“Merchants of death” is a reference to the bankers and arms manufacturers that supplied and funded World War I. The phrase is also used to refer to arms dealers in general. The term has also been extended to other industries.
The term was first applied to an arms dealer named Basil Zaharoff. Relatively little is known of Zaharoff’s personal life. He was born Basileios Zacharias to poor Greek parents and spent some of his early life in Russia, before moving to Istanbul and then London; he was often referred to as the “mystery man of Europe.” By the end of the 19th century, Zaharoff was acting as one of the leading representatives for the Vickers Company, a British arms manufacturer. And by the time World War I broke out, Zaharoff had made himself a millionaire from arms sales.
Zaharoff’s life and legacy were complex; as the Smithsonian magazine put it:
Few men have acquired so scandalous a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.
Zaharoff’s critics, in fact, accused him of plotting to start the Great War just for the sake of extending his profits. Anti-war activists on both sides of the political divide charged that Zaharoff, and other arms dealers, had brought about the war; the question went as far as the Senate.
In 1934, the Senate Munitions Committee met to formally investigate the question of whether arms dealers had, in fact, inappropriately influenced the US government’s decision to enter the first World War. The committee came to be known as the Nye committee, after its chair, Senator Gerald Nye. Nye, a North Dakota Republican, famously said that “when the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honor and national defense, but a matter of profit for the few.” The committee never found any proof of undue influence, however.
In modern times, the term “merchant of death” has been applied to mercenary arms dealers, notably the Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout, who allegedly sold weapons to Colombian rebel groups and to both dictators and rebels alike in much of South America, the Middle East, and Africa. Bout’s story was also the inspiration for the movie “Lord of War.”
The phrase “merchants of death” has also been applied to other industries, especially the tobacco and the oil industries. A book by Lawrence C. White was titled “Merchants of Death: the American Tobacco Industry.” Other writers have charged that lobbyists for big tobacco and oil firms deliberately worked cooperatively with each other in order to craft strategies to keep the public in the dark about the dangers involved in their industries.