In the Stars
Louis de Wohl and Astrological Intelligence in World War Two
In early January 1933, as Hitler was maneuvering himself into the chancellorship of Germany, an article appeared in the Neues Deutschland tabloid sensationally predicting that Hugo Eckener—longtime head of the Zeppelin Company, a man as globally famous as Lindbergh, and a centrist who had made his anti-Nazi views known—would become Germany’s next president, succeeding the ailing Paul von Hindenburg.
Eckener, though, had no intention of running, and he was horrified by the piece, whose sole source had been the editor’s decision to prophesy his destiny by casting his horoscope. Eckener later said this one article caused him no end of trouble with the incoming Nazi government, which now suspected him of harboring the dangerous ambition of wanting to oust Hitler.
A few years later, when he was summoned to see Hermann Göring for a warning chat about a rumor that he had mocked the Hitler salute while visiting America, the Air Minister brought up one other little matter. “They say you would have liked to have succeeded Hindenburg as president!” To this exhumation of the bizarre, astrology-imbued Neues Deutschland story, Eckener could honestly reply that this rumor had been started by a gutter rag, but it was evident, Eckener recalled, “from Göring’s dissatisfied manner that this point carried a certain weight in high Nazi circles.”1
In particular, the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, remained concerned about the piece’s implications. Now, Göring always enjoyed tweaking his fellow Nazi prince’s nose, and so promised to protect Eckener so long as he kept his politics on the down-low. That was an end to the matter, but what’s interesting here is that neither Goebbels nor Göring, let alone Hitler, believed in astrology in the first place, and yet some throwaway lines in a thrown-away paper had thrown them.
Astrology in Nazi Germany
Hitler’s interest in the supernatural, the spiritual, and the occult waxed and waned, mostly because he was more interested in the practical realities of power and domination.
Whereas Himmler took seriously the mystic nature of the very name, “Third Reich,” originally derived from the apocalyptic visions of the 12th-century seer Joachim of Fiore, for Hitler it had always been about the political optics. By 1939, he’d even told Goebbels to order the press to stop calling it “the thousand-year Reich,” a phrase he’d coined in the heady days of 1933, but which potentially had adverse millenarian implications.
In general, the occult occupied an ambiguous place in Nazi Germany. In the 1930s, academic institutions devoted to the sober study of Nazified cosmology like World Ice Theory to counter “Jewish physics” and Christian theology were allowed to flourish, but at the same time the regime cracked down on commercially motivated forms of astrology, shut down popular astrological magazines, and banned the casting of horoscopes of leading Nazis. Still, the Gestapo did not devote many resources to arresting practitioners, preferring to focus on more subversive elements (Jews, Communists, Freemasons, etc.), and one could still, especially outside Berlin, purchase astrological calendars and the like without being hassled.
Considering how popular the “border fields” (Grenzgebiete)—the paranormal, the occult, and the spiritual—were in the interwar years among working- and middle-class Germans, partly owing to the colossal mortality of the Great War and the desire to reconnect with the departed, the government had to perform a balancing act.
“This but not that” was the rule. So long as astrologers practised a form of putatively “scientific astrology”—not the vulgar “romance-in-your-stars” stuff in the tabloids, but a pursuit based on empirical principles—that helpfully cast supportive predictions for the regime, they could do very well, as could their griftier compatriots in clairvoyancy, dowsing, and parapsychology. For instance, one of the leading lights in this respect, Wilhelm Wulff, was taken on as Himmer’s personal astrologer because the Reichsführer appreciated his admirably scientific rigor.
Wulff’s rival was Karl Krafft, a young Swiss mathematician who’d switched careers and devoted a decade to typing a vast and unreadable tome ponderously entitled Traits of Astro-Biology. A few months after the outbreak of the War, he’d gotten in tight with the Deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess, after correctly predicting that an attempt on Hitler’s life would occur in November 1939.
Goebbels stopped any more loose talk on the subject of assassination but was sufficiently impressed by Krafft’s servility to hire him to “interpret” the 16th-century quatrains of Nostradamus to make sure they predicted a Nazi victory. Intending to circulate the demoralizing news in France and Britain, Goebbels was annoyed to discover that Krafft believed that Quatrain V’s “great duc d’Armenie” who would assault Vienna and Cologne referred to Stalin’s coming invasion of Germany. As the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact pledging eternal non-aggression between the two powers had only recently been signed, Krafft’s impolitic suggestion did not endear him to Goebbels.
Krafft still, however, enjoyed the strong backing of Hess, which was more than sufficient to protect him . . . until Hess scarpered to Scotland in May 1941 on his strange peace mission. The consequence of Hitler’s fury at Hess’s betrayal was a purge in which mystics were suppressed by the SD and Gestapo on the grounds that they had perverted the Deputy Führer.
Krafft, who had inexplicably failed to foretell his own future, was arrested but released a couple of years later, only to be rearrested in 1944 and sent to die at Buchenwald. (Wulff spent a short time in the doghouse, but Himmler brought him back in, where he served as his adviser on health, diet, and the Jewish Question.)
As for Hitler, despite rumors that Krafft was his favorite astrologer, he could never place any faith in astrology because that would imply that the stars governed his destiny, whereas he saw himself as a figure of world-historical importance driven by sheer will to power. The Führer made his views clear on the subject on July 19, 1942, during one of his turbid harangues to unfortunate lunch-guests forbidden to smoke or to drown their boredom in his presence. As loyally transcribed by the obsequious Martin Bormann, he spoke of “the horoscope, in which the Anglo-Saxons have great faith, is another swindle whose significance must not be under-estimated.”
Hitler, like the bottomlessly cynical Goebbels, instead believed in the power of astrology to prove a politically useful story. The Propaganda Minister hadn’t really been alarmed by the possibility that Eckener’s stars foretold his ascension; he’d been worried that weak-minded voters might believe it. He needed them to believe instead that Hitler was an unstoppable force, a god in human form visited upon Germany to save her.
Deities don’t need star signs to rule men.
The Black Box
In the early stages of the War, Hitler was regarded by the British as just such an unstoppable force. He was protean, a black box, a psychopathic god. What he believed, what his plans were, what went on in his head—there were any number of interpretations, none certain. Intelligence emanating from his familiars was few and far between, and in any case comprised mostly rumor and whatever could be picked up from a between-the-lines reading of the censored German press.
Since Hitler’s coming to power, London had either incorrectly predicted his moves or been repeatedly surprised. The departure from the League of Nations in 1933, the denunciation of the Versailles rearmament restrictions in 1935, the Rhineland remilitarization in 1936, the Austrian Anschluss in 1938, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and in 1941 the invasion of the Soviet Union—these had all caught British Intelligence offguard.
It was sometimes argued that these actions were those of a garden-variety opportunist who liked rolling the dice, and there were others who pointed out that in Mein Kampf Hitler had explicitly laid out his politico-strategic ambitions and that he was acting according to a rational plan.
Still, in the desperate days of 1940, Admiral John Godfrey, the head of the British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division (NID), argued that every possibility, no matter how outlandish, ought to be followed up. If Hitler was neither an opportunist nor a rationalist, but instead a crank, then it followed that that character flaw was exploitable. Hence the genesis of Godfrey’s scheme to assess whether astrology was guiding the Führer’s decision-making. Ideally, if it were true, then one could crack his horoscope to predict his next move. (For those interested, Hitler’s sign was Taurus with Libra rising.)
Godfrey was an odd bird in many ways—Ian Fleming, his assistant in Naval Intelligence, based the character of M partly on him—but, given what was known, or thought to be known, about Hitler’s mentality at the time, his idea was not entirely foolish, and neither was he a fool. Godfrey was an old intelligence hand, had helped found Bletchley Park, oversaw the ULTRA decrypts, and allowed the eccentric, now-unheard-of barrister Rodger Winn to run Room 41, the Submarine Tracking Room, as he liked.
I’m writing about Winn in my forthcoming book about an American big-game hunt for a U-boat, but for the sake of summary, the salient point is that Winn performed the seemingly impossible feat of predicting the courses and objectives of hundreds of German submarines using nothing but some intercepted radio transmissions, a dollop of informed supposition, a Holmesian eye for telltale clues, and a preternatural ability to get into U-boat commanders’ heads.
If Winn could do that, the thinking went, then maybe deploying the purportedly scientific principles of astrology to decipher Hitler wasn’t so crazy, after all. As Godfrey put it, “under certain circumstances, it is what people believe that matters, not what is.”
Today, the ensuing affair is regarded either as an embarrassing little episode, or barely regarded at all. In the late Sir Harry Hinsley’s five-volume official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War, for instance, it’s mentioned on just a single page before he moves on to weightier matters.
Yet the ramifications of Hitler’s horoscope were taken seriously by serious people for a serious reason. If the Führer truly was in hock to his pet astrologer Krafft, then it made sense that there would be periods that he considered providential, making it possible, even probable, that he would choose those moments to act decisively. So, if Hitler’s lucky times could be ascertained, the British could get the jump on him.
If Godfrey’s supposition, based on what he’d heard, had been correct—that Krafft had indeed mesmerised Hitler—then his scheme might today be lauded as lavishly as the famous Operation Mincemeat, but as we know, Krafft controlled only Hess and was always kept well away from the Führer. The fact that Godfrey believed otherwise indicates how little hard information British Intelligence had about Hitler and his inner circle in these early years of war.
Mind you, it also didn’t help that the instrument he chose to infiltrate Hitler’s mind was one of the War’s stranger characters, and here we meet Louis de Wohl aka Ludwig von Wohl aka Lajos Theodor Gaspar Adolf Wohl.
The Tall, Flabby Elephant
Little is known of Wohl’s early life, which is how he wanted it. He was born in Berlin in 1903 to a poor family. His father was Hungarian, probably Catholic, who died when he was young. His mother was of Jewish descent, though Wohl of course claimed she was a baroness, or at least baroness-adjacent. He was apprenticed to a banker and dismissed a few years later for unclear, though perhaps guessable, reasons.
He turned his hand to writing books, then as now an enviously lucrative trade, and cranked out potboilers, with no fewer than sixteen turned into films, not all memorable.
As someone classified as part-Jewish, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 ended his employment in the film business, though Wohl’s fondness for camp, Cabaret-style transvestism probably did him no good either, and he soon pitched up in Britain. He indicated that his wife, a Romanian princess named Alexandra, had instead sought refuge in Chile. It is not known whether she existed.
His Eric Ambleresque Mitteleuropean life story extended to his name. He began as the Hungarian-sounding Lajos, changed it to the German Ludwig in the 1920s, and finally settled on Louis, which he believed made him sound like a sophisticated Viennese of Franco-Habsburg pedigree.
For all that, Wohl was essentially a harmless fantasist who occasionally descended into quite charming charlatanry. By 1940, he had set himself up as a silken dressing-gown-clad astrologer to the stars (so to speak) from a modest hotel in north London. Among his clients were the Romanian ambassador, Russian émigré tycoons, and some Free French generals, all willing to pay top dollar to be told what they wanted to hear.
As such people do, Wohl came to the attention of MI5, the security service, which compiled a dossier on his “louche” existence and frequent “amatory adventures,” correctly thinking that he’d make a useful informer. Wohl’s MI5 handler, Major Gilbert Lennox, noted that his agent was “an extraordinarily clever and astute man and at the moment I am quite sure he is all out to help the British war effort.”
So when Godfrey came calling for an astrologer, Wohl fit the bill. His loyalty to Britain vouchsafed for by Lennox, Wohl’s namedropping of Krafft, and his expansive claims of familiarity with senior Nazi functionaries were taken as evidence of his profound insights into Hitler’s astrological state of mind.
The quality of these insights, however, was questioned by some. Another professional astrologer, who considered him an entertaining companion, commented that Wohl’s impressive “astronomical wisdom was entirely second-hand,” obviously picked up from skimming and recycling the works of deeper thinkers.
A more sceptical representative from the Political Warfare Executive, Britain’s propaganda specialists, noticed that Wohl’s modus operandi consisted of repeating back to clients the giveaways they had just carelessly divulged, but dolled up in unintelligible jargon about constellations, signs, aspects, and so on. The PWE man had Wohl’s number from the get-go: “It was simply a most fortunate coincidence that what I suggested [to him] so often fitted in with what the stars did indeed foretell.”
It was clear to most that Wohl’s sudden conversion to astrology had been entirely mercenary in nature, albeit disguised by his screenwriter’s gift for dramatizing the drab and an impresario’s knack for presenting himself as the Keeper of Esoteric Secrets.
Secret service was good to Wohl, who lived up to Major Lennox’s summary of him as “an exceedingly vain man with the German’s love of uniform and rank.” Soon after being taken on by Godfrey at Naval Intelligence, Wohl departed his Maida Vale hotel and took a suite at Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, where he gloried in his newly acquired (and temporary) rank of captain.
When his astrologer friend visited, Captain de Wohl balletically showed off his splendid officer’s uniform, which would never see a second of field service, an impeccable Sam Browne belt, a leather-covered swagger stick, and a Savile Row greatcoat. In five years, Wohl had traveled a long way from penniless refugee to British officer, even if this “tall, flabby elephant of a man” with the oiled hair who peered through “tortoise-shell rimmed spectacles” came across as a somewhat comical figure to many who crossed his path.
In return for its largesse, secret service demanded prime-grade intelligence from its new asset. Godfrey had sold his scheme to the Admiralty on the grounds that Wohl would provide ongoing analysis of Hitler’s possible moves based on his star sign as well as those of his “principal advisers, Generals and Admirals, and of the Statesmen, such as Mussolini, with whom he has had dealings.”
To back up his claims, Godfrey circulated a ten-page memorandum, written by Wohl, that claimed that Hitler was fascinated not only by his own horoscope, but consulted those of his allies and enemies to determine his actions and predict theirs. For those who raised an eyebrow at these methods, or questioned whether Wohl’s interpretation could be trusted to be accurate, Wohl countered that astrology was in fact “an exact science and that given the hour, date, and place of birth [of the subject] all reputable astrologers will arrive at roughly the same conclusion.” His readers were therefore assured that what they were reading was exactly what Krafft was presenting to the Führer.
Wohl, of course, had his detractors, but he doughtily compiled a compendious catalogue, padded with the usual obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo, of astrological influences, lucky and unlucky, that were due to bear on Hitler between September 1940 and April 1941.
These made for critical early-warning intelligence because Hitler, Wohl claimed, had “never undertaken a major action unless he had ‘good aspects’ at that time,” meaning that his “excellent timing” in the Rhineland, the Munich Crisis, and so forth had been owed to his willingness to wait until it was his lucky period. This wasn’t at all true, it should go without saying; Wohl was simply retconning the past to suit his present needs.
In case anyone thought this was a bit thin, he appended some “FBI serial-killer profiler” analyses of sundry characters within German High Command—which were about as useful and as insightful as real-life FBI serial-killer profiles.
Wohl’s description of Field Marshal Keitel, Chief of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW)—”Disagreeable to inferiors, humble to superiors . . . Capable of wrong decisions in the decisive moment”—is a cavalcade of sorta-accurate but popular cliches suffixed by an all-too-obvious assertion that his “fits well with Hitler’s Horoscope”—as well it might, considering that his nickname around HQ was a pun on “Lackey” and even Hitler used to joke that while “he has the brains of a movie usher” he was “as loyal as a dog.”
Meanwhile, Wohl’s summary of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army (1938-41), was comically off, given the latter’s general spinelessness and propensity to borrow large amounts of money from Hitler: “Generous, intelligent, patient, diplomatic. Sound views. Conservative and yet progressive. . . . I rather like him [for] this man can hardly be a Nazi at heart.” (Wohl adhered to the naive, pre-War British assessment that there were nutty radicals and sensible moderates within Hitler’s inner circle, whereas in fact everybody was working towards fulfilling what they supposed were the Führer’s unexpressed wishes.)
Where Wohl went really wrong, however, was in proposing that he lead a global team of astrologers who together would induce a depressed Hitler to kill himself between March and May 1941 by forecasting the time, manner, and place of his death and announcing it publicly. “It is impossible that the whole world speaks of the death of one man, without this man becoming aware of it,” Wohl declared. “It will haunt him.”
This was too much even for Godfrey and Wohl was dropped (March 1941), only to be taken up by Sir Charles Hambro of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hambro loved the idea of what Wohl had dubbed the “Orchestra of Death.” Why not have him travel to America talking up the inevitability of Hitler’s death and German defeat at a time when Britain was on the ropes? It’d be good for the spirits, and even better for the prospects of the hoped-for Anglo-American alliance.
That spring of 1941, Wohl was despatched for a lengthy tour of the United States in the company of his SOE handler, Miss June Bambridge, where he gave numerous radio and newspaper interviews about Hitler’s unavoidably imminent demise.
The one thing Wohl had not foreseen—though, to be fair, few others had either—was that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, removing at a stroke the need to induce the United States into an alliance. Wohl’s services were dispensed with and he returned home. Despite continuing to submit notes on astrological matters, he finally disappears from the wartime record in March 1943. Impressively, it has to be said, Wohl did get right that Hitler would commit suicide, though it was rather later than he’d predicted.
After the War, Wohl jilted the stars for the Son of God and converted to Catholicism, which he took more seriously than he had astrology. He wrote a couple of books about his wartime accomplishments—vastly exaggerated, of course—and produced a few religious novels, one of which was turned into a film by Michael Curtiz, Francis of Assisi, in 1961. Some critics said it was of interest only to Catholics. He also married, perhaps twice (it’s a little unclear, as most things are with Wohl), before dying in Switzerland in 1961.
The most ironic aspect of the Wohl episode is that, in the end, Hitler did clutch to a desperate faith in the stars in the form of a cosmic intervention to save Germany from her enemies.
In early April 1945, Goebbels had been given a dossier full of astrological prophecies, which he pored over for signs of a miracle that he could publicise to the masses who had so disappointed the Führer by not yet sacrificing their lives.
And then, on April 12, there was one, news of which he brought straight to a morose Hitler. “Here, read this,” exclaimed the suddenly reinvigorated Führer to Albert Speer. “Here! You never wanted to believe it. Here! . . . Here we have the great miracle that I always foretold. Who’s right now? The war is not lost. Read it! Roosevelt is dead!”
A few other witnesses in the Bunker were unsure whether Hitler genuinely believed that salvation would come in the form of Churchill and Stalin leaping at each other’s throats with FDR gone. Nicolaus von Below, his Luftwaffe adjutant, thought Hitler was more sober about it than Goebbels, and Field Marshal Kesselring wondered whether he was “play-acting” to keep up his spirits. Ultimately, however, “I am inclined to think that he was literally obsessed with the idea of some miraculous salvation, that he clung to it like a drowning man to a straw.”
Whatever the truth, it was too late to matter, for, as Nostradamus foresaw, the Allied armies of east and west were driving towards the Berlin meridian and within weeks their stars aligned and the heavens fell.
R. Arthur, “The Rise and Fall of Hitler as Foreseen by Nostradamus,” The Military Engineer, 51 (1959), 339, pp. 34-36 (Note: This is one of the strangest articles to ever appear in the august pages of this otherwise sober-minded journal); F. Jay, “The Louis de Wohl I Knew,” Skyscript.co.uk; F.H. Hinsley et al, British Intelligence in the Second World War (London: HMSO, 5 vols., 1979-1990); I. Kershaw, Hitler (London: Penguin Press, 2 vols., 1998-2000); E. Kurlander, “Hitler’s Supernatural Sciences: Astrology, Anthroposophy, and World Ice Theory in the Third Reich,” in M. Black and Kurlander (eds.), Revisiting the ‘Nazi Occult’: Histories, Realities, Legacies (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2015), pp. 132-56; E. Montagu, Beyond Top Secret U (London: Peter Davies, 1977); H.R. Trevor-Roper (intro.), Hitler’s Table-Talk, 1941-44 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) (Note: Needs to be read with caution); P.R.J. Winter, “Libra Rising: Hitler, Astrology, and British Intelligence, 1940-43,” Intelligence and National Security, 21 (2006), 3, pp. 394-415.
This story is taken from my book, Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World.