Saturday, April 25, 2009

Churchill's Astrologer

This is kind of old news, as it was reported in the press a year ago when the relevant files were made public, but I only just discovered it ... did you know that during World War II MI5 (the internal intelligence agency in the UK) employed an astrologer? Partly to pass on intelligence about certain clients who were under investigation, but also to try to predict Hitler's plans on the assumption that he was following astrological advice.

Weird, but if you are into Catholic literature it gets stranger, as there is a high chance you will have come across books written by MI5's official astrologer. So who was he?

Louis de Wohl.

I read and enjoyed a couple of his books a while ago - fictionalised biographies of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo - and was searching for the title of his book on St. Helena, thinking it would be an interesting follow up to Evelyn Waugh's book about her ... and what did Google throw up? A whole series of articles about de Wohl's wartime career.

Oh. My. Goodness. Not what I was expecting at all!

Now, I'm not posting this to put anyone off reading his books, but purely out of interest in a rather extraordinary story. So far as I can discern, de Wohl "got religion" after the war, dropped out of astrology (if, in fact, he was ever genuinely into it in the first place) and into writing Catholic fiction. From what I found, he would be a fascinating subject for a full scale biography. I dug around a bit, and patched together this potted version ...

Louis de Wohl was born Ludwig von Wohl in 1903 in Berlin to a Hungarian father from a minor aristocratic family and an Austrian mother. He claimed his family were Catholic, but there is some suspicion that he was Jewish, or part-Jewish, and that his origins were the real reason he left Germany for Britain in 1935. He himself said he left because he could no longer stand Hitler and living in a country whose laws he could not respect. He had a brief career in banking before becoming a writer of popular novels and serials.

When the war broke out in 1939, he volunteered to serve in the British forces, but as a German national was declined. In 1940 he managed to coax MI5 into employing him as an astrologer, with the rank of Captain. His handler described him as "extraordinarily clever" and a "brilliant propagandist"In 1941 he was sent to America by the Special Operations Executive in an attempt to undermine the feeling that Hitler was invincible and to encourage pro-war sentiment. MI5 agents had very mixed feelings about de Wohl and some suspected he was a fake. An MI5 minute written in February 1942 says: "De Wohl is somewhat of a thorn in my side…a complete charlatan with a mysterious, if not murky past…struts about in the uniform of a British Army Captain and gives every reason for believing that he is in some secret employment…he is likely to be guided solely by his vanity…there is no case for interning him…if…left at large it is essential that we should keep a close tag on him…". Another described him as a "bumptious seeker after notoriety". Despite de Wohl's claims that Hitler was receiving astrological advice, it is now known that he was not.

Louis de Wohl's wartime experiences led him to rediscover his early faith. He became a committed Catholic and decided his writing career must change direction. In his own words:

Another seven years would pass before the late Cardinal of Milan, Ildefonso Schuster, would tell me: "Let your writings be good. For your writings you will one day be judged." But already then I knew that I had to undergo a radical change as a writer, and I knew that I had to make up for many years of time lost. I did not vow, like Franz Werfel, to write the life of some special saint if I would get out of the war alive. I just decided to serve God.
He began to write biographies of saints. His claimed his book on St. Thomas Aquinas was written at the direction of Pope Pius XII, who later told him to write about "the history and mission of the Church in the world". Is this true, I wonder? In the 1950s he lived for some time in the United States, married a German novelist, and moved to Switzerland where he died in 1961.

Fellow astrologer Felix Jay knew Louis de Wohl for twenty years and his recollections paint a picture of a charismatic man who combined self-aggrandisement and fantasy with real likeability. Jay strongly doubted that de Wohl was ever a real astrologer, although books he wrote on the subject are still quoted in astrological texts. He also thought his autobiographical snippets were suspect. This is his description of de Wohl in 1938, when they first met:
He occupied a large room in the hotel littered with books, papers in complete confusion, a large desk covered with all sorts of mementoes and framed and signed photographs and the inevitable leather cases of big cigars. Most objects of daily use were engraved with a baronial coat of arms. He was a man of medium height, but appeared to be much taller when sitting like an archduke in a high chair. More often than not he wore a flowing robe or a silken dressing gown. Everything around him oozed baroque or rococo opulence: he loved luxury of the peculiar Michael Arlen brand, and was surrounded by a Sydney Greenstreet aura of questionable taste, this serving not only to impress the visitor but most likely to generate in his own mind an illusion of grandeur ... He behaved initially like a duke giving audience to a petitioner. This attitude underwent a gradual change and another Louis began to emerge: smiling, humourous, sometimes puckish, sparkling. One felt happy in his company. His mind seemed to be receptive to any new fact or idea, and while giving the impression of dispensing his graces freely, he, in fact, drew from others all the time for information, ideas, facts, and useful items.
He was apparently genuinely affluent, with his writer's income supplemented by wealthy astrological clients (he charged 30 guineas for a horoscope, the equivalent of £800 today) and gambling. He had a talent for making a little knowledge go a long way, and for making full use of his contacts ... he didn't invent the myth that Hitler had an astrologer, but he certainly exploited it in his own interests. Interestingly, Jay thought that de Wohl's claim that his wartime role was as an astrologer was false - "I found it increasingly difficult to believe that the British High Command would consult an enemy-alien astrologer" - but the MI5 files show de Wohl was telling the truth. Jay clearly liked de Wohl as a man, but his verdict on him as an astrologer was damning:
Did Louis de Wohl believe in astrology? Did he regard it as an esoteric or scientific discipline? I must confess that after the end of the War, I began to doubt it: he could talk of his practice in the same superficial and often brilliant manner as of any other matter, be it women, card games, a new fashion or the shortage of cigars. I came to the conclusion that Louis, after his conversion to astrology, had seen in it quite early certain definite material advantages: in the first place it enlarged the already substantial impression he made upon his prospective rich and titled clientele whose company gave an added prop to his ego, and in the second place he saw endless opportunities for, 'selling' expensive horoscopes.
On the other hand, he seems in no doubt that Louis underwent a genuine religious conversion. When he first visited him after the war:
To my surprise, instead of an astrological conversation ... I was submitted to a religious homily, and looking around the room I saw crucifixes and religious prints and other objects. Louis had either been converted to, or had returned to, Roman Catholicism, and his monologues, which in the past had been spiced with the names of the worldly high and mighty, now contained references to bishops, abbots and saints.
Fascinating stuff!

Sources
Independent and Guardian articles describing de Wohl's wartime career
Brief autobiography at CatholicAuthors.com
National Archives
The Louis de Wohl I Knew by astrologer Felix Jay.

7 comments:

Mary G said...

I think this is so cool ... especially the part about him coming back into the Faith and dropping the astrology bit ... but pretty smart to get MI5 to hire him as a Captain, no less! It would have been fun to know him ...

Blessings from the other side of the pond!

Meredith said...

Wow, this was really interessting Kathryn, I'm so glad you shared this, very inspiring!

Melanie B said...

Fascinating indeed.

Didn't Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor series depict a witch doctor in the employ of British intelligence? I wonder if Waugh was inspired by de Wohl in creating that character.

Karen E. said...

Wow, fascinating stuff indeed!

Dorothy said...

'In 1941 he was sent to America by the Special Operations Executive in an attempt to undermine the feeling that Hitler was invincible and to encourage pro-war sentiment.'

Sounds like the makings of a movie to me.{g}

Carole in Wales said...

Curious. I love learning facts such as these. Cannot wait to share it at dinner tonight. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for Sharing the Helpful Information!
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