Conversations in Management: Brian Garfield

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. 

Brian Garfield

Brian_GarfieldHitler was impatient. He was meeting with Richard Meinertzhagen for the third time. Meinertzhagen had once again come to plead on behalf of Germany’s Jews. He was representing Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Zionist movement in Britain and hoping to negotiate an emigration agreement that would permit Jews—with a fraction of their property—to leave Germany. Neither party had high expectations. Hitler only accepted the meetings because Meinertzhagen was a politically prominent Englishman and well connected with the aristocracy. Still, with war only months away, Der Füher had more urgent issues on his mind. On the other hand, if he’d known what was on Meinertzhagen’s mind, he might have paid more attention. That’s because Meinertzhagen had smuggled a revolver into the meeting and was seriously considering using it. Killing wouldn’t be difficult. He’d done it many times before on behalf of his country over the span of his sixty years. But the essential thing was he’d always gotten away with it. Now, sitting in the Chancellery, assassinating Adolf Hitler and living to discuss it over cocktails back in England, didn’t seem a likely scenario. He let the moment pass (and spent the rest of his life discussing the “what if” over cocktails).

The story sounds incredible, but by 1939 Meinertzhagen was already a living legend. During the First World War, he served as an Intelligence officer in East Africa, Gaza and France. His methods were so effective, that a text he wrote on spying is still used by the CIA today. In 1919 he served on the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and successfully represented Zionist issues. In fact, his contributions to Israel over the years were recognized with a square in Jerusalem named in his honor. In addition to espionage and diplomacy, he was an internationally recognized ornithologist who ultimately amassed a collection of more than 20,000 specimens. His book, Birds of Arabia is considered definitive and his collection was donated to the British Museum. He gained the trust of thousands including such luminaries as Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion and T. E. Lawrence. And then it all began to unravel.

Nearly forty years after his death, it was discovered that much of his bird collection was mislabeled, fraudulent or stolen (some specimens were taken from the British Museum itself!). That drew the attention of noted author and screenwriter Brian Garfield. After an exhaustive ten-year investigation he published The Meinertzhagen Mystery which revealed our hero to be one of the greatest con men in history. While there is some truth to the Meinertzhagen story, all of it—including the Hitler story—is wrapped in a thick blanket of tall tales and lies.

By this time you’re probably thinking Meinertzhagen is a case study in why you should never trust anyone in the absence of incontrovertible evidence of their trustworthiness. But it’s the sheer outlandishness of the story that points us in the opposite direction. Too often we use the extreme case in our own lives as an excuse not to trust. We may have been burned in a relationship, been the victim of gossip or had a friend betray a confidence. Whatever the situation it becomes our reason for holding back, questioning motives or treating others with mild suspicion. It’s not a great way to live. Don’t let a bad experience get in the way of enjoying a trusting and trustworthy life. Instead, assume goodwill. Expect positive intentions. Fortunately there are few Meinertzhagen’s in the world. When in doubt, give the benefit of the doubt and trust. There’s no mystery to it.      —Ebert


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