Skepticism

An astrologer, Hitler, and MI5

How’s that for a headline? Today, the National Archives released MI5 documents showing how Britain hired a flamboyant, cross-dressing German astrologer named Louis De Wahl in an attempt to exploit what they suspected was a weakness of Hitler’s — a belief in the paranormal.

At first, I thought that sounded pretty cool. If Hitler believed in astrology, a “psychic” who knows the cons of the trade could go undercover and convince Hitler to make stupid moves, or play upon his insecurities by predicting his doom. By the sound of it, though, the astrologer just ended up conning everyone, causing trouble, and getting nothing done because maybe Hitler didn’t even buy into astrology. Whoops!

It started out sounding like a good idea.

“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.

That makes sense, especially in light of research like Richard Wiseman’s into luck — how optimistic people take advantage of more situations while pessimistic people who think they’re unlucky tend to miss opportunities. Along that same line, it was a good idea to send De Wohl on a tour of the US, getting major newspapers to print headlines like “Seer Sees Plot to Kill Hitler.” If Hitler bought into this pseudoscience, he could start to make major mistakes.

All of this would be great, had the MI5 hired an honest magician who secretly acted the part of a psychic, as opposed to hiring a known kooky fraud. It’s not out of the ordinary — those of you who have read The Secret Life of Houdini know that the magician was very likely hired by Britain to act as a secret agent while on tour throughout Europe.

Here’s a clue that hiring De Wohl was going to be a bad idea:

“The system, according to which Hitler is advised, is universal, and, being mathematical, has nothing whatsoever to do with clairvoyance or mystic matters,” [De Wohl] 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.”

Yeah, the problem there is that it’s not universal. Ask five different astrologers about your “lucky day” next April and you’ll probably get five different answers, one of which will probably be in May. So immediately we know that either De Wohl was deluded or else he was running his astrology con on the MI5 as well as on Hitler. Not a good sign.

He even made “predictions” about Hitler’s future moves. How seriously MI5 took these predictions, I don’t know. What we do know is this:

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”.

After all this trouble, sadly, it may have been a useless endeavor from the start.

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”.

Well, so much for invoking Godwin’s Law.

Thanks to Nick in Chicago and many others for the heads up! More info from the Guardian. Cross-posted at SGU Blog.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. Mental note: if I decide to become a megalomaniacal skeptic bent on taking over the world, be sure to surround self with lots of psychics, mystics, homeopaths, and other vendors of woo to make enemies think that I'm crazy and impossible to comprehend. Enemies will then waste resources, time, and money hiring their own woo vendors to try to interpret my moves while I move secretly and swiftly in the background, using science and hard data to deal swift, crushing blows.

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