Merchant of Death
‘The Mystery Man of Europe’
Reputedly one of the richest men in the world, Basil Zaharoff was a wealthy and psychotic arms dealer. Zaharoff was known as the “Merchant of Death,” the “Mystery Man of Europe” and eventually “Sir,” due to his being such an evil genius that the British had no choice but to knight him.
Zaharoff had three rules he would always live by; that the best way to gain influence over a man was through a woman, that one should bet on all sides in a contest, but bet the most on the strongest man, and in politics, one should “begin on the left…and then work over to the right…”. Zaharoff excelled in bribery, blackmail, with a reputation for having competitors assassinated.
Sinister, mysterious, credited with vast influence, this man who evoked such fierce passions that he was also branded the ‘High Priest of War’, a man who had risen from obscure origins in Asia Minor to control a worldwide empire. His trade was arms, anything that fired, floated, submerged and – later – flew. His life spanned the muzzle-loading musket and the prototype Spitfire.
Zaharoff started his career of villainy modestly, as an arsonist for the Constantinople firefighters. Yes, you read that correctly. The corrupt Turkish fire department actually hired people to start fires in rich people’s houses so firefighters could go in and steal all their belongings. It was fun as far as evil enterprises go, but Zaharoff had grander aspirations.
He later became a huge-time international arms dealer for Swedish munitions company Thorsten Nordenfelt, but with a twist: Zaharoff figured that the best way to make a living selling weapons was to first create demand by starting a bunch of wars, so that’s exactly what he did.
After selling the world’s first submarine to the Greeks, Zaharoff went running to the Turkish government to tell them what he’d done. Understandably frightened, the Turks bought two submarines of their own. Realizing he had a good thing going, Zaharoff then went to Russia and helpfully informed them that Greece and Turkey were stocking up on submarines, and furthermore, he’d heard them saying that Russians were a bunch of idiots. So Russia bought some subs. The icing on the cake was that much of the product that Zaharoff was shilling was faulty, overpriced garbage. His submarines fell apart as soon as they tried to fire a torpedo.