A refugee from eastern Czechoslovakia, Ian Robert Maxwell (Ludvik Hoch; 1923-1991) eventually became one of the richest men in Great Britain and the head of a powerful publishing empire.
Robert Maxwell promised his wife Betty, "I shall win an MC. I shall recreate a family. I shall make my fortune. I shall be Prime Minister of England. And I shall make you happy until the end of my days." Joe Haines, in his book Maxwell (1988), suggests that only one of those promises—prime minister—remained unfilled in the early 1990s. That the promises could have been made at all in December of 1944 by a penniless, recently created officer of the British Army who was a refugee from the Carpathian mountains says a great deal about the character and career of Robert Maxwell.
Maxwell was born on June 10, 1923, in the small village of Solotvino in the Carpathian mountains of what was then eastern Czechoslovakia. This was in an area sometimes known as Ruthenia that was variously held by Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, and, most recently, the Soviet Union. His birth name was Ludvik Hoch, and his parents were part of the Orthodox Jewish community of Solotvino. Maxwell maintained that his early memories of the grinding poverty of Solotvino, an area dominated by forests and salt mines, influenced his socialist sympathies. He had limited early education, possibly only three years at a national school. By 1939 he joined the Czech resistance to fight Nazi Germany, and after Czechoslovakia fell he made his way to France to join the French Foreign Legion and then be transferred to the 1st Czech Division of the French Army. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Maxwell was among 4,000 Czechs who made it to England. He joined the British Army and eventually changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell. He rose from private to the rank of captain, eventually winning the Military Cross for heroism.
At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Captain Robert Maxwell, by this time an accomplished linguist, was assigned to Berlin. By 1946 he was involved in the publishing of Der Berliner and in the process of re-establishing the postwar German economy. As a result of these experiences, he gained an understanding of international business, publishing enterprises, and the new importance of scientific research and publishing. By 1947 Maxwell had returned to England and became instrumental in disseminating scientific and technical information in journals and magazines. By 1951 Maxwell held the controlling interest in Pergamon Press, a publishing concern dedicated to scientific journals, textbooks, and papers.
Pergamon Press became the basis for Maxwell's fortune. He gained a virtual monopoly on scientific publication, especially Soviet scientific publications, at that point when such publication became of critical importance. During the 1950s he was concerned with other business ventures and was particularly involved with the trading concerns of Dr. Kurt Waller. Maxwell also purchased Simpkin Marshall, an almost defunct wholesale book selling company. The eventual failure of this company added to the controversy surrounding Maxwell, since many of his critics blamed the failure of the concern on his aggressiveness.
In 1958 Maxwell entered British politics. He joined the Labour Party, and in 1959 stood as candidate for Parliament from Buckingham, finally winning in 1964. Maxwell presented an anomaly as a parliamentary member of the Labour Party. He was an enormously wealthy man in the party of the working class. He was an employer who was sometimes at odds with the trade unions seeking to represent the party of trade unionism. No one could doubt his history of poverty and hard work, nor could his efforts on the battlefield fighting for Britain be diminished. But the idea of a rich foreigner representing working-class Britain provided severe paradoxes.
Despite Maxwell's pledge to become prime minister, his political career lacked the spectacular success of his business career. He never achieved distinction in Parliament, his main achievements coming from clean air legislation and a reform of the parliamentary food services. While he fully participated in his party's arguments and questions, adding to vigorous parliamentary debate, he never became a cabinet minister. He lost his seat in the election of 1970 and did not return to Parliament, even though his continued career in publishing and journalism kept him at the center of British political life.
By 1969 Maxwell was mired in a bitter dispute over the resale of Pergamon Press. This was ultimately resolved through a series of civil suits, but it tarnished Maxwell's reputation and held back the advancement of his publishing interests. Despite these setbacks, in 1981 Maxwell acquired the British Printing Corporation, at the time the largest printer in Britain but a company that had serious personnel and equipment problems. In 1984 Maxwell purchased his first newspapers, the Mirror Group, including the Daily Mirror. This launched his involvement in journalism.
Throughout the 1980s Maxwell's interest in and influence on journalism increased. His efforts clearly revitalized the Mirror Group, and he sought to update the technological side of British journalism. He also invested heavily in British cable television, had a controlling interest in European MTV (Music TeleVision), and invested well over $500 million in publishing and journalism interests in the United States, chiefly the Macmillan book company and Official Airline Guides. The Maxwell Communication Corporation was the second largest printing concern in the United States. The chief executive serving under his chairman father was son Kevin (born 1959).
In 1990 Maxwell added three U.S. tabloids to his holdings—the Globe, Sun, and National Enquirer, copies of all three sold exclusively in supermarkets. Then in March 1991 he bought the zesty New York City tabloid the Daily News. Meanwhile he launched the European, an English-language weekly designed to cover all of Europe, despite a mounting debt in his media corporation.
Robert Maxwell was also devoted to his family. He and his French-born wife Elisabeth had seven children, most of whom worked for his companies. He expected his children to make their own way without benefit of inheritance. On November 11, 1991, Maxwell died at sea off the Canary Islands, falling overboard from his yacht, Lady Ghislaine. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Israel.
Further Reading on Ian Robert Maxwell
The best work on Robert Maxwell is Maxwell (1988) by Joseph Haines. The only significant additional information comes from lengthy articles in Economist (November 1986); Forbes (October 1987); New York Times Magazine (May 1, 1988) and Business Week (July 29, 1991).