Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has called off a visit to Germany to talk about the country’s forthcoming Grand Prix, despite having apologised for apparently praising Hitler’s leadership skills in a recent newspaper interview.
However, a Jewish friend of Mr Ecclestone spoke up for him this week. Gordon Hausmann, a solicitor involved with several Jewish charities, said that although Mr Ecclestone’s comments had been “foolish”, there was “no question of him being a supporter of Hitler”.
Mr Ecclestone’s remarks, published in The Times on Saturday, brought calls for his resignation from the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder.
And there was fresh consternation when, in response to the WJC’s criticism, Mr Ecclestone said: “It’s a pity they didn’t sort the banks out.” Asked to clarify what he meant, he said: “They have a lot of influence everywhere.”
Mr Ecclestone, who is 78, had stated: “In a lot of ways, terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was, in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done.”
He went on: “In the end he got lost so he wasn’t a very good dictator. Either he knew what was going on and insisted or he just went along with it — either way he wasn’t a dictator.”
Sir Martin Sorrell, a member of the Formula 1 board, said he was “appalled”.
CVC, the private equity firm which owns Formula 1 and invests money on behalf of many Jewish firms, said it had been “shocked” by the comments. Sir Trevor Chinn is a senior adviser to CVC.
As condemnation rained upon his head, Mr Ecclestone moved to undo the damage, saying that he “sincerely, genuinely” apologised for any offence and was sorry for being “an idiot”.
Speaking in his Knightsbridge offices, he said: “I’m terribly sorry about the whole reference to Hitler, I never supported him, never would support him and I don’t think anybody ever could. I think all the atrocities he carried out were disgusting.”
Mr Hausmann, who has known the racing chief for many years and has done work for him, said that Mr Ecclestone had got “carried away” talking about strong leaders.
Six years ago he took Mr Ecclestone and his then wife to Israel. “It was the height of the intifada. He didn’t have to go, but he wanted to see Israel. Number one on the list of things he wanted to see was Yad Vashem.
“We went and he was very moved and distraught.”
Mr Hausmann added: “He has been a generous supporter of Jewish charities and I know for a fact he has many Jewish friends — and if you didn’t know he wasn’t Jewish, you might think he was.”
Mr Ecclestone explained that he had been discussing the need for strong leaders like Mrs Thatcher with The Times’ interviewers when the subject turned to dictators and he had been asked about Hitler.
“I said, I suppose he did in the early days a good job, he took Germany from a bankrupt country to a superpower in five years, so he probably couldn’t have done that unless he made things happen,” he explained, “All sorts of people have done that in the past.”
Asked why he had suggested that Hitler might have been unaware what was going on during the war given the virulent antisemitism expressed in Mein Kampf, Mr Ecclestone said: “I never realised that until I was speaking to somebody this morning… I thought this lunatic started all this nonsense when the war started.”
Recalling his visit to Yad Vashem, he said: “In fact, it takes quite a lot to make me cry and I cried when I came out of that place.”
Last year Mr Ecclestone voiced concerns that Jewish investors might pull out of the sport after a furore involving another leading character, Max Mosley, president of the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile. A newspaper had accused Mr Mosley, son of the English fascist leader Sir Oswald, of taking part in a Nazi-themed orgy.
Mr Mosley successfully sued for damages for breach of privacy when the judge found that there had been no Nazi role-play.
Asked if Jewish supporters might now contemplate similar action against him, Mr Ecclestone said it was “up to them”, adding: “I hope it doesn’t.”