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Robert Maxwell

MAXWELL, ROBERT (1923–1991), British publisher. Maxwell was born Jan Ludvik Hoch, son of a poor Jewish farm laborer, in Solotvino in the Carpathians, then part of Czechoslovakia. Although his family was Orthodox, he appears to have abandoned Judaism at about the time he left his native village and traveled to Budapest. Maxwell later stated, "I ceased to be a practicing Jew just before the war… I certainly do consider myself a Jew. I was born Jewish and I shall die Jewish." After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Maxwell made his way to Hungary where he was arrested at the end of the year. He escaped and made his way to southern France where he joined members of the free Czech forces with whom he was transported to Britain in 1940. After a spell in the Czech Legion and the British Pioneer Corps, he joined the North Staffordshire Regiment in 1943 and served with distinction during the campaign in Northern Europe. He was decorated with the Military Cross in 1945 and had risen from the rank of corporal to captain by the end of the war. He served with the Allied Control Commission in the British Zone of Occupation in Germany in the department of Public Relations and Information Services Control. At this time he also engaged in commercial activities and following his demobilization in 1947 he entered business, specializing in import and export between Britain and Eastern Europe where he established extensive connections. He first entered publishing by way of an agreement to distribute German scientific periodicals in 1947. Two years later he acquired Pergamon Press, although he lost control of the company for a time in the early 1970s when his business activities were subjected to a critical report by the Department of Trade and Industry. In 1981 he bought the British Printing and Communication Corporation, of which he was chairman, and in 1984 acquired Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). As chairman of MGN he became the publisher of several mass-circulation titles. Pergamon Press was the world's largest distributor of scientific periodicals. Between 1964 and 1970, Robert Maxwell was Labour Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire. By the 1980s, Maxwell had acquired a major international business empire, which included The Daily Mirror and The People newspapers in Britain, the New York Daily News, and the famous publisher Macmillan, as well as a range of firms in Europe. In 1990, Philip Beresford's Book of the British Rich, the predecessor to the Sunday Times' "rich lists," claimed that Maxwell was then Britain's tenth richest man, worth an estimated £1.1 billion. He was active in various philanthropic causes and was chairman of the National AIDS Trust. In 1986 he was involved in the financing of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and had an interest in several football clubs, notably Oxford United and Derby County. Most of his own family perished in the Holocaust and in 1988, he provided £1 million to fund the major international conference on the Holocaust, "Remembering for the Future," which took place in London and Oxford. Maxwell had business interests in Israel – Pergamon Media purchased a 45% stake in Modi'in Publishing House which owned the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv – and invested in Scitex, Keter Publishing House, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

Maxwell's downfall apparently came through unwise expansions and, unusually for a successful tycoon, overly generous payments for the acquisition of new assets, together with a secretive operating style in which no one but Maxwell himself understood the complexities of his business empire. Components of his business empire ran into difficulty in the business downturn of the late 1980s, and he was accused of raiding the assets of others to support them, including the MGN's pension fund. By the second half of 1991 the British Fraud Squad had compiled a lengthy dossier on Maxwell, and rumors of his true position increasingly surfaced in the press. On 5 November 1991 Maxwell disappeared from his yacht near the Canary Islands. His death caused a worldwide sensation. It has never been ascertained whether his death was caused by suicide, accident, or murder, and many conspiracy theories later came to the fore, especially those in which various intelligence agencies (including the Israeli Mossad) were responsible for his death. At his death, his debts totaled at least £400 million, with some estimates putting his total debt as high as £2.2 billion.

Like many self-made tycoons, Maxwell was widely regarded in a negative light. Consequently, his very notable record of charity and the scale of the business empire he briefly organized have largely been forgotten.


ODNB online; T. Bower, Maxwell the Outsider (1988); idem., Maxwell: The Final Verdict (1995); R. Davies, Foreign Body: The Secret Life of Robert Maxwell (1995); W. Donaldson, Brewer's Rogues, Villains, and Eccentrics (2002), 446–47; G. Thomas, The Assassination of Robert Maxwell: Israel's Superspy (2002).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.