Mystifying Death of a Media Mogul
Who finally stopped the bouncing Czech? The extraordinary life and death of Robert Maxwell.
In 1940, Jan Ludvik Hoch did what many young Jews in Eastern Europe were doing at that time, and ran away to England to fight the Nazis. The seventeen-year-old refugee then fought his way from the beaches of Normandy to the centre of Berlin. After the war he went on to become a publisher, a Labour MP, a football club owner, company chairman, owner of the Mirror Group Newspapers, owner of the New York Daily Times, embezzler and fraudster, before finally slipping from the back of his yacht and into oblivion. The official autopsy report concluded the cause of death had been ‘accidental drowning’, but, as in life, mystery shrouded the death of Jan Ludvik Hoch, a man who courted controversy from the moment he arrived in England and changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell.
Maxwell joined the British army under a series of aliases, presumably because the War Office had suggested refugee soldiers should serve under invented names in case they should be captured. Because he went by the name of Jones and du Maurier, in addition to Maxwell, it is hard to find out much about what he got up to in the Second World War, although he did earn himself a medal. This was in January 1945 when his unit, the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, were based at the River Mass in Holland. He had recently been promoted to second lieutenant and his men were tasked with clearing a block of flats occupied by German soldiers. Maxwell led the assault and charged straight for the building, drawing heavy fire. Luckily for him, although not so luckily for his future employees, every bullet aimed at him missed. It was an act of bravery that won him the Military Cross.
But not all of his wartime exploits were quite as distinguished. His authorized biographer, Joe Haines, reveals how Maxwell’s unit attempted to capture a German town by calling for the mayor to meet with Maxwell in a neutral location. He then told the mayor that the German soldiers would have to surrender or face destruction by mortar bombardment. In a letter to his wife, published in Haines’s book Maxwell (1988), he wrote: ‘But as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily he missed so I shot the mayor and withdrew.’ Maxwell showed no remorse at killing an unarmed man in cold blood, and it was a sign of things to come.
As the war drew to a close, Robert Maxwell found himself working for the Control Commission, an Allied organization formed to manage the economy, state industry and government of the defeated German people. His natural intelligence and gift for languages had been noticed by the High Command of the Allied forces, and he soon found himself organizing various sections of the West German services, including the national newspapers. Back in Britain, his entrepreneurial spirit was quickly in evidence and he became a shareholder in a London import and export company originally owned by a German, but Maxwell was soon in sole command.
Two years after the end of the war, Robert Maxwell’s company was distributing scientific literature and manuals to both Britain and America after a deal was hatched with the German publishing heavyweight Springer Verlag (later Axel Springer) that established Maxwell in the market place. Another two years would pass before he launched his own publishing company, Pergamon, after securing heavy investment from Springer. Such was his initial success he was able to buy Springer out of the contract and take over as sole owner, while settling into the business of becoming seriously wealthy during the 1950s.
In 1959 he became the Labour candidate for Buckingham and won the seat in 1964 as the new Labour government led by Harold Wilson swept into power. He remained an MP until 1970 when the Conservatives under Ted Heath defeated Wilson at the general election of that year. Maxwell also lost his seat but, by then, had already realized that true power lay in journalism: the pen really was mightier than the sword. In 1969 Maxwell had unsuccessfully tried to buy the News of the World, having been beaten to it by the Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch. Maxwell did not take defeat well and accused Murdoch of ‘employing the laws of the jungle’, claiming he had made a ‘fair and bona fide offer which has been frustrated and defeated over three months of cynical manoeuvring’. In response Murdoch stated that News of the World shareholders had judged him on his record of newspaper ownership in Australia and were confident in his ability. This was a clear slight on Maxwell’s character as well as the start of a bitter and lifelong rivalry between both men.
In 1969 Maxwell had opened negotiations with American businessman Saul Steinberg, who had declared an interest in buying Pergamon Press Ltd (PPL) on the understanding that the company was making vast profits. Discovering this to be untrue, the American, despite months of negotiations, abruptly pulled out of the proposed purchase. An investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry followed, in which inspectors revealed how transactions between private Maxwell companies had been used to inflate the PPL share price. Steinberg issued legal proceedings against the former MP and in 1974 it was discreetly announced in New York that he had received a payment of $6.3 million from Maxwell and his investment bankers. In their 1970 report the DTI inspectors had concluded: ‘Notwithstanding Mr Maxwell’s acknowledged ability and energy, he is not, in our opinion, a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.’
He lost control of Pergamon and so the company’s investment bankers appointed a new chairman in the shape of Sir Walter Coutts who, with three independent directors, reversed the fortunes of Pergamon spectacularly and returned control of the company to Maxwell in 1974. Naturally, the ‘bouncing Czech’ as he had become known due to his questionable integrity and to his ability to bounce back from adversity, claimed the credit for the successful turnaround of his company. Coutts was later quoted by a biographer as saying: ‘Maxwell has an ability to sublimate anything that stops him getting what he wants. He is so flexible he is like a grasshopper. There is no question of morality or conscience. Maxwell is Number One and what Maxwell wants is the most important thing and to hell with anything else.’
Building on the success of Pergamon, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers from Reed International for £113 million on 13 June 1984. Behind the scenes, he had already built up a mini empire consisting of, among other things, a record label, Nimbus Records, a printing company, a book publishing house, half of MTV Europe, 20 per cent of Central Television in Britain, a cable television company and two newspapers, the People and Sporting Life. As his empire, now called Maxwell Communications Corporation PLC, grew so did his interest and influence in politics, especially as one of his various companies published the speeches of Chernenko, Ceausescu, Brezhnev, Andropov, Kadar, Husak and other Eastern European leaders. He also published sycophantic biographies of world figures and used the opportunity to meet and interview them, which caused him to be ridiculed at home but strengthened his links with several totalitarian regimes.
Maxwell also claimed to have influence in Israel and during a magazine interview for Playboy he boasted that it was he who had been responsible for persuading Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to exercise restraint in the face of Scud missile attacks from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. What’s more, he also boasted of close ties with the Israeli secret service, Mossad; indeed after his death it was revealed that Maxwell had worked with the organization for many years and was known to a handful of elite Mossad agents by his codename ‘the Little Czech’.
Journalists would later point out how Maxwell’s companies would invariably take a downturn financially whenever Mossad was engaging in expensive covert operations, leading to speculation he was an important source of funds. Mossad was even rumoured to have funded Maxwell’s first big business venture, prompting suggestions that the whole of Maxwell’s business empire was in fact a Mossad fundraising venture. Stranger things have happened.
But in early 1991, the Little Czech was beginning to lose his bounce. A recent Panorama documentary for the BBC had drawn attention to the DTI’s conclusion in the 1970s and suggested Maxwell had been bolstering the MCC PLC share price through transactions with secretly owned companies in Lichtenstein and Gibraltar. The inevitable libel writs were issued but a number of biographers followed with similar accusations. During the summer of 1991, Maxwell’s relations with Israel soured when his repeated requests to Mossad to apply pressure on Israeli bankers to refinance his business were ignored. By now even the British Parliament were also keeping a close eye on Maxwell’s international business dealings.
Ministers had known for a long time about Maxwell’s influence with the various world leaders he had connections with. After all, it had been Maxwell who had liaised between Moscow and Tel Aviv during the August Coup of 1991, in which the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other hardline Communists had attempted to oust Mikhail Gorbachev from power. (Who can forget the images being broadcast live by satellite during the early days of Sky Television of Boris Yeltsin standing on his tank with a loudhailer, organizing the defence of the White House in Moscow.) Maxwell had been involved in arranging a meeting between the Israeli secret service and high-level KGB officials, including Kryuchkov, to discuss Mossad support for the plot to replace Gorbachev, the first Russian president to show any sign of being about to work closely with Western governments.
But then, according to the sworn testimony of former Mossad agent Ari Ben-Menashe, Maxwell had made the mistake of threatening Mossad with revealing information about the meeting unless they supported him financially. According to Ben-Menashe, both Maxwell and the Daily Mirror’s foreign editor were long-time Mossad agents, and it had been Maxwell who had informed the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had revealed details of Israel’s nuclear capability to the Sunday Times. Vanunu was immediately lured from his Sunday Times-provided safe house in London to Rome where he was snatched by Mossad agents. He was later returned to Israel, convicted of treason and spent the next eighteen years protesting his innocence from prison before finally being released in 2004.
On 21 October 1991, two members of Parliament, Labour’s George Galloway and Tory Rupert Allison, were persuaded to bring up the Vanunu affair, and Maxwell’s part in it, in the House of Commons. Protected by parliamentary privilege, in which they could make allegations without fear of litigation, newspapers began to report a wide range of Maxwell-related intrigues and mysteries.
The Israeli secret service were also concerned by the whole Robert Maxwell situation. And as soon as he began to threaten them, his fate was sealed. Agents quickly agreed to the meeting of ‘great urgency’ called for by a now cash-strapped Robert Maxwell. They were well aware that Israel’s reputation in the West, particularly with America on whom they were heavily reliant, would be severely tarnished should it become known that they were in any way connected with the attempt to prevent democracy in the Soviet Union. Mossad could not longer afford to take any further risks with the Little Czech.
According to Ben-Menashe, in his book The Profits of War published in 1992, Maxwell was instructed to travel to Spain the following day where arrangements for a money transfer could be made. His orders were to sail his yacht to Madeira and wait on it there to receive further instructions. Maxwell breathed a sigh of relief as he left England for Spain, believing his recent growing financial problems were about to be solved and, on 31 October, he boarded the Lady Ghislane at Gibraltar and berthed at Madeira, where he dined alone.
The following day a specialist Mossad team, in Spain to cover a series of Middle Eastern peace talks, were sent south. Maxwell then received a message instructing him to meet instead on the island of Tenerife on 5 April. It is then alleged that Mossad agents boarded the boat near the Canary Islands during the night of 3 April, removed Maxwell to another vessel, interrogated him throughout the following day and then killed him by injecting air into his veins, which would have induced a heart attack.
But that’s not the end of the story, because Ben-Manashe had also claimed that he personally delivered the CIA share of the profits from an earlier arms deal between Iran and Israel to Robert Maxwell in London who, in turn, was supposed to forward it on to America. Instead, the money disappeared into the gaping hole in Maxwell’s balance sheet. Ben-Manashe alleged that Maxwell threatened the CIA with ‘damaging disclosures’ should they press him for the return of the money. Now, I’m no expert in world politics but when it comes to the wrong groups to annoy, the CIA and Mossad are two key ones to avoid, let alone blackmail.
It later transpired that as Robert Maxwell left for the Canary Islands he had also been told he was under investigation by the police for war crimes connected to the revelation about shooting that unarmed mayor in 1945. In March 2001, it was revealed, under the Freedom of Information Act, that weeks before he died detectives had started questioning members of Maxwell’s former platoon but had yet to find any witnesses to the shooting. The former lieutenant was advised six months prior to his death that he faced a possible sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty. The Metropolitan Police file notes: ‘The reported circumstances of the shooting gave rise to an allegation of War Crimes. To some extent, the reporting of the shooting incident was confirmed by Mr Maxwell in an interview he gave in 1988 to the journalist Brian Walden on 30th October 1988.’ Quite clearly there had been two shootings: by boasting of his wartime exploits, Maxwell had shot himself straight in the foot.
Following his death, Maxwell’s body was released to the Israeli authorities, who performed a second autopsy, revealing that the injuries to the body were not consistent with falling off a yacht and that he ‘had probably been murdered’. He was then afforded the honour of a Mount of Olives funeral, the resting place of Israel’s most respected heroes. During the service televised worldwide, the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir cryptically announced that Maxwell ‘had done more for Israel than can today be said’. A remark that could simply be seen as a nod towards his fundraising efforts for the Israeli secret service – or rather more.
Before the dust had, quite literally, settled on Maxwell’s grave, calls of foul play could be heard. Maxwell’s own daughter, Ghislane, announced on television that his death had ‘not been an accident’. Others insisted he had committed suicide to escape the shame of his collapsing empire, not to mention the jail sentence that would certainly have followed if he had been found guilty of fraud. But his life insurance company quickly paid out a thumping £20 million, indicating that they, at least, were certain Maxwell had not jumped. So, if his insurers had apparently ruled out suicide (and it was very much in their interests, after all, to prove that he had taken his own life), only two options are left to consider. Did Robert Maxwell have a heart attack and fall overboard, or was he murdered by the Israeli secret service? There is further suggestion – put forward by those ever-busy conspiracy theorists – that Maxwell did not die but quietly slipped away from his problems, leaving another poor soul in the water to be found, misidentified and then buried on the Mount of Olives.
Either way, his death was followed by repeated revelations into his controversial business methods and accusations were made with impunity. It began to emerge that Maxwell had used £1 billion from his companies’ pension funds in order to service his debt liability and fund his flamboyant lifestyle. MCC PLC filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992 and Maxwell’s two sons, Ian and Kevin, were declared the world’s largest bankrupts, with debts of in excess of £400 million. In 1995 they were charged with fraud but acquitted in 1996. No doubt neither man was too impressed with his father’s legacy.
Perhaps the final word should come from Lady Coutts, whose husband had rescued Maxwell all those years earlier. After dinner at Headington Hall, Maxwell’s country house and business headquarters near Oxford, the newspaper man was bidding his guests goodbye in some of the nine languages he, by then, boasted he could speak. When it came to Lady Coutts, she deliberately spoke to him in a language Maxwell had no knowledge of, Swahili: ‘Kwaheri ashante sana sitaki kukuona tena’, which means: ‘Goodbye and thank you very much. Now I never wish to see you again.’ And fortunately for her, she never did.
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