as a monitor. But I soon created a job for myself there: I found that there was a discrepancy between the German style of BBC broadcasting to the Germans, and the new German-speak (or the Nazi speak). We had too many émigrés who were still speaking Weimar German. So I made this point and produced a daily paper called Germany Day by Day (Deutschland Spiegel), and I quoted all kinds of things for counter-propaganda. 

And then they gave me the job, with 20 people on my staff, of organising three daily papers, in German, French and Italian, three daily selections of propaganda. I came to the notice of Richard Crossman, the head of counter-propaganda, and he gave me an assignment to be the liaison between his people and the propaganda people of the BBC.  

My job introduced me to all kinds of people, including Harold Nicolson, who was a governor of the BBC. And I then got the job, for the last three years of the war, as diplomatic correspondent for Europe. I had to go and see the various Allied governments and get stories out of Occupied Europe, and discuss important issues like post-war aims, frontiers and so on. Therefore I became friendly with Beneš, and had access to de Gaulle (although I mustn’t exaggerate, because I saw him about four times during the war).

Part of my remit was to deal with the freedom movements not yet governing — the Free Germans, the Free Austrians, the Free Italians — and I did three or four programmes a day. Included in this was the Zionist Organisation. 

Now having been a Zionist boy at home for three or four years, belonging to its student corps, I was invited to meet Chaim Weizmann, and he took a shine to me. And then in 1945 he was ousted from the leadership of the Zionist Organisation and replaced by David Ben-Gurion, who was an activist and anti-British. 

Weizmann was living at the Dorchester and he befriended me. When Israel was born I was already in publishing, having first started with Contact magazine, and then with Nicolson’s firm, and Weizmann invited me to Israel for a fortnight as a guest. While I was there, people came up to me, particularly the Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and said, “Look, the old man likes you. Ben-Gurion and he don’t get on. We need some sort of liaison person as his chef de cabinet but from outside, because we don’t want any inside people being involved.”  

And what’s more, they said, “We know you don’t speak any Hebrew, we know you’re very young, but you must be primus inter pares” — in other words, being the chef de cabinet of the head of state means that you need to rank at least as an equal, if not a senior, to the head of the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and so on. 

I was in a terrible state, having sleepless nights not knowing what to do. There I was with Nicolson’s money, and other people’s money, having started this firm quite promisingly. So I went to Harold Nicolson and asked him what to do. And he said: “If I don’t let you go and contractually force you to stay here, you’ll never forgive me, you’ll think everything went wrong because of it. If I let you go for ever we’ll go broke, and we don’t have all that much money to lose. So go for a year — give me your word of honour you’ll come back.” Which I did. The Israelis thought I was coming for good, they thought I was just being cautious by saying I’d only come for a year. So at the end of the time Weizmann was not best pleased that I’d left him. But I made a dramatic gesture when I went to see Sharett, saying, “Moshe, if I leave you now, every day I will get up with the thought of Jerusalem and I’ll go to bed with the thought of Jerusalem. I’m yours. I’m not a religious person but I think the coat of arms of the state will always determine my life.” And it’s the truth.

DJ: It’s fascinating that you played such an important role in the creation of Israel. 

GW: Well, I was a witness and a carrier of messages, and gave background information that they needed: they were starting a diplomatic service from nothing, had a junior Oxford don as the first head of the Foreign Office, Walter Eytan Ettingshausen. And after all the war had given one contacts and insights into the British mentality.

Andrew Roberts: Did you use the British institutions as the template?

GW: Yes I did, with institutions like the BBC for propaganda. I had about six months to organise a campaign called “Operation Jerusalem”, which was to fight in the United Nations for the retention of the New City. You must realise that Jerusalem was not, and is still not, technically recognised as Israel’s capital. There are no embassies in Jerusalem. They’re all in Tel Aviv. 

I had to prove, paradoxically, that the New City, where we were — the Old City was in Jordanian hands — had no value in terms of old shrines and holy places. I was given one million pounds, which in those days was an awful lot, to start a campaign. Anyhow, this gave me a fantastic insight into how to do this sort of thing because I was given carte blanche to do what was needed. So I had pamphlets and books made, films, radio programmes, I brought artists like Topolski and John Minton to Israel to create lovely drawings. That was my sort of farewell to Israel. 

AR: When you came back from Israel and took over Weidenfeld & Nicolson on a day-to-day basis, to what extent were your decisions about the books that you were publishing and the authors that you were choosing conditioned by your overall weltanschauung?

GW: The list was very European-oriented, in the sense that this was my only chance of making an impression. We didn’t have the reputation, the money, the experience or the contacts to compete with firms like Heinemann and Collins, who got the big British authors. But because of my talent for languages and my contacts I was able to go over to France and get de Gaulle’s memoirs, and I would get Romain Gary and Henry de Montherlant.

AR: Could you make money publishing French memoirs?

GW: Yes, and of course there was the British interest in the Third Reich and Nazi Germany. There still is today. Cyril Connolly had a very amusing explanation of why we all read, and still read, books about the Third Reich. He said, “You know, it’s like a family in a suburb who have an unexploded bomb in their garden. First they go to the underground cellar. Then they come up and see this unexploded bomb, and they fall in love with the bomb. And it’s part of the family, they build an herbaceous border around it, and it stays there. And yet the plane is still roaring overhead.” It’s a brilliant description and it’s perfectly true. Because you read the horrible things that have happened, but think it’s no longer possible, when in fact it is. 

AR: So when you published Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich you knew that this was going to be a massive bestseller, but were you criticised for doing it? 

GW: I was criticised by a lot of people who said I did too many books on Germany. But, with the exception of Speer, who had me fooled, what I did was add introductions by English authors, and then the German authors didn’t get a penny of royalties from it. There would be books on the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss with an introduction by Alan Bullock, or Hugh Trevor-Roper editing and talking about Hitler’s letters. 

AR: But were you criticised by Jews?

GW: By Jews. But other people saw the point — that it was very important to have a horrible book like the one on Commandant Höss with an introduction psychoanalysing his mentality. Speer was the only one I believed in because of his openness, his frankness and his remorse, but now I believe he was the worst, because he was so clever.

AR: What persuaded you? Was it the biography by Gitta Sereny? 

GW: No, it was much more specialised technical literature from Germany by Berlin professors who proved that Speer knew about the Holocaust and that he inspected the machines. But this was much later.

At the time, there was a moment when he had me saying he was a scoundrel one minute, and then, “By God, you’re an honest and brave man” the next. How? This is what happened: before we published his book, which we did, we had a very close friendship and business relationship with Michael and Pamela Berry, and when the Sunday Telegraph serial was created, Michael Berry gave me a retainer to help him look for serial material, as the Sunday Times had a virtual monopoly on serialisations. 

When Pamela came in with me bidding for the Speer memoirs and they bought them and I did the book, it came to the point where we wanted to meet Speer for the first time, and he’d only recently been released. So we decided to have a dinner party for Speer, Pamela, Gordon Brook-Shepherd (who was then the diplomatic correspondent handling the serial), myself and one or two Germans. 

Speer’s English was correct-to-perfect, but it was very tiring — they asked him lots of questions, “What was Hitler really like?” and so on, and by midnight he was exhausted. And when the party broke up into private conversations I said, “Professor Speer, just tell me one or two things. What made Himmler so important? Because from all we know, he was a mediocre man.” “No,” he said, “this man had a genius for finding the best people.” And as soon as he’d said it, he knew what he was saying, and added, “But [he was] a man of satanic disposition.” That pause of four seconds made me think, “My God.” 

And then he made it good again. What did he do? He said, “I must tell you now: Hitler had a magnetic personality. I risked my life, having defied his orders, having countermanded the famous Operation Nero in which I would have destroyed all German industry. I went to say goodbye in the bunker and he could have had me killed. He wouldn’t shake my hand at the end. I left crying.” I assumed that he must be honest to tell that story. Who would tell such a story? But that was all calculated, he was a brilliant maître en scène.

AR: When you came away from meetings like that, did you take notes? Did you keep diaries?

GW: Yes I made notes, very few though, as I’m rather lazy. I made notes on Speer, and also on a memorable weekend with LBJ, which I’ll never forget. It was weeks after he had resigned, or retired. We published his memoirs, and Lady Bird’s memoirs (and Mrs Reagan’s memoirs). Of course the women’s memoirs outsold the President’s ten to one, because Johnson said nothing! As he said, people want to read about the orange tea set in the White House, and he said nothing. 

But he said a lot in private to me. He described his attitude and policy for the Six Day War to me. This is a very important thing for me, because if you ask people on the street about the American-Israeli friendship, most would say that it was set in stone. Not at all. For the first 20 years of the state of Israel, America was very cool to hostile. France was the great friend — France produced the Mirages and the Mystères that defeated the Arabs in the Six Day War; France constructed the nuclear reactor in Dimona to the last detail with Shimon Peres; France gave Israel backing in the UN.  

De Gaulle liked the Israelis, he liked Ben-Gurion, and Ben-Gurion loved him, but he felt two things. One is raison d’état; I’ll do anything for France. And also he quite disliked the idea of a comradeship of equals. He wanted to be the Protector. And from one day to another, he said, “I don’t need you any more.”

DJ: You were saying very interesting things at the beginning, before we had the recorder on, about how you see the future of this civilisation, which you have done so much to preserve and foster as a publisher and as a go-between.

GW: I’m going to tell you a story. Had I not been a publisher I would have loved to have been a professional historian, and my two particular subjects would have been the counter-reformation, and the history of the Catholic Church. I’m afraid I’m an agnostic — my Judaism is tribal and about ancestors, about the coat of arms of the state, not the synagogue (although I have great respect for the ultra-Orthodox, because they breed children) — and the same goes for Catholicism. 

Cardinal König was a great friend — came to my wedding, came to the evening before — and he saw my interest in the Papacy and the history of the Church, and he said at one point: “May I take it, in all frankness, that you are coming closer to us?” as if to convert me. And I said, “Not at all! I don’t believe in it, but I love the power and the organisation of the Church.” That’s what interests me about it — how the Catholic Church has managed to be there for 2,000 years. 

AR: With regard to Iran, can you see the day approaching when Israel will be forced alone to attempt to prevent Iran from becoming a military nuclear power?

GW: I think it would be a disaster if Israel did it alone. They can only do it with the help of the United States. 

AR: Could you see Obama ever bombing Iran?

GW: The jury’s out on Obama, altogether. He may well be the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened. He may not. Let’s try and analyse the evidence at the moment, which we can take from his Cairo speech. North Korea has become even more impertinent and Iran has a President for whom I’m afraid I predict a few more years in power, including some brutal repression. Again I go back to the 1930s and see how these initial anti-Nazi stirrings in Germany meant nothing in the end — that there were rebellious brownshirts, people in the higher echelons of the army, and Hitler dealt with them in his own way. And some people say that the president will be in for another four or five years before these stirrings become more important, because the opposition is very discouraged and disappointed by our reaction. It is a terrible dilemma. 

I believe, whilst making these imprecise comparisons, that these people are more dangerous than the Nazis. And this is because if you weren’t a homosexual, a Jew, or a Roma, and were prepared to live quietly, you had a very good time in the Third Reich. Why not? Nobody bothered you if you weren’t one of these or didn’t have any hang-ups on liberty. 

But these people, with their prescriptive cradle-to-grave thing, their definite determinism about the 13th Imam and the Caliphate, are not reasonable people. The communists, above all, were pupils of Hegel and Marx. But when you say to these people that there’ll be no export of oil if they dominate the Strait of Hormuz, they just say, “Wonderful! Capitalism would disappear, then the whole world would collapse, and the 13th Imam will be here sooner.”

AR: But do you think that the Iranians would, if they got the nuclear bomb, one day use it against Israel?                                  

GW: Their hates in descending order of importance are the following. Number one: the Guardians of the Shrines of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi Arabian royal family, and the Saudi regime. Number two: the apostates in the Sunni camp and all over the place. Number three: the great state of America. Number Four: the Jews. 

But in order to rally the street and make them forget their differences you can always go for the Jews and say incinerate Israel. They have no intention of incinerating it, not because they wouldn’t like to, but because they think it’s too dangerous because of the second strike. But what they will do is use this thing, therefore making it impossible for peace between the Israelis and the Arabs, because the street will always say, “We have the Iranians, and they want to get rid of Israel, so why should we make any concessions?” 

Israel has lived in this way 40 years, or 60 years. The Latin Kingdom of the crusaders lasted 99 years, Israel has now lasted 60, and long before 99 years they’re going to be all screwed up. They will be eroded like the Christians in Lebanon. They [its enemies] won’t have to kill a million; they will just go. The strength of Israel is its high-tech business, and Israelis can do this anywhere in the world — they can go to America, the doors will open to them.  

That’s why Mr Lieberman and Mr Netanyahu should not be regarded as cretins, or fools, or fanatics — they know exactly what they’re saying. What the Iranians will do is give Hizbollah and Hamas dirty bombs and create havoc, and Iran, which is 90 million strong, and growing, will be the most important power in the Middle East. 

AR: Do you not see Israel even existing as a Jewish state in, say, a hundred years’ time?

GW: No, I do, because it has the courage to withstand. It will remain. It will be in danger, and it will have to look after its own interests, find alliances where it can, and realise that there are divisions among its enemies that might be stronger than the danger to themselves. 

Did you have to, in your school days, memorise Cicero’s speeches? Cicero’s great speech against Catilina-“Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?”, how long will you abuse our patience? When I hear this,  when I hear about Gaza, when I hear about the Jenin “massacre”, I get crazy, I get mad. You see, what is an appropriate retaliation when 20 per cent of your population is subjected to air raids, and when your children can’t go to school?

And on the other side, Jenin turned out to be the most brilliant PR opportunity — 45 people killed, and the Palestinians made out that 4,000 had been massacred. And then it is always reported like this ever since, young journalists look up the file and it says “Jenin: massacre.” The same is true of Sabra and Chatila — terrible stories, but who did the killing? I’m afraid, Lebanese Christians. But the propaganda is always that the Jews did it. Sharon pulls out of Gaza and 8,000 settlers leave their homes, and the result is more rockets: this is the situation.

AR: Of course, but the fact is that the Israelis, for all that they should be brilliant propagandists, never seem to be. You get some people, Tom Gross being a good example, who put out the truth on a regular basis. And sometimes they have good ambassadors, like they do in London at the moment  —he’s excellent. But by and large the Israelis don’t do themselves any favours on the propaganda front. You mentioned ’67, the Six-Day War, earlier, and the key moment when the Left effectively forsook Israel.

GW: I think 90 per cent, 85 per cent, of the Left has abandoned Israel, and I would say that 20 per cent of the Right is still anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. But broadly speaking, what I would call the centre Right, the Thatcherite Right, the Kohl Right, were our best friends. 

I have very strong views on how the boycott in the universities would be best met: not through letters to the editor and so on. I am in the process of setting up six Chairs of Modern Israel Studies — this is a new thing called “Area Studies”, in other words, it’s not about studying the Bible and ancient history, but by starting in 1947. And I’ve now got two already fixed: a very ambitious chair for £3.6 million in Oxford, and a ten-year Chair at King’s College London.

AR: There’s also one being set up by the journalist Jeff Randall in Nottingham. He is raising £1.5 million for a full professorship, and he’s not Jewish or anything.

GW: I’m now trying to set up chairs in Sussex and other universities, and they have a particular reason in each case. One in Manchester, which will be called the Weizmann Chair, and one in Bradford, where half of the student population is Muslim. The other will be at either Leeds or Glasgow. And it’s almost more difficult to get the professors than the money.

AR: But how will they interact, how will the boycott affect them? Because they’re bound to be, especially in Bradford, tremendously controversial.

GW: They’re brave people to take on the job because they’ll be more than professors of studies — they become rallying points for information. For the sake of argument, if you’re a professor of Israel Studies in, say, Manchester and a medical student comes to you and says, “Is it true that you’re poisoning all the wells?” he’d say no, it’s not true, but I tell you what is true — the number of outpatients at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem is greater for Arabs than for Jews. And I think this kind of information will make an enormous difference.  

AR: And what has happened to you, politically, since ’67? Obviously you sit as a cross-bencher, but where would you feel your loyalties in British politics lie?

GW: Today I would with some reluctance vote for the Conservatives. I say with some reluctance because I disapprove of their European policy — that’s the only thing. Otherwise they’re very nice individual people. I have a high regard for Michael Gove, and for Pauline Neville-Jones, and what I know of George Osborne, who I’ve met a few times, I like very much. I distrust the foreign policy of William Hague, who is a highly intelligent man, but I don’t know Cameron. But basically I think I would choose them rather than the other side. 

My view is this: whatever opinion we may have held on Europe, all of us, looking into the future — into the 21st century, not to the next election, to 2030, ’40, ’50 — it requires a concentration of America, Europe and Russia to hold their own against the giants of the East. Not to confront and gang up against them, but trade with them prosperously and peacefully.

AR: By “giants of the East”, you mean obviously China and India in an economic sense.

GW: In every sense!

AR: But do you also, with regard to Islam and Islamic fundamentalism, see Russia as key to the defence of Western civilisation against that?

GW: Yes, I see Russia as the eastern flank of the Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman world. When I go and see the Mariinsky Theatre, or talk to its director Valery Gergiev, or read some of the scholarly books that have come out of Russia, I say that these people are our cousins.

AR: Are you disappointed by Putin’s revanchism?

GW: I am working now in my institute on a project called Ameurus, America-Europe-Russia. It’s a long-term thing, and it’s a triangular group, a standing committee of people who say, “To reason doesn’t mean to appease, we don’t offer the other cheek, we’re fully aware of what is being done badly by Russia, and fully aware of what was the bad past after the implosion of the Soviet regime, but we have to gradually, by reasoning, get them to be where we are friendly, where a partnership for peace between the Russian forces and Nato is not an empty phrase but a reality, and where there is a modicum of human rights.” I’m not going into the details of whether they should copy our institutions of democracy, and they have different traditions. As long as they have no Sharia and they have no Lubyanka — that is what matters to me. Not whether they have this or that system of democratic election. But I do believe this is the future and we have to be very, very careful and therefore Europe has to be united.

AR: There’s a great nobility, it seems to me, in a man of 90 to be looking forward to what you call “the long term”, to 40 or 50 years in the future.

GW: It’s the only way I can think. The older I am, the more I think of the future. First of all I think of my grandchildren, and secondly I can’t afford to sit back because I won’t be there, but I can therefore think about it. I’m only interested in long-term things; I’m not interested in elections in Newcastle and so on. If I were 30 years younger I would come to you and Niall Ferguson and start a thing called the “Three Ms” — the Movement of the Militant Middle. The “Three Ms” would have the same kind of vigour and passion and fanaticism for the middle ground — for what we call the Graeco-Roman, Judao-Christian thing — that the extremists have for their ideals. 

AR: What do you think about your legacy — what would you like your legacy to be?

GW: I would like to see a harmonious Kissingerian balance of power, for peace — like in 1815 and 1878, not like 1914 — in which there is a commonality. Not an institutional commonality, but a political, cultural commonality between all the people living between Vancouver and Vladivostock, as belonging together. That is my earnest hope.

AR: And you personally; what would you like people to say about you and your life, and the way you’ve contributed to that dream?

GW: Look, I don’t take myself as seriously as other people take me — I sometimes say to myself, “My God, it’s like Groucho Marx — is it worth being in a club that has me as an honoured member?” But no, I’m not trying to be overly modest, but equally I’m not overbearing. My policy is as I say: I want to see the Jewish people and the state of Israel secure and remaining what it is; and I want to see an Ameurus in which the ideas that I cherish, which are the Graeco-Roman, Judeo-Christian values, are represented in that bloc of about a billion people with a sort of friendly relationship and hopefully a degree of human rights, attaining what people would agree is a good life.

DJ: You could be forgiven for having a love-hate relationship with the Germans.

GW: I’ve always had a great love for German language and literature. I am an only child and did a lot of reading, a lot of theatre, I read a lot of plays. Papa had a specialised library of plays, and so I read a lot of that. 

I loved German music, and loved looking at the greater Germany across the border from Austria, as one big democratic country. And this love has never been completely displaced, even in the worst moments, because equally I’ve seen a lot of examples in my personal relationships of people who have behaved well towards me, Germans who have helped me. So I was always trying, quite successfully I think, to separate Germany as an abstract notion from the specific hatred of Hitler, etc. 

Also, I believe that National Socialism and Hitler were eminently avoidable. It was made possible partly by the wrong attitude of the West towards him, and partly by the fact that if you study and take the last 18 months before he took power, under the microscope, you can see how much backstage intrigue there was, and how possible it might have been to prevent him. There was a moment when he was really on his way out, and then at that particular moment some miscalculating people, intriguers, said, “Now we’ve got him we can use him and then throw him away, we’re so much smarter than he is.” But he outsmarted them: this is the story of Hitler’s Germany.

DJ: But what about Germany today, because you’ve published so many of the memoirs of great statesmen like Helmut Kohl?

GW: I’m deeply impressed by the Germans, by what they’ve done. I cannot quantify the country, I cannot tell you that 18 per cent of people are wonderful guys, 80 per cent are not. But there is a kind of German who has overcome the Nazi past, who has a specific attitude towards democracy, towards Jews, towards the churches. Some of my best friends are there. I like many people in the new generation enormously, and I think they have been blessed with having very good politicians at key moments: the combination of Adenauer, Kohl, Merkel, and there’s a lot to be said for Brandt, Schmidt and even Schröder. 

I mean, Schröder made some mistakes on the question of the Iraq war and so on — not in the sense that he would not send some troops there, but that he didn’t do what Harold Wilson did so skilfully. Harold Wilson was asked by Johnson to get involved in Vietnam and he said, “I wish you luck. Ideologically I’m on your side, but there are a hundred reasons why I cannot do it.” Schröder could have done the same thing. Instead he said, “We’re not sending you anybody, and what’s more you’re doing a wicked thing.” 

So I say that they were blessed with having people who I call “fulfilment politicians”. Adenauer’s greatness was that he took things as they were and made the best out of it. 

If the Arabs had Adenauer and Mandela, they would today be a prosperous people. It is unbelievable how the Arab world is where it is now, with billions of refugees rotting in camps, in the slums of Cairo, the slums of the great cities — the refugee camps that I’ve seen in Gaza being Hollywood luxury villas compared to what goes on there. The rich, oil-producing countries have not produced the money to look after their own people.    

They’ve not produced anything that they can be really proud of. This is terrible, and I say this with great regret and pity, not with hate in any way. On the contrary. I have perhaps played down in this conversation the number of things I have done with Arabs and for Arabs. I’ve helped them set up a Booker prize, and helped the expansion of translation in the Arab world, and I have great friends in the Arab camp, in Morocco and Jordan, etc. 

But I think that the Germans today are in a key position geographically, politically and culturally. Geographically, because they are the ones who can build bridges with Russia. But a drawbridge, not a bridge: the concept of a bridge is misleading, because a bridge means neutrality, a bridge means I create a bridge for you from one part of the world to the other. The drawbridge is part of the West — it’s there and you can come in, but if you don’t want to, then it is drawn back.

DJ: So the Germans must still defend Western values?

GW: I see Germany as the drawbridge of the Western world, but a very solid one, and there’s room for the Russians to come in, or come back to the Peter the Great, Catherine the Great mentality, of a Western country. Germans are earnest people; they have gravitas, and they have an openness to the world. The positive preoccupation with Jewish issues, for instance, and of the contribution of Jews to the cultural elite and to the cultural history of Germany is another good thing. I find therefore that I feel very much at home there, but I can’t quantify it. And I believe that they have a great Chancellor — I believe that Angela Merkel is one of the most remarkable politicians alive today.

DJ: That’s an optimistic note to finish on, though you were saying earlier that in general you were rather pessimistic about Western culture.

GW: I am very pessimistic about the whole world, including Germany, from the point of view that, despite all of the good things, there is that feu sacré: that feeling that we must fight; we must do everything and sacrifice anything, rather than have an appeasing policy. 

By withdrawing, we are giving the other people tremendous hope. Look, if you’re an al-Qaeda man today, you read the papers, I’m sure they read things on the internet, and they know that all we want is to get out of everywhere, and then leave a vacuum. They step into the vacuum, and so it’s as easy and clear as day follows night.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"