Sir Henri Deterding died in St. Moritz, Switzerland on 4 February 1939 several months before the outbreak of the 2nd World War. As could be expected given his global fame as an oil mogul and a man of wealth, mystery and intrigue, there were numerous newspaper obituaries from around the world. Many mentioned his financial support for Hitler and the Nazi movement in Germany.
It may seem odd to focus on the death of Sir Henri Deterding in this early chapter, but the global news coverage of his sudden demise and even more significantly, the location – Nazi Germany – of his spectacular funeral, speak volumes.
Sir Henri Deterding died in St. Moritz, Switzerland on 4 February 1939.
At the time of his death, he was still a director of several Royal Dutch Shell Group companies and held preference shares giving him a measure of control over the Group.
A selection of contemporaneous news reports:
SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS Dutch Shell Head Dies In Holland: Sunday 5 February 1939:
Sir Henri Wilhelm August Deterding was an outstanding figure in world financial affairs because of his role as guiding genius of the great Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, of which he remained a director after retiring from the post of director-general.
He was known as a bitter foe of Soviet Russia and was named at a Moscow trial as having aided in a plot against the Soviet government.
Daily Mirror: 9s.-a-Week to Millions: 6 February 1939 Page 7:
Oil King Sir Henri Deterding, seventy two, who died at St. Moritz, Switzerland, began as a nine-shillings-a-week bank clerk and rose to riches so great that eventually he matched dollar for dollar with Rockefeller.
Sir Henri was a Dutchman. He was knighted by the British Government “for services rendered.”
Hitler is said to have received his financial support. He hated the Soviet Government, admired Mussolini and aided France.
He was thrice married. His third bride was thirty-one years his junior.
Daily Express: Deterding millions in Germany: 6 February 1939. Front page:
THE personal fortune of Sir Henri Deterding, multi-millionaire oil king, who died after a heart attack on Saturday, is believed to be in Germany, where he went to live after his divorce in 1936.
The Times: “Sir Henri Deterding Obituary”: 6 February 1939:
In the last few years he had spent much of his time in Germany, where he showed himself to be in sympathy with the German government’s attitude towards the Communists, whose main object, he wrote, was to permit as little cooperation between the nations as possible “because only then will their destructive principles succeed.” Three years ago he attracted some attention with a scheme for marketing the entire surplus of Dutch agricultural production in Germany and giving the proceeds to the Winter Help Organization. Although his first donation to the latter is believed to have amounted to more than £1,000,000, the scheme seems to have met with a rather mixed reception from the German authorities and little has since been heard of it.
Daily Express: OIL KING MOVED HIS MILLIONS: 6 Feb 1939 Page 11:
Divorced, went to live in Germany
Daily Express Staff Reporter
SIR HENRI DETERDING, the oil king, once estimated to have a personal fortune of £25,000,000, has left practically nothing in England.
The Montreal Gazette: SIR H. DETERDING, 72 DIES IN SWISS HOME: Monday 6 February 1939 Page 14:
Netherlands – born Magnate Built Up Royal Dutch Petroleum Company
Was Ardent Hitler Supporter and Foe of Soviet
Sir Henri, who possesses a personal fortune estimated at between $150,000,000 and $200,000,000, retired from the direction of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company.
He became an ardent Nazi after Adolf Hitler attained power in Germany.
A practical token of his admiration for the anti-Communist regime of Hitler was given in 1937. He gave $5,000,000 with which to purchase Holland’s surplus food products. He stipulated that the proceeds should go to Germany’s “Winter Help Fund.”
THE OSHKOSH NORTHWESTERN: Rockefeller of Europe, Sir Henry Deterding, Dies: MONDAY FEBRUARY 6, 1939 Page 7:
Son of Sea Captain Rises in Meteoric Career in Fashion Comparable to Horatio Alger Tales – Strong Pro-Nazi and Bitter Russia Opponent Carves Way to Success.
He became an ardent nazi after Adolf Hitler attained power in Germany.
Deterding immediately saw the possibilities and set out to tie Royal Dutch and Shell together, the better to compete with Standard Oil.
A practical token of his admiration for the anticommunist regime of Hitler was given in 1937. He gave $5,000,000 with which to purchase Holland’s surplus food products. He stipulated that the proceeds should go to Germany’s “Winter Help Fund.”
The Scotsman – Monday 06 February 1939: “OIL KING” DEAD: Sir Henri Deterding’s Sudden Collapse
“OIL KING” DEAD
Sir Henri Deterding’s Sudden Collapse
A NOTABLE CAREER
St Moriiz, Saturday . — Sir Henri Deterding, director and former director-general of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., died suddenly here to-day at the age of 72 . He was spending his annual winter holiday at the Chalet Olga, his beautiful St Moritz home, and is stated to have been in excellent health until this morning, when he woke up with symptoms of a heart attack.
After receiving medical treatment his condition improved considerably, but shortly before 7 PM he had a sudden and fatal relapse . He retained consciousness to the end. His wife was with him during his last hours.
All his children, with the exception of a baby girl who was already at St Moritz, are expected here to-morrow.
The body , it is understood, will be taken to the estate at Mecklenburg, North Germany, where he had lived for the past two years with Lady Deterding, who is a German.
Sir Henri Deterding was called upon to earn his own living at a comparatively’ early age, his father, a master mariner, dying when the son was only six years old . He won his start in life by passing the final examination in a business course at the age of sixteen which gained him the distinction of becoming the youngest employee in the well known Twentsche Bank, at Amsterdam.
WENT TO DUTCH EAST INDIES
For six years he remained in the bank and then, feeling his chances of promotion were slight, he decided to go out to the Dutch East Indies. He accordingly secured a position with the Netherlands Trading Society, and-went out East .
Sir Henri used afterwards to say that it was his first job in the Indies which laid the foundation of his successful qualities . He was set to unravel the almost hopelessly complicated books of the Society’s branch at Deli where the book-keeping had been decidedly dubious for more than a year .
To his success in this herculean task when it looked almost impossible, Sir Henri owed later his uncanny skill in figures, and his habit of reducing every situation to its simplest terms. Sir Henri spent eight years in the employ of the Netherlands Trading Society, first at Medan, and later at Penang.
In 1896 he offered his services to the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, and after only one year’s service became assistant managing director. In 1901 he was appointed managing director and a year after was general manager of the whole world concern.
FEDERATED DUTCH AND ENGLISH OIL INTERESTS
Sir Henri later organised the Federation of Dutch and English oil interests and thus had in his employ some 40,000 people, including more than 6000 in England.
When, in 1936, he relinquished the post of Director-General of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, which he had occupied for 36 years, he concluded a career which in range and achievement has had few parallels in modern business.
Although retiring from this position virtually that of king of the oil world—he remained a director of the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company. He was a director of the Shell Transport and Trading Company Ltd., until two or three years ago. The late Lord Fisher once said of Sir Henri, “Deterding is Napoleonic in audacity , and Cromwellian in depth.”
Sir Henri, who had his London residence in Park Lane, had the K. B. E. conferred upon him in 1920.
Until a few years ago he had a country estate at Buckhurst Park , near Ascot.
“PEACE DELEGATES” PLAN
Hundreds of his employees in England benefited under a “peace delegates” plan originated for them by Sir Henri in 1935. He paid the travelling expenses of all who chose to spend their summer holidays on the Continent . It was stated that this offer was made because Sir Henri believed that by mingling with the people of other nations a better understanding could be achieved between Britain and the rest of the world .
During the Great War, Sir Henri played a prominent part in Providing the British Fleet with fuel, and his efforts in this direction brought him a compliment from the late Lord Curzon, who said , “He helped to float the Allies to victory on a sea of oil.”
Sir Henri had two sons and one daughter by his first marriage, and two daughters from his second marriage to Lydia Pavlovi, daughter of the late General Koudoyaro, in 1924. In May 1936, his second marriage ended in a divorce which was heard in camera. The following month Sir Henri married his third wife , Fraulein Charlotte Minna Knaack! Sir Henri was then 70 and his bride 39. The ceremony was performed in the strictest privacy at the Amsterdam Town Hall by the Major of the city.
WORLD-WIDE BIRTHDAY PRESENTATION
Earlier in the year, Sir Henri’s 70th birthday had been celebrated by the presentation of a marble bust of himself from the employees of Royal Dutch-Shell all over the world. Sir Henri marked the event by presenting five 17th Century Dutch pictures from his famous collection at Ascot to Dutch museums at The Hague and Rotterdam.
Long before Holland devalued the guilder in September 1936 following the devaluation of the French franc , Sir Henri Deterding had been an advocate of a ” managed currency.” Britain and Sweden were quite right when they thought it necessary to make their money a ‘ managed’ currency,” he declared. “The wealth of a country, it is clear , is not the wealth represented by the gold piled up in vaults, but the wealth created by labour .
THE CALGARY DAILY HERALD: An Oil Napoleon: 7 February 1939 Page 4:
FEW careers in modern times have been more strange and eventful than that of Sir Henri Deterding.
An inveterate enemy of Soviet rule in Russia because of confiscation of the rich Caucasus oil fields, he later swung over to the support of the Hitler movement in Germany and helped to finance it.
Daily Express: Oil King will be buried in Germany: 7 February 1939:
Oil king will be buried in Germany
Daily Express Correspondent
GENEVA. Monday.- The two sons of Sit Henri Deterding, the oil magnate, who died on Saturday, were expected to fly to St. Moritz yesterday, but arrived tonight by train with other relatives.
After meeting Lady Deterding, they decided that their father should be buried on his estate at Dobbin, Mecklenburg, North Germany. The family will leave tomorrow morning.
New York Times: DETERDING BURIAL PLANS: 7 February 1939
Oil Operators Body to Be Taken to His German Estate
ST. MORITZ, Switzerland, Feb. 6 (AP).–The family of Sir Henri Deterding gathered at the Swiss villa where he died unexpectedly Saturday to take the body of the 72-year-old Netherlands-born oil operator back to his estate at Dobbin, Mecklenburg, Germany, for burial.
The press coverage of his death was just the prelude to the astonishing quasi-state funeral held in Nazis Germany, which is the subject of the next chapter.