File this one under: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It’s a story that I couldn’t resist because it combines my interest in skepticism with my interest in World War II history. Too bad there wasn’t a way to throw some medicine in there as well; otherwise I could have had a trifecta.
Yesterday, I was sent a news story that demonstrates how a seemingly good idea can go horribly wrong. In the deepest, darkest depths of World War II, in 1940 and 1941, when Britain’s very survival as a nation was in doubt as the Blitz pummeled its cities and even the stoutest Englishman, alone in at night, probably had doubts about whether the doughty little island nation could hold out for much longer, it’s not surprising that the government would latch on to anything it could that might give it an advantage. Sometimes this could lead even the hard-headed realists to do things that might not seem advisable. Even later in the war, it lead them to recruit an inveterate thief and liar like Eddie Chapman to be a double agent. That Chapman, whose story was recently chronicled in books by Nicholas Booth and Ben McIntyre (the latter of which, by the way, was a rip-roaring good read) and seems destined to become a big budget movie someday, turned out to be one of the most successful, if not the most successful, double agents of the war didn’t change the fact that it was an incredibly risky move that could easily have backfired. However, not all gambles paid off. A good example of this is when the British Special Operations Executive recruited a flamboyant German astrologist named Louis De Wahl, whose story became known through recently declassified documents released by the British National Archive, because he convinced MI-5 that he could show them how to exploit Hitler’s belief in the paranormal, the story of
On the surface, this sort of strategy might have seemed like a good idea. Hitler was widely believed to be a believer in astrology and all sorts of other paranormal phenomenon. Today, we know that Heinrich Himmler was far more into the paranormal than Hitler ever was, and was rumored to have consulted astrologers in the later days of World War II. He was also well known for his interest in mysticism, and his influence was a large element in the race cult offshoots of Nazi-ism, particularly in the SS. Himmler also was reported to have considered himself the spiritual successor, if not the very reincarnation of, Heinrich the Fowler, first of the Ottonian Dynasty of German kings and emperors. Indeed, during his time in power, Hitler appeared far less interested in the occult and astrology than Himmler and Rudolf Hess.
Nonetheless, psychological profiles of Hitler at the time suggested that he was into astrology, and De Wohl was more than happy to confirm and feed that idea, despite his dubious background:
Louis De Wohl, who changed his name from Ludwig von Wohl, was born in Germany but claimed to have been the son of a Hungarian nobleman. He moved to Britain before the war and wrote a number of books on astrology, including one he called Secret Service of the Sky.
De Wohl came to MI5’s attention in 1940 through connections with people interned because of their suspected pro-German sympathies. He did not “speak a word of Hungarian”, observed one MI5 officer, who added that De Wohl “claims to have often frequented cafes in Berlin in feminine attire”.
Another MI5 officer described De Wohl as a “tame astrologer of German upbringing who is employed by SO2 [SOE's sabotage section] for their own fell purposes”.
Cooler heads at MI5 had nothing but contempt for De Wohl, describing him as “an exceedingly vain man” and a “bumptious seeker after notoriety.” Yet, he apparently had the SOE eating out of the palm of his hands:
OE brushed aside MI5’s comments and gave De Wohl the rank of captain and an army uniform in which, MI5 later observed, he loved to “strut” around London.
De Wohl managed to persuade intelligence officers that he could use horoscopes to influence Hitler and his advisers.
“An attack against Hitler at a time when he knows that his aspects are bad will certainly find him prone to some amount of defeatism, to force his hand then would be a definite advantage for us,” enthused one of De Wohl’s supporters.
They included Admiral John Godfrey, director of naval intelligence, on the grounds that the stars seemed the only explanation for Hitler’s unpredictable strategic decisions.
Or it could be that Hitler was simply unconventional and then later became utterly convinced that he knew better than his generals. When things were going well for him, as during the Blitzkrieg into Poland, it may have seemed that way. When the tide turned against him in Russia, not so much. But inferring from Hitler’s unconventional strategy and previous speculation that he was into the paranormal did not make statements like this any less tenuous:
Back in Europe, De Wohl suggested he should “shadow” Karl Ernest Krafft, Hitler’s self-appointed astrologer, on the grounds that this could make him privy to the German leader’s future decisions.
He told Sir Charles Hambro, the banker who headed SOE’s sabotage section during the war, that he had used Krafft’s methods to predict Hitler’s moves in 1940 and 1941.
“The system, according to which Hitler is advised, is universal, and, being mathematical, has nothing whatsoever to do with clairvoyance or mystic matters,” he wrote.
“Checking up on the events of the past, I found that all major enterprises of Hitler since he came to power, have been undertaken under ‘good aspects’. Hitler’s famous ‘divine intuition’ is in reality simply knowledge about planetary tendencies.”
Unfortunately, the SOE appeared to have been as taken in by De Wohl as any mark. Never mind that not only was De Wohl an astrologer, but he was clearly a flim-flam artist. Worse, given that astrology is not consistent, much less “universal.” In any case, what this shows is that it’s usually better to leave these matters to the professionals whose primary job it is to run secret agents. I can’t help but think of the contrast with Eddie Chapman. Chapman may have been every much as vain as De Wohl, and he may on the surface have seemed less trustworthy, but his motivations were a bizarre combination of greed and patriotism. There was no belief in the supernatural and no attempt to predict anyone’s behavior based on the stars. The MI5 and MI6 agencies recognized De Wohl for what he was. Why couldn’t the SOE? None of De Wohl’s predictions turned out to be true save one:
An MI5 officer reported that none of De Wohl’s predictions had materialised except his forecast of Italy’s entry into the war, made when that was “quite patent to anybody with the slightest knowledge of international affairs”.
Worse, this was Hitler’s attitude towards a lot of the mysticism common in the Nazi movement, as evidenced in this passage from Mein Kampf:
The characteristic of most of these natures is that they abound in old Germanic heroism, that they revel in the dim past, stone axes, spear and shield, but that in natura they are the greatest cowards imaginable. For the same people who wave about old Germanic tin swords carefully imitated, and wear a prepared bearskin with bull’s horns covering their bearded heads always preach for the present only the fight with spiritual weapons and flee quickly in sight of every communist blackjack.
On the other hand, Hitler apparently consorted with clarvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen, who reportedly predicted his rise to power a year before he became Reichschancellor; so apparently Hitler did act on the advice of psychics at least once, and there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that, at least early in his political career before he became Reichschancellor, he did show an interest in the paranormal. On the other hand, the ultimate fate of Hanussen was to be picked up by the SS and summarily executed. Moreover, whatever woo Hitler may have believed in, apparently astrology wasn’t part of it:
The historian Christopher Andrew, whose official history of MI5 is due next year, the 100th anniversary of the agency’s birth, said yesterday that despite De Wohl’s claims, Hitler in fact regarded astrology as a “complete nonsense”.
If that’s true, it would almost certainly be the only thing about which one could say I actually agree with Hitler.