Following the recent death of Lord Weidenfeld we revisit his recent interview with Spear’s for the Giver & the Gift
After having his own education cut short by the Nazis Lord Weidenfeld now supports international students studying at Oxford University through the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust
George Weidenfeld came to England as a refugee from the Nazis and later founded the Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishing house.
I was brought up in an enlightened house and my father was on the board of very important insurance and banking groups. When the Nazis came, my father was put in jail immediately, two days after the Anschluss. They planned a show trial against a certain number of Jewish businesspeople on public boards, claiming (rightly) that they had spent public money on propaganda against the Nazis. This trial was a blessing in disguise because there was a semblance of legality; later they would have put him into a concentration camp and we wouldn’t have heard any more of him.
By the time I left Austria, at the end of July 1938, they had thrown me out of university. When I was in England, I went to the refugee organisation who put me into this rather awful boarding-house – bordering on a brothel – but one of the nice ladies in the committee said, ‘You should have better surroundings,’ and they introduced me to a family of Plymouth Brethren, who were wonderful people. They looked after me like a child, I was allowed to go and study law at King’s College, and I was able with their help to save my parents, my father having been released for fear he might embarrass the Nazis.
They brought my parents over and saved their lives – saved my life, saved their lives. So I felt very much a debt of gratitude, which was one motivation for me doing what I did.
My philanthropy is split into three areas: the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which deals with counter-radicalism and various forms of European and international network; Israel and anti-Semitism; and academia, which is the one I am most involved in, timewise.
André Hoffmann, of Swiss pharmaceuticals company Hoffmann-La Roche, helped me create the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust at Oxford University. These scholarships have now been fully endowed to the tune of £16 million: André Hoffmann gave us £5 million, a number of people like Sigrid Rausing, Theresa Sackler, Jacob Safra and Michael Lewis gave major donations. Oxford gave us £6 million matching funds – it’s very generous of them.
The Rhodes Scholarships leadership programme is by present standards limited. So we are doing exactly what they are doing – training for leadership – but we have Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, we have Arabs and Israelis, and we now also have some Indians.
What we do is this: we’re training leaders from absolutely first-class students. In order to give these people, who come from different cultures and from vastly different subjects, a general veneer of culture, we have the Weidenfeld Hoffmann leadership programme, where we are getting the best people to talk. We had, for instance, Jonathan Powell on Machiavelli, Chris Clark on World War I so these chaps coming from Kamchatka know a bit about this. They wouldn’t have heard about John Maynard Keynes if they were from Kyrgyzstan and so on.
This programme is so good – it consists of several weekends and certain extramural excursions, for instance the Germans are giving us the chance for the lawyers to do a bit of kibitzing and temping at the supreme court. When Shaun Woodward was Minister for Northern Ireland, he said, ‘Bring me your people for a long weekend and I’ll teach them about the Irish problem.’
Teaching leadership is important because you want to create a new elite that have the same values in human rights, that run counter to the temptation of using Stone Age barbarism and 21st century technology. My worry is that the new elites, the new leaders of the West, are castrated. I’m for a new revival of the idea, a new call to arms in defence of our values everywhere.
I am very proud of one or two other things we are doing academically; one is called the Humanitas programme. I was approached simultaneously by Oxford and Cambridge, saying, ‘Look, all the money that comes in now goes to science, goes to medicine, goes to computers – there’s not enough money for the humanities. What can we do about it?’
So I set up eighteen to twenty visiting professorships, now to be reduced for reasons of rationalisation to twelve. So we have for instance Media, attached to St John’s College, Cambridge. We have three chairs in music; for Chamber Music, at Peterhouse Cambridge, Alfred Brendel sits at the piano and gives three lectures and then there is a masterclass.
We have one in Intelligence at All Souls, Oxford with the head of the CIA, the head of Mossad, the head of MI6. We have one in Interfaith Studies at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford – Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks one year, the next year the Archbishop of Canterbury, the third year a Protestant bible critic of the University of Basle. We have European literature at St. Anne’s, Oxford, for which I give my own money – Amos Oz, Bernard Schlink, Umberto Eco. And so on.
I’m on the board of several companies, because so much that I’m doing is pro bono publico and it costs me a fortune, but I get a substantial income as adviser to various companies, like Springer for whom I write a regular column and attend important conferences.
One of the things I like doing and am not bad at is creating networks, to know where to go to for what. The older one gets, work becomes easier when you have so many contacts, so I can today relatively easily get in touch with many different sources of power – I’m not saying I can get on to the president of China, but I have good links in the Western world, in culture and in business, up to a point. I know the people who know the other people who know the people.
It’s difficult to have a rule about how to create a network – it depends on circumstances, you see. When I worked for the BBC during the war I ended up as one of their European diplomatic correspondents, I had to deal with the European governments in exile which meant I got to know de Gaulle, Sikorski and Benes, but also the so-called freedom movements, free Germans, free Austrians, free Indians and Africans – and the Zionist organisation.
Having been since my youth an active Zionist it was easy for me to establish a very close relationship with Professor Chaim Weizmann, who was later to become Israel’s first president; I saw a lot of him in London. When he assumed office he invited me to Israel and I was then offered the job as a sort of liaison officer with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, with the title of chef de cabinet and political adviser to the foreign minister. My colleagues included future prime minister Shimon Peres, who became a lifelong friend.
Then there was Harold Wilson, who made me a knight and a peer not because I had any money but because I was his adviser on European affairs. He was my first author – he wrote a book called New Deal for Coal, which got him a recommendation to meet Clement Attlee, who had just won the election but didn’t know enough suitable candidates (all the young men were in the army). To help Wilson when he was prime minister, I set up an informal pro-European committee of very important, interesting people.
The point is, with networks, it’s so much a question of occasion and opportunity – key people bring you to key people. Your great ambition should be that in your own field you should have access to as many sources as you can and cultivate them. You never know.
Jessica Standish-White grew up in South Africa and came to Oxford to study development economics thanks to the imagination of Lord Weidenfeld
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1991. With my father being a mining engineer, we lived out on the mines for most of my early life. We were in Namibia for three years, then we settled in a mining town called Emalahleni until I was fifteen. The mining sector in South Africa is a very important industry – and highly unequal, so I was much exposed to a wider range of South Africans than I would have been if we’d grown up in the suburbs of Johannesburg.
My dad was very involved in a lot of community projects out on the mines, particularly around transformation and HIV/Aids. That exposure to diversity and to a parent who was really trying to do something about raising living standards post-Apartheid certainly had a big influence on me.
His interest in HIV/Aids treatment inspired me to engage in community volunteering up in a medical clinic in rural Mpumalanga while I was in high school; a couple of times I took classmates of mine with. We went up to try and witness the reality of HIV and what it was doing to South Africans in an environment dissimilar from my school. I wanted to understand what other people’s lives were like and, from a community leadership angle, I really wanted to expose other girls from my school to that.
I started to realise how incredibly privileged my upbringing and background were and to feel that the career path I wanted to follow would be one in which I would use that privilege to help other South Africans. Avoiding paternalism and being in touch with communities’ needs became the cornerstones of my approach to community outreach projects. I learned to trust that people know what they need to succeed and put their voices at the centre of all outreach work. It’s a matter of equipping people with the resources and sometimes the confidence to achieve that.
If I think back to the HIV counselling group, we had teenagers there whose parents had died of Aids and young adults having to undertake all responsibilities for the household. In Cape Town, I found the basic levels of literacy and numeracy to be extremely low. It’s the intersection of all of these kind of things – together with drug or alcohol abuse and mental illness – that hold people back from reaching their full potential.
At university I did a Bachelor of Business Science, at the University of Cape Town, and I majored in philosophy, statistics and economics – quite an interesting combination of things! The economics, which culminated in me doing development economics here at Oxford, comes from an on-going desire to work in international development, specifically in South Africa.
I found the Weidenfeld Hoffman Scholarships online. I’d always wanted to study overseas; I went on a leadership programme to Stanford University when I was sixteen and enjoyed being exposed to an international group of students in a top-quality institution. I had been aiming to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship, one of South Africa’s most prestigious scholarships for overseas study, since I was fifteen. While I was at university, a travel bursary allowed me to visit Oxford and other universities in Britain. We met quite a few international students through that and that’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this, maybe I can get here.’ That was a real shaping experience.
Oxford has an incredible history and attracts well-rounded people, rather than only academic people – people who think about things and perform in multiple areas and challenge things. It was that all-round experience that I was looking for.
My parents would have struggled to afford to send me to university in England, particularly with the exchange rate, so I knew I’d have to win a scholarship. I put in applications for four different UK universities and then applied around ten different scholarships, maybe more than that – a huge amount of work. The end result is glamorous, but what it takes to get here, far less so.
I was unsuccessful for quite a few of the scholarships, for example the Rhodes, and that hit me quite hard. In March 2014 I got an email from Weidenfeld. After two interviews for that I was very fortunate to win it, which provided full funding and really generous support. The Weidenfeld Scholarship provides funding for a Masters or a DPhil that has to link into development somehow. Your department handles all of the academic issues; the Weidenfeld Programme runs parallel to that across the students who are all doing different courses.
When I first arrived, the programme had its annual moral philosophy seminar; we got to meet all the rest of the Weidenfeld Scholars and we had three or four days at Magdalen College, where we read different philosophical texts, then discussed them. At the end of the year, we have the leadership forum, where a variety of people from law, politics and the media talk about the challenges and opportunities of leadership.
It’s a really diverse group of people – certainly the most diverse group of 32 that I’ve spent time with at Oxford – mostly from developing countries; they are all really interested in development, leadership and public service – that’s the crux of the programme. With the scholars who had been here for a while, I saw how much confidence they’d gained and how much the Weidenfeld Programme and the year at Oxford had done for them. As an incoming scholar, that really inspires you to make the most of your time here and see what Oxford can do for you as well.
I am still trying to pin down what Oxford did for me. In multiple ways it’s an absolutely fantastic experience: I have grown academically, I write much better, I articulate myself more clearly, I think I am better at engaging with people – you go to all of these dinners and you learn not to be intimidated by the incredible people who pass through Oxford and actually engage with them. The flipside of that, and what a lot of people don’t chat about, is Oxford can be a hard place as well – a really tough environment; the challenge has been to hold on to your self and your own integrity in all of that and to locate yourself and your contribution in such a prestigious institution.
My next step is I’m working for the Africa Delivery Hub at McKinsey, in the Johannesburg office, doing public and social sector consulting, and my hope with that is that will give me very general exposure to the major development issues in South Africa and what’s being done to address them so that I could go into something smaller after McKinsey. It’s affirmed my passion for development and shown me that that’s the career I want to undertake. It’s done a huge amount for my confidence, to say that, yes, I am young but I have a lot to offer, and I have the potential to be a leader.
I met Lord Weidenfeld briefly at Cumberland Lodge near Windsor Castle, when we went there in mid-December for a three-day retreat. We did a day on public speaking as well on sessions on writing and interview skills. Lord Weidenfeld came for lunch; my impression of him was a person with great vision who saw the opportunity to bring people to Oxford and made that happen. The establishment of the Weidenfeld Hoffman Trust, which will now continue on for ever, is testament to that vision. I feel privileged to have benefited from that legacy and to now form part of that alumni network.