It was the summer of 1941 and a British astrologer named Louis de Wohl was becoming wildly popular among Americans with his increasingly accurate predictions in his stargazer column, “Stars Foretell.” As de Wohl’s reader numbers escalated to meteoric heights, real world consequences ensued. In August 1941, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lifted its long-standing ban against astrologers and aired an exclusive interview with the man being heralded as “The Modern Nostradamus.” Just a few weeks later, for the first time in U.S. history, an astrologer was filmed for a U.S. newsreel, the TV news of the day. “Pathé News released the newsreels’ seminal plunge into prophecy with a nation-wide audience of 39,000,000 sitting as judge jury and witness,” declared a press release issued by de Wohl’s manager. Except it was a facade; it was all fake news.
De Wohl’s newspaper column was part of an elaborate black propaganda campaign to organize American public opinion in favor of Britain, and to ultimately get the U.S. to enter the war. In reality, de Wohl worked for British Intelligence (MI5). His so-called manager was none other than the legendary spymaster Sir William Stephenson, a man whom Winston Churchill famously called Intrepid. The average American had no idea.
War was raging across Europe and in de Wohl’s syndicated astrology column emphasis was always on the Nazi threat. “Hitler’s chief jackal is moving into the house of violence,” he predicted, “Seer Sees Plot to Kill Hitler.” Then, in June 1941, one of de Wohl’s more detailed predictions seemed to come true. “A strong collaborator of Hitler who is neither German nor a Nazi will go violently insane,” he foretold. “He will be in South or Central America, probably near the Caribbean Sea.” Three days later, U.S. newswires proclaimed that the Vichy High Commissioner of the French West Indies, Admiral Georges Robert, had gone insane and had to be restrained by staff. The New York Post reported that newspaper editors across America “besieged de Wohl with requests for exclusive stories.” The astrologer possessed a mysterious ability to know the unknowable, and millions of Americans wanted to know more.
The way it worked behind the facade was masterful. The British spy agency first fed information to de Wohl, which he would write up in his column. In turn, MI5 would then feed the bogus information to the U.S. press. Unable to fact-check details with the Third Reich, the American press would report the news as real, which it was not. For example, the Vichy High Commissioner of the French West Indies never went insane.
According to the CIA’s Office of the Historian, de Wohl’s handler was working directly with U.S. spy chief Colonel William Donovan to “coordinate and oversee U.S. intelligence collection and analysis efforts.” This was before the Office of Strategic Services—precursor to the CIA—even existed. The goal of the black propaganda campaign was simple: British intelligence agents believed that England needed assistance from the American war machine in Europe in order to beat back the Nazis. De Wohl’s phony predictions were intended to help sway public opinion away from the prevailing U.S. isolationist views of the day. The ruse was effective. In one declassified memo, William Stephenson wrote of de Wohl, “An ever-growing audience [is] becoming convinced of his supernatural powers.”
Using its citizens’ fascination with the supernatural was a concept borrowed from the Nazis. In Germany, numerous high-ranking Nazis were obsessed with the supernatural, including astrology, map-dowsing, and other forms of divination. As Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler had created a vast Nazi science academy called Das Ahnenerbe; one branch, the Survey of the so-called Occult Sciences (Uberprüfung der Sogenannten Geheimwissenschaften) conducted research on extrasensory perception (ESP), astrology, map dowsing, spirit channeling, and other forms of divination. Ahnenerbe scientists were dispatched around the world to excavate prehistoric sites attached to mystical and supernatural ideas. From Istanbul to Iraq, they searched the globe for lost lands like Atlantis and fabled items like the Holy Grail and the Lance of Destiny—the spear said to have pierced Christ in the ribs as he hung on the Cross. On Himmler’s orders, SS officers scoured Germany’s occupied territories, raiding libraries of the occult and looting artifacts related to magic. Entire museum collections of mystical texts in Poland, Ukraine, and Crimea were crated up for Ahnenerbe possession. Among the items said to be most-coveted by Himmler were artifacts of ancient Germanic magic that had miraculously survived three centuries of witch-hunts. The artifacts were carefully maintained; some were discovered by U.S. intelligence agents after the war.
Himmler was not alone in his obsession with the occult. SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, head of the Nazi’s foreign intelligence service, saw its usage for propaganda. “Astrology is a vehicle for the propagation of political concepts,” he told Himmler’s personal astrologer, Wilhelm Wulff. And Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s obsessively loyal second-in-command, betrayed Hitler and defected to England on the advice of an astrologer. Ironically, Hitler himself loathed supernatural ideas. “What nonsense!” the Führer told Albert Speer, as recounted in Inside the Third Reich. “Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind it, and now [numerous Nazis] want to start that all over again! We might just as well have stayed with the church.”
When Hess betrayed Hitler, the Führer finally had his reason to ban all things supernatural. After declaring Hess legally insane, Hitler enforced Special Action Hess, which included the mass arrest of more than 600 astrologers, fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, faith healers, and other German practitioners of the supernatural or the occult. Artifacts of divination, including tarot cards, scrying mirrors, and crystal balls, were confiscated, as were entire libraries of mystical texts.
Enter Louis de Wohl. Just three months after the FCC made its historic exception for de Wohl—permitting him, an astrologer, to appear on U.S. radio waves—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and Hitler declared war on the United States. America had entered World War II, and British intelligence summoned de Wohl home to England.
For the next few years, de Wohl was used by the Allies as part of an astrology-based, black propaganda campaign, this time inside Nazi Germany. Under the direction of master propagandist Sefton Delmer, de Wohl wrote seemingly authentic astrology charts that predicted the demise of certain Nazi admirals and generals, and stated that Hitler would be betrayed by his inner circle. These fake star charts and horoscopes were included in near-perfect replicas of a German astrological magazine, banned as part of Action Hess and called Zenit, to be smuggled into Germany for underground distribution. The idea was to make it look as if Zenit was being secretly published in Germany by German occultists working in defiance of the Nazi astrology ban. Instead, the counterfeit magazines were seized by the Gestapo in the port city of Stettin. The plan derailed.
But lo and behold, more than one of de Wohl’s predictions came true. Numerous Nazi generals experienced their downfall, Hitler was betrayed by his inner circle, and Germany lost the war. There were additional real-world consequences as well. After the war, members of an elite U.S. scientific intelligence effort called Operation Alsos came across one half of the surviving collection of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe documents and artifacts; the Soviets came across the other half. As the Cold War set in, each side wondered what the other side had discovered, and if perhaps their side got the short end of the stick. This set off a decades-long psychic arms race between the U.S. and the USSR, with each side trying to outdo the other side in top-secret research into mystical subjects, including extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, map-dowsing, and other forms of divination.
The programs continue across the Defense Department today, re-branded under the rubric of advanced technology. They bear names like Anomalous Cognition and Advanced Perceptual Competence and are staffed by neurobiologists, information technologists, and computer engineers. At the Office of Naval Research (ONR), scientists are exploring phenomena having to do with premonition and intuition. “We have to understand what gives rise to this so-called ‘sixth sense,’” says Dr. Peter Squire, a program officer in ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism department. “If the researchers understand the process, there may be ways to accelerate it—and possibly spread the powers of intuition throughout military units.”
At least one old adage is true: history repeats itself.
Annie Jacobsen is a journalist and author who writes about war, weapons, U.S. national security and secrets. Her most recent book, The Pentagon’s Brain, was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist in history. Her new book, Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, was published in March.