LONDON – Desperate for a glimpse into Adolf Hitler's unpredictable mind, British spies hired an astrologer during World War II to match the forecasts of the Nazi leader's personal astrologers, documents declassified Tuesday show.
They soon regretted it.
The file released to Britain's National Archives catalogs the frustrations of MI5 handlers as they try to prevent the astrologer, Louis de Wohl, from publicly embarrassing high-ranking intelligence and military officers over whom he briefly held sway.
"I have never liked Louis de Wohl — he strikes me as a charlatan and an impostor," reads the first line in the astrologer's file. The letter is typical and is apparently signed by Dick White, who went on to become the head of MI5 in the 1950s.
De Wohl, was born in Berlin in 1903, where he worked as a bank clerk, a novelist and a screenwriter before fleeing to Britain in 1935 to avoid Nazi persecution for being part Jewish. His wife, Alexandra, fled to Santiago, Chile, where she claimed to be a Romanian princess and was known as "La Baronessa." Their relationship was closer to mother and son than man and wife, his file said.
In London, he claimed variously to be a Hungarian nobleman, the nephew of an Austrian conductor, the grandson of a British banking magnate and a relative of the Lord Mayor of London. His books told of traveling the Far East in Arab disguise and hanging out in Berlin cafes in women's clothing.
De Wohl laid out his astrological credentials in a 1937 autobiography, "I Follow My Stars." A year later in "Secret Service of the Sky," he argued stars were like spies that could obtain secret information.
His break came, he wrote in a later book, during a dinner at the Spanish Embassy in London, when a Spanish duchess asked de Wohl to reveal Hitler's horoscope to Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax.
Sir Charles Hambro, the head of Britain's Special Operations Executive, soon hired him as part of his network of agents across Europe.
The government rented an apartment for de Wohl in a hotel in London's exclusive Park Lane. On paper headed "Psychological Research Bureau," he reported on clients and wrote horoscopes for Allied and Nazi leaders.
But de Wohl's predictions were often so vague it is impossible to see any military use. Take his December 1942 prediction for seven months later: "The German astrologers must pray that enemy action does not force the Fuehrer into making important decisions within the first eight days of the month (of July), as this would lead to great disaster."
Agents complained de Wohl's flamboyantly gay demeanor was destroying their carefully constructed cover story that his hotel apartment was paid for by a wealthy female patron and that his special operations liaison officer was a mistress. Agents also complained of his boasting about connections to the War Office and Naval Command.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn't believe in astrology, but in mid-1941 he sent de Wohl to the U.S. to persuade Americans that the Nazis would lose within months if they entered the war.
A U.S. convention of pro-German astrologers had predicted Hitler would win the war, giving the U.S. more reason to stay out. Billing himself as "The Modern Nostradamus," de Wohl proclaimed the same stars showed the opposite — that Hitler would lose.
But ultimately it was Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that brought the U.S. into the war — not de Wohl's assurances that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's horoscope was stunning.
His services no longer needed, he was called back to London in February 1942. He told an MI5 officer that he was astonished when he returned to find his hotel apartment stripped bare and his "department" disbanded.
His handlers did not contact him. He knocked on doors looking for Hambro — wearing the uniform of a British Army captain. The rank was assigned to him temporarily for his U.S. mission and withdrawn afterward. But to MI5's dismay, that wasn't explained to de Wohl.
Behind the scenes, MI5 correspondence shows his handlers at a loss. Senior officers offer a number of proposals on how to "dispose" of de Wohl, including interning him in a camp or moving him to a remote corner of the country. Two other options are blanked out in the file.
"De Wohl is somewhat of a thorn in my side, for in at least some circles he is regarded as a complete charlatan with a mysterious, if not murky, past, but yet he struts about in the uniform of a British Army captain, and gives every reason for believing that he is in some secret employment," an officer identified only as Caulfeild wrote.
Deciding that de Wohl was potentially dangerous because he could damage the reputation of his clientele and the War Office, MI5 decided to keep him happy and continue to employ him. They argued he was a brilliant propagandist with rare insight into the German middle-class mentality.
Even Hambro tired of the astrologer. He passed his prognostications to propaganda departments for their "more lurid efforts."
"I have no doubt if I checked up his successes, I would see that he had more than an equal number of failures, but I have not the inclination nor the time to do so," Hambro wrote.
The war ground on and the Allies won without consulting the stars.
But as it drew to an end, de Wohl wrote one last autobiographical book, "The Stars of War and Peace," in which he revealed he was Britain's state seer and had fought Hitler from his luxury hotel using "star warfare."
The reviews of MI5 vetters were not kind, but raised no security concerns.
"It seems to me most undesirable that the public should get the impression that the utterances or actions of public men were at any time influenced by the mumbo jumbo of astrology," MI5 officer Stephen Watts wrote.