American intelligence agents considered him one of the most dangerous operatives in Mexico during World War II. One writer called him “ingenious” and possessed of “a diabolically brilliant intelligence.” A witness to his behavior called him “obnoxiously anti-Semitic.” And a world-famous actor called him “the greatest influence on my life.”
The actor was Hollywood legend Errol Flynn, and the “greatest influence” was Hermann Erben, an Austrian doctor who also worked for the Nazis. Because of his association with Erben, the actor was supposedly “outed” by author Charles Higham in 1980 as a Nazi agent in the controversial biography Errol Flynn: The Untold Story. Despite subsequent examinations of how Higham cherry-picked supposedly secret documents about Flynn, the myth of Flynn as a spy endures: The makers of the retro film The Rocketeer (based on the comic by Dave Stevens) even fashioned their villain, a swashbuckling actor and Nazi spy, after Flynn.
Erben (1897-1985) was indeed a Nazi spy, despite being half-Jewish. To American authorities after the war, he admitted that he served in German military intelligence from 1941-1945. Although there is more rumor than record about when precisely he joined the Nazi Party (there is a party card from 1938), formal membership did not matter. Erben’s zeal was such that he publicly expressed it as far back as the ’20s.
Higham called Erben “one of the most important and ingenious Nazi agents of the 20th century.” But as a spy, he was a washout, frequently breaking cover to express pro-Nazi sentiments. On board a ship in 1934, he told fellow passengers that he murdered many for the Nazis and would return to Austria to “blow up some people for the Nazis.” On another cruise, he wiped his hands on the American flag and gave the Nazi salute to a passing German ship. And he was frequently and clumsily caught in the act of taking pictures of pre-war American and British military installations.
Erben met Flynn while the actor was still a smuggler and gold prospector and together they traveled the world in 1933. When Erben later reconnected with Flynn in Hollywod, he was loudly pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic, according to Flynn’s stand-in Jim Fleming.
“He was obviously anti-Semitic, and loudmouthed about it, which went down very badly in Hollywood,” Fleming said. “He talked about the revolution that was going to free us all.”
Years later, Flynn described Erben as a “screwball” opposed to both Nazism and Communism, but in a 1933 letter to his father, Flynn wrote that Erben “will take a Nazi belt to hit a Communist.”
Flynn didn’t help matters for “scholars” of the Higham sort with his own frequent expressions of anti-Semitism. In a 1934 letter released by the CIA, Flynn wrote Erben about a “slimy Jew… trying to cheat me. I wish we could bring Hitler over here to teach these Isaacs a thing or two.” Franklin Roosevelt Jr. also attested to his friend Flynn’s anti-Semitism: “Errol used to join me and the Whitneys in fox hunting in Virginia. Knowing how he hated Jews, we used to call him ‘Flynnberg’ to annoy him.”
In one of his infamous fights with Hollywood studio boss Jack Warner, Flynn once urged Warner to appear on the set for a beating by Flynn. When Warner showed up, Flynn said, “We don’t allow any Jews on the set.”
But Flynn also had his better angels. While Erben spied for the Nazis, and used his friendship with Flynn shamelessly as cover for his espionage, Flynn transcended whatever sentiments he had about Jews to become a decided critic of Hitler.
After a Hollywood-sponsored goodwill trip to South America, Flynn told an American reporter, “They—Germany and Italy—are getting ready to fight us—not just the British Empire—and they want to fight us in our own backyard—South America. I know, I was there. I saw the preparations, the ‘tourists,’ the Fifth Columnists, the huge radio programs, the saboteurs.”
By 1940, he was saying that Hitler was subjugating “all our ideas of Right” to “those of Might,” and that “the tramp of the invader stamps underfoot every preconceived notion of decency.”
Regarding “the principles of democracy,” he stated that without them “I personally would not want to live.”
Flynn went to bat for Erben numerous times, even appealing to Eleanor Roosevelt to stop an investigation into revoking Erben’s American passport. She complied, but Erben was eventually kicked out of the country anyway for fascist espionage, particularly for his attempts to photograph military installations on the West Coast.
Was Flynn a Nazi spy? Not likely. Given Flynn’s anti-fascism and his view of Erben as a “screwball”—Flynn told the FBI that Erben was “the type of person who would do everything in his power to make it appear that in fact he was an espionage agent”—it is much more probable that the actor let his loyalty to his friend make him a dupe rather than an intelligence collaborator.
Consider the two men’s infamous trip to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. In this conflict, which pitted a leftist, democratically elected government against a Hitler-backed military rebellion headed by Francisco Franco, Flynn and Erben had divergent tasks. Flynn went as a journalist to research the war from the Loyalist side (in his diaries from that time, Flynn expressed no interest in gathering material for espionage purposes, but instead reported on how the anti-fascist Spanish hated fascism “with all their souls”). Erben, meanwhile, had more sinister motives.
He was assigned by German intelligence to photograph Germans fighting on the Loyalist side so that the Nazi government could blackmail those soldiers by holding their families in Germany hostage. Erben was also ordered to pose an unwitting Flynn beside Loyalist military installations.
During the war while Erben worked as a spy for German military intelligence, Flynn put his authentic anti-Nazism to the test by trying repeatedly to enlist in the U.S. army (he was rejected for, among other things, tuberculosis). He also sought to join the OSS.
Flynn wanted to be put in uniform and sent as an intelligence agent to Ireland, according to a letter the actor sent to OSS head Colonel William Donovan. Flynn saw himself as perfect spy material because he believed, paradoxically, that his fame would make people talk to him candidly. But nothing came of this offer.
Ironically, the FBI inadvertently cleared Flynn of the espionage accusations after keeping him under constant surveillance in hopes of catching him trying to procure underage girls, according to Flynn historians Tony Thomas, William Donati, and Lincoln Hurst. The bureau never uncovered any espionage activities on the actor’s part.
After 1940, Flynn and Erben never saw each other again. During the war, Erben continued his service for German intelligence, while Flynn’s popularity plummeted owing to perceptions that he was a draft dodger. He spent the rest of his life drinking himself to death, and died at the age of 50 in 1959.
Erben was tried for treason in Shanghai by U.S. military authorities in 1946. During the trial, he admitted he was a German spy from 1941-1945, and was able to get off death row and out of prison by naming other Nazis.
Erben moved back to Vienna and opened a medical practice. In 1974, he was awarded a golden merit citation by the Austrian government for his four decades of scientific research.
Erben outlived Flynn by 26 years, and to his dying day in 1985 denied that he ever convinced Flynn to spy for Germany.
But the myth of Flynn as spy lives on. When Flynn called Erben the “greatest influence on his life,” this would prove to be true in the actor’s after-life as well. Thanks to Flynn’s friendship with Erben, the popular perception of Flynn is that of an espionage agent for the Nazis.