Józef Retinger was the founder of the European Movement and of the influential Bilderberg meetings. In 1996, the booklet celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the European League For Economic Co-Operation is dedicated to Retinger’s memory. In a foreword, Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands, the first president of the Bilderberg Group, writes fondly of Retinger:

“Poland was his motherland. He was passionately attached to her; and during the Second World War, though no longer in the first flush of youth, he risked his life by parachuting into occupied territory to contact the Polish Resistance. But he cherished within him another great love: a United Europe.”

Retinger was the secretary of the Bilderberg conferences until his death in 1960. In his obituary in the Times newspaper, the President of the UK branch of the European Movement, Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens, recalled:

“I have travelled a great deal with Joseph Retinger: his friendships in high places were extraordinary. I remember in the United States his picking up the telephone and immediately making an appointment with the President; and in Europe he had the complete entrée in every political circle, as a kind of right, acquired through the trust, devotion, and loyalty he inspired.”

So how did this Polish emigré become the confidant of presidents and prime minsters?

A thousand things at once

Retinger’s friends described him as a man of small stature, ugly, with a monkey head. They say he was lively, nervous, affable, charming and with an incredible magnetism. He looked up through his round glasses, and hypnotized you with his piercing eyes while talking to you. In his world, you were the rabbit and he was the cobra.

Born in an occupied and divided Poland, he was stateless by necessity, and dedicated his life to the freedom and independence of his country. Meanwhile, he also worked for France, England, the United States, Mexico and the Vatican. He was not mercenary – he did not care for money or honours, and he lived and died penniless. His primary concerns were ideas and people – if he liked them, he would put himself entirely at their service, but if the found them disappointing, he would drop them without hesitation.

Retinger had a thousand ideas a second, and liked to do a thousand things at once. An eternal cigarette in his mouth, Retinger was always on the move, he always seemed to be jumping from a car into a train, or from a train into a boat, or from a boat into a plane. No one ever really knew where he was, with whom, or why. No one also really knew with what money he was doing all this, and for whose benefit.

The Grey Eminence

If we stick to what his enemies said about him, he was the Devil incarnate. They accused him of every kind of crime. They regarded at best as a political adventurer, and at worst as an agent of evil forces. His enemies feared him as much as they hated him. Few dared to name him. Most often, they called him ‘Dr. R.’ or ‘Mr. R.’ or simply ‘R’.

His many friends, meanwhile, loved and respected him. They sometimes gave him affectionate nicknames, such as: ‘Father Joseph’ (in memory of his stay at the seminary, when he was 16 years old); the ‘Lame Devil’ (because of the walking problem that affected him since an unfortunate parachute jump he undertook in 1944, which left him needing to use a walking stick); or the Éminence Grise (because of his behavior, as well as his close ties with the two Popes, the White one and the Black one).

His friends described him with adjectives like brilliant, charming, discreet, loyal, brave, modest, selfless, mysterious, rough, frank, direct, tenacious. All agreed that he was fine psychologist, at times manipulative – someone who took pleasure in juggling with the ideas and with the emotions of the people around him.

It was said of him that his favorite pastime, at receptions, would be to sit in a corner, a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in his mouth (or vice versa), to observe in silence “the human comedy” unfolding before him. At some point, he would rise to whisper something in someone’s ear. Then he would return to his seat to watch the ripple effect his words produced on the assembly.

Life in the shadows

Sphinx among the sphinxes, Retinger was described by Ambassador Pietro Quaroni [1], shortly after his death, as one who “knew how to work in the shadows and stay in the shadows”. According to Quaroni:

“He had learned this great truth, difficult to learn and hard to practice: if you really want to achieve something in the great game of politics, you should know not to chase prominence. These are two different functions, and both are required: the big stars that hold the centre the stage, and the ants who work in the shadows”.

One of the shadows in which he operated so masterfully may have been cast by the dark wing of British Intelligence. “I am personally convinced he is a British agent, and this conviction is pretty well shared by some other people who are in a position to know better than I,” said C.D. Jackson, expert on psychological warfare and advisor to President Eisenhower, in a letter, written in 1954 to Ann Whitman, Eisenhower’s personal secretary.

Retinger saw himself sometimes as a puppeteer, sometimes as a director, sometimes as a conductor. Pietro Quaroni perfectly describes this trait, when quoting some anecdotes from the early years of the Bilderberg Group:

“He never missed one of our meetings, from the biggest to the smallest. I can still see him up there in his place as Secretary General, sitting a little crookedly, legs crossed, cigarette in mouth, his strange protruding jaw that sometimes seemed to have a life of its own: his jaw would fidgeted, protruding out to the front or the side, tormenting the cigarette […] And suddenly he would get up, grab his black cane and head down into the room, his eye roving and his jaw still shaking. He would suddenly appear behind you, to ask you to speak – or to remain silent. […] Retinger was always there to help newcomers to mingle with old regulars. If you seemed to hesitate, not knowing what to do, the tap of the cane would be heard next to you and you would be guided quietly to the table that could best suit you. He reminded me of the engineers behind the control panel, monitoring the red, green or yellow lights, that light up and turn off.”

The Retinger Method

The controversial politician, Lord Boothby, who was at the 1954 Bilderberg conference, said of Retinger: “His method has been described as throwing a number a diverse personalities into a room, and then seeing what came out of it.” And quite a lot did, said Boothby, because “he knew almost everyone that mattered in Europe and the United States. They turned to him not because of any influence or power he may have exercised, but because they realized that he was completely disinterested and selfless. He wanted nothing for himself, and he took nothing.”

Personifying the Templar motto “non nobis”, Retinger participated in the major international political intrigues of the twentieth century out of idealism, and because of his love and admiration of the men he decided to serve.

A will of steel

Retinger was a monk-soldier, who loved the simple pleasures of life: smoking, drinking, eating, chatting, laughing. He was an alchemist, a born bridge-builder, who never left anyone indifferent. Quaroni wrote about it:

“People clung to him, and quickly: I have experienced this myself. The first day I didn’t know him, a week later he became an interesting guy, after a month he had become indispensable to me. It had happened without my even noticing, and without the possibility of resistance.” [2]

Retinger learned very young to use his natural charm to bend others to his will. He hated anyone who resisted him. He possessed, in the words of Prince Bernhard, “a will of steel, a remarkable mind, and inexhaustible energy”. He had a high opinion of himself, but was a terrible husband and an absent father. On two occasions, he abandoned his wife and children to devote himself to his career and to pursue his childhood dream: to see a free and united Poland, built in a free and united Europe, radiating in a free and united world.

Literature to politics

As a young man, aged sixteen, Józef Retinger arrived in Paris to attend the Sorbonne, and cut his political teeth in the city’s salons, which he attended thanks to the introduction of his patron, Count Zamoysky, and his cousin, Maria Godebska – also known as Misia Sert.

Paris is where he wove his first network of contacts and friendships. Among his associates we find: the French cleric, Alfred Baudrillart; the politician, Anatole de Monzie; the aristocrat and secret negotiator, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma; the Countess de Castries; the dandy, Boni de Castellane; the statesman, George Clemenceau; and the diplomat, Philippe Berthelot. They gave him a taste of international intrigue, changing the course of life – setting him off on a fantastic ride, that only death would stop.

Retinger was studying literature, and alongside his new political acquaintances he became friends with many artists and renowned writers, such as François Mauriac, André Gide, Maurice Ravel, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Erik Satie, and Bernard Grasset.

When, at the age of twenty, he obtained his doctorate of Letters at the Sorbonne, he felt destined for literary career. At that time, he still dreamed of becoming a writer. He went to his friend André Gide and gave him a copy of a novel he had written, Les Souffleurs, asking his opinion on it. The great novelist gave it back, saying: “Anyway, Joseph, you will never be a writer.” [3] Retinger’s dreams of literary greatness collapsed: “If it’s like this,” he said, “it will be politics!” That’s when he decided to go to Munich to study comparative psychology – a fundamental science, to his mind, for the job he was about to undertake. In this decision he already showed his prescience, for in 1907 few people fully comprehended the implications of using Psychology in the context of politics and the management of power.

Retinger left Germany for England, where he wanted to hone his skills and complete his knowledge. So he enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science (the LSE), where he studied for a year. During this time he came into contact with reformist ideas promoted by the Fabian Society; it was three members of the Fabian Society (Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw) who in 1895 had created the LSE, in order to shape minds in favor of a political model which would be a synthesis between communism and capitalism, between the planned economy and the market economy.

Life in London

Retinger’s new career path led him, at the age of 25, to become the representative of the Polish National Council in London, responsible for promoting the Polish independence movement amongst the British intelligentsia. In the London salons he put into practice the techniques he’d learned in the Paris, and sought the company of the leaders of the political and cultural life of the British capital.

He quickly became friends with figures such as the writer Joseph Conrad, the novelist and propagandist Arnold Bennett, the former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the social campaigners Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Lord Arthur Balfour, Lionel Curtis and Winston Churchill.

As he learned to ride the winds of power, he found himself swept upwards to the summit of Olympus. From here on, he never ceased to associate with men of prominence. His influence began to be felt: from 10 Downing Street to the Quai d’Orsay, from the Vatican to the Kremlin. Retinger’s understanding of psychology and human relations gave him an ability to blend in, like a chameleon, wherever he went. He was able to simultaneously inhabit many different worlds, mixing with people from very different backgrounds, holding different (and sometimes absolutely opposing) views: Jesuits, Freemasons, synarchists, revolutionaries, Fabian socialists, supporters of Imperial Federalism etc. Etc.

Between 1906 and 1920, he worked on projects as diverse as:

    • ~ The definition of a reorganization plan for Central and Eastern Europe, wanted by the general of the Jesuits, the Polish Count Ledochowski Wlodimir.
    • ~ The creation of a world government, with the British federalist Arthur Capel.
    ~ The creation of the state of Israel, in collaboration with some of the leaders of the Zionist movement, such as Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov.

Retinger was one of those who best understood the contribution of the United States in the post-war world. Contributing more than any other to establish the transatlantic Bilderberg Group, he tried, relentlessly, to “explain the Americans to Europe and the United States to Europeans.” [4]

The Mexico Years

Dr R’s knack for infiltration was disturbing to some (such as Lord Northcliffe in England and Georges Mandel in France) and he became persona non grata in Europe, and he was forced to emigrate. Thus he spent the 20′s and 30′s overseas, as chargé d’affaires in Mexico.

Upon his arrival, he befriended Luis Negrete Morones and Plutarco Calles. He helped them win power, allowing the former to become Minister of Trade and Industry, and the second, to become President of Mexico. And later, in 1924, Retinger organized Mexico’s first international Trades Union conference.

In the special edition of the Bulletin of the Centre Européen de la Culturededicated to the memory of Retinger, KA Jelenski is the only one of his friends to address this phase of his life:

“He played an important role in Mexico, where he helped to organize labor unions. A covert war was being waged between the U.S. government and American oil companies. Retinger offered the Mexican government a plan to nationalize oil. For the implementation of this plan, the Mexican government asked Retinger to begin secret negotiations with Washington.”

The Sikorski years

Beyond his Mexican operations, Retinger continued to commute between England and Poland, where he collaborated with the Socialist Party. He moved to London in 1939, after the Army Chief and Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, asked him to be his chief-of-staff and his personal representative in England.

Retinger and Sikorski had known each other since the First World War, and over time their relationship turned into true friendship and affection. For three years, they were hardly ever apart. Retinger was the shadow of Sikorski, and his influence on the military leader was undeniable. Inevitably, Sikorski eventually accepted Retinger’s federalist ideas, and became convinced that Poland could only exist in peace within a Federation of European nations, ready to support each other – politically, economically and militarily. Otherwise, she was condemned to always having to cope alone with the hegemonic aspirations of Germany and Russia.

Thanks to Retinger, Sikorski became one of the first Heads of State or Government to declare himself openly in favour of a united Europe. Together, they defined the outline of what would be known thereafter as the “Sikorski Plan” for the creation of a community of free and independent nations of Central Europe.

In 1941, Sikorski and Retinger decided to create an informal committee composed of those representatives of foreign governments who found themselves in exile in London. The objective: to promote the idea of a united Europe.

The first contacts in this effort took place on February 7, 1941, with representatives of the Kingdom of Belgium: Messrs. Marcel-Henri Jaspar, Paul-Henri Spaak and Hubert Pierlot. All three (soon joined by Paul van Zeeland) adhered directly to the project and proved with time, to be exceptional allies. These talks gave the necessary first impetus to the creation of Benelux, for example. During this time, Retinger’s unique personality was operating on four cylinders – and former Secretary General of NATO, Paul-Henri Spaak remembers Retinger in his memoirs as “a singular character”:

“Intelligent, active, somewhat mysterious, he lunched every day with an English personality or with a minister of a government in exile. He knew everyone and had access everywhere. He was, during these years, one of the better informed men. During the war, he was at the origin of the discussions we had between Polish, Czech, Dutch, Norwegian and Belgian representatives, in order to establish new links. After the war, continuing his effort, he became one of the most convinced of the united Europe artisans. His name deserves to be remembered among the pioneers.” [5]

Then came that fateful night of July 3, 1943. In preparing a diplomatic offensive, General Sikorski left London for an inspection of Polish forces stationed in the Middle East. On the way back, flying from Gibraltar, his plane crashed and everyone on board was killed, except for the pilot. Since the purpose of the trip was of a military nature, Retinger had not accompanied the general, as he usually would have. He was waiting for the General at Swindon airport when he heard the news. In his notes, he gives an account of what happened when he returned to London:

“On my arrival in London I found a message from the Prime Minister asking me to call on him at midnight, after a Cabinet meeting. I was ushered into the big room at 10 Downing Street which had just been vacated by the Cabinet, and which was dense with smoke. I found the Prime Minister [Winston Churchill] alone, wearing his light blue siren suit. As soon as he saw me he got up and started to cry. He told me that he had loved General Sikorski as a younger brother, and had watched his career not only with interest, but with affection. He was profoundly moved and shocked by the news of the crash, and deplored the fact the he would not be able to co-operate with General Sikorski when peace came. He went on to recall with emotion the many critical days they had spent together. We then discussed the political situation of the Poles after General Sikorski’s death.” [6]

Following the death of his friend, Retinger continued to work for the independence of Poland, but only for a short time due to his strained relationship with Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, Sikorski’s successor. In addition, after the Yalta Conference, he realized that his country would end up in the sphere of influence of Moscow, so he decided to re-dedicate himself to his old dream of European Union.

Uniting Europe

On May 7th, 1946, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Retinger gave a speech on the future of Europe [7], which was one of the first calls for the political unification of the “old Continent”. A few weeks later, he founded the Independent League of European Cooperation [8] (which later became the European League for Economic Cooperation), along with, among others: the former Belgian Prime Minister Paul Van Zeeland; Dutch Senator, Pieter Kerstens; the former director of the British International Labour Office, Sir Harold Butler; and former High Commissioner to the french National Economy Daniel Serruys.

In 1947, he and the British politician Duncan Sandys (Winston Churchill’s son-in-law) created the Joint International Committee for European Unity, which set out to organize a major conference, with the aim of to bringing together all the existing pro-European movements. This conference, called the “Congress of Europe”, took place in The Hague, Netherlands, from 7 to 11 May 1948. Retinger was its general secretary and chief promoter.

This event, which gathered together nearly 800 European and North American key figures, was undoubtedly the starting point of the political process leading to the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which gave birth to the European Community.

After the Hague Congress, Retinger was the primary force behind the creation of the European Movement, the Congress of Europe, the European Centre of Culture and the College of Europe.

A convinced Atlanticist

A bridge between the peoples of Europe, he was also a bridge between Europe and the United States. To cite one example, he was (along with Winston Churchill and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi) one of only three European members of the American Committee on United Europe (the ACUE), a facade structure created in 1948 by the CIA, the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations, to coordinate U.S. aid for the project of European unification. It must be remembered that, at the beginning of the cold war, European unification was a top political priority for the United States. It was mainly Retinger who was responsible for coordinating the distribution of ACUE’s millions of dollars, without which a united Europe would most likely never have happened.

Retinger was a convinced Atlanticist. For him, there could be no Europe without America. Alone, she could not long resist the expansionist and hegemonic views of the Soviet Union. Inversely, without a united Europe, America would be quickly surrounded by the communist threat. Which is why he fervently supported the creation of NATO in 1949.

The Birth of Bilderberg

When the first tensions between partners of the Atlantic Alliance broke, endangering the entire multilateral political structure created after the war, Retinger took the initiative to resolve the situation. He felt, as stated in the Bilderberg’s press release, “that regular, off-the-record discussions would help create a better understanding of the complex forces and major trends affecting Western nations in the difficult post-war period.”

And thus, surrounding himself with people who had helped set up the European League for Economic Cooperation and the European Movement (and inspired by methods used at the time), he invented an informal transatlantic council, to be used to strengthen the dialogue and cooperation between Europe and the United States.

Retinger called a first meeting which was held in Paris, September 25, 1952, in Paris, hosted by baron François de Nervo, to draft the structure and operation of the organization. 12 men were present. Besides with Retinger and Baron de Nervo, there were: the Prime Minister of France, Antoine Pinay; France’s chief of opposition, the Socialist Guy Mollet; the former Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland; Hugh Gaitskell; General Sir Colin Gubbins; Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands; Dr. Rudolf Mueller; the Danish foreign minister, Ole Bjorn Kraft; the Greek diplomat Panagiotis Pipinelis; and the Italian ambassador, Pietro Quaroni.

It took them two years to involve the United States in their project, and to organize a first “Europe-America” Conference, which took place in Oosterbeek, in the Netherlands, in May 1954. The Bilderberg Group was Retinger’s last gift to the world. The culmination of a fifty year career, brought into being to unify Europe and the West.

An impoverished end

He died in London, June 12, 1960 of complications from lung cancer. Deprived of his property and an income, he faced with dignity the latter part of his life, with the material support of a few friends, who clubbed together to grant him a pension, in recognition of his loyal service. Among them were Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Paul Rijkens and Paul van Zeeland.

As a Polish patriot, Retinger fought all his life for the independence of his country and for this Poland owes him a lot. As a European patriot, he dedicated his energies to political, economic, cultural and even spiritual unification of the “old continent” – and for this, the European Union owes him much. If you take the time to study his career, it is hard not to be impressed by this man who dedicated his life to his ideals. He managed to bend to his will an impressive array of powerful people, forcing them to follow a path he had traced for them: a path beyond divisions and resentments. A path he hoped would lead to universal peace and harmony between peoples.

What would he think of the European Union and its operation today? And regarding the current transatlantic relations? Would he be happy to see how the Bilderberg Group evolved…?

Finally, we take this opportunity to greet Dr. Retinger’s assistant, Mr. John Pomian, who was also the first reporter and executive secretary of the Bilderberg Group. Thanks to him, and the biography he edited – Memoirs of an Eminence Grise (publishd in 1972) – we are privy to many details of the life of one of the greatest political operators of the twentieth century.

In conclusion, the last word can be given to Ambassador Pietro Quaroni, who was so close to Retinger during the last years of his life:

“Now that I try to focus on him, I discovered how little I knew of his personal life experiences. […] After his death I just learned a lot of details about his life, his political activity in favor of Poland. What the hell man! The day he found himself unable to do more to Poland, he began to work, not without success, to reconcile Marxism and the United States. As I wanted to talk to him!

You live next to someone for years, working with him, you fight with him and then, suddenly, you realize that you do not know anything about him. We travelled a long way together, we were friends and yet we stayed foreign.”

~ GB ~


[1] Pietro Quaroni (1898-1971) had been Italian Ambassador in Paris, Bonn and London. Once he left the diplomatic service, he was appointed president of RAI, the Italian state radio and television. Along with the president of the Christian Democrats, Alcide De Gasperi, he was the first Italian member of the Bilderberg Group. In 1961, he contributed to the publication of a special issue of the Bulletin of the European Cultural Centre, entitled Joseph Retinger, a great European. In it, his friends put together their memories to reconstruct as closely as possible the career of this man of a thousand masks. But the task wasn’t easy, and the mystery of the man remained. This led, moreover, Quaroni to title his article “Do we have known?”. (European Centre for Culture, Bulletin of the European Cultural Centre, Tribute to a great European JH Retinger, Grade 8, No. 5, Geneva, 1960-1961)

[2] Pietro Quaroni, L’avons-nous bien connu ?, Bulletin du Centre européen de la culture, Hommage à un grand Européen : J. H. Retinger, 8e année, n° 5, Genève, 1960-1961, pp. 8-13

[3] John Pomian – Edited by – Joseph Retinger. Memoirs of an Eminence Grise, Sussex University Press, Frome and London, 1972, pp. 11-13

[4] K. A. Jelenski, Un précurseur anachronique, Bulletin du Centre européen de la culture, 8e année, n° 5, Genève, 1960-1961, pp. 4-6

[5] Paul-Henri Spaak, Combats inachevés. De l’espoir aux déceptions, Fayard, Paris, 1969, p. 24

[6] Paul-Henri Spaak, Combats inachevés. De l’espoir aux déceptions, Fayard, Paris, 1969, p. 24

[7] http://www.cvce.eu/viewer/-/content/534c684a-8924-445a-8181-58360f939f56/fr

[8] http://www.elec-lece.eu/intro-en.html


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