Astrology wins World War 2!!!

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Or not, as the case…is. I had expected today’s peddlers of pseudoscientific lifestyle bullshit to be over the moon (haha) to hear that the British Special Operations Executive had employed an astrologer in an effort to get inside Hitler’s noggin. But it seems that the astrologer in question, Louis de Wohl, is rejected even by his own. The excellent Bad Astronomer blog has some nice quotes on the guy. Nonetheless, it’s still being used to make mileage for the astrology movement in general terms – see here for a comment by celebrity planetary pontificator Jonathan Cainer, who focuses on the root claim that Hitler used astrologers. We’ll come to that later. The SOE story came to light as the UK National Archives released a new batch of WW2 records earlier this month. An interesting historical curio, to be sure, but its implications for the validity and credibility of astrology are for me summed up by this report.

As the BBC reported, the security services, MI5 and 6, were dumbfounded that other branches of the authorities appeared to be swallowing De Wohl’s line. They pointed out his dismal hit-rate with predictions. In fact SOE was entirely cynical about the exercise. Wohl’s handlers concluded that if Hitler was working from the astrological “playbook”, as it were, another astrologer ought to be able to provide some insight into the choices he was making. As Major Gilbert Lennox put it;

“It is entirely irrelevant whether we ourselves regard astrological advice as valuable or scientific or as useless nonsense. All that matters is that Hitler follows its rules”.

Unfortunately for SOE, there were two serious problems with their approach. Firstly, though Hitler was interested in things occult and supernatural, there’s no evidence beyond contemporary rumour, that he did in fact retain an astrologer or base his decision-making upon the ‘findings’ of that pseudoscience. He was, thankfully, able to make questionable and ill-advised choices without the intervention of such red herrings. The oft-made claim that Karl Ernst Krafft was Hitler’s personal astrologer is a stretch, to say the least. If anything, he was retained by Rudolf Hess, not Hitler, and had originally been employed for reasons of psychological warfare (which would not require any actual validity to the subject in question, just that its employment might confuse and worry the enemy). Elements of the Nazi leadership seem to have “kept an open mind” to the possibility of useful intel deriving from such sources, but this optimism didn’t last long and Krafft met with the same end as many unfortunates under the Nazi regime.

The other fatal flaw in the SOE plan was to assume any kind of internal consistency in astrology as a ‘field’. Had they analysed the claims made on its behalf, they would have seen that a prediction by one astrologist (in this case Hitler’s), would not reliably be replicated by another. This is partly because astrological pronouncements are largely arbitrary, and partly because (like cold reading statements) they can apply to anyone given enough subjective validation. See Derren Brown’s experiment demonstrating this effect.

In other words, the British government were scammed by an astrologer, just as members of the public are today on a daily basis. Authorities are not immune from failures in critical thinking, and have on occasion been suckered in other areas of pseudoscience and the paranormal. I for one would prefer that my tax-pounds are NOT put toward such research, given the total lack of scientific basis from which to begin. Leave that to these guys, or take Psychic Bob‘s free and insightful predictions.


Did Churchill allow Coventry to be bombed in 1940?


©Imperial War Museum



This week saw the resurfacing of an old conspiracy theory regarding Winston Churchill’s alleged abandonment of Coventry to Nazi bombs in 1940. It’s come to the fore in the internet age through a much older medium – a play entitled One Night in November is being put on in the city that takes this hypothesis as its premise. You can read reports, employing varying levels of critical thought, at various news sites – The Times, the BBC, and the Guardian (who buy it hook, line, sinker, rod, and copy of Angling Times).

Before I reinvent the wheel – this comprehensive rebuttal by the Churchill Centre, and this response to Christopher Hitchens’ even more spurious claims of 2002, surpass anything I could turn out. Nothing brought up by the play However, I will sum up the main claims by the play’s author as they appear in the media, and the counters to these as offered by those more knowledgeable than myself:

Claim – A captured German airman named Coventry as an upcoming target.
Reality – This appears to be true. However, decisions on an appropriate response had to wait on corroboration for this anecdotal evidence. When that did arrive on the 12th of November, the time-frame was verified but the likely targets were not.

Claim – Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and/or Coventry were implicated as German targets by decrypted messages intercepted by Bletchley Park (and conveyed in secret to Churchill).
Reality – Records at the UK National Archives (file AIR2/5238) show that the Air Ministry was now aware of a large raid code-named “Moonlight Sonata”, but the primary targets were not successfully determined. When Churchill received the message himself, he interpreted it as a raid on London, and proceeded there to arrange a defence. A separate piece of intelligence naming three cities in the Midlands was not connected with the main raid of concern, though after the fact it would become clear that this was an oversight (which is why it is mentioned in the same documents).

Claim – Churchill was reluctant to order the RAF defence of Coventry lest the Germans realise that the Enigma decoding system had been cracked.
Reality – In fact the Germans never realised that the Allies had been routinely breaking their codes, despite many decisions in those four years being made in light of intercepted intelligence. As another conspiracy theorist astutely (if ironically) points out (p20), squadrons in the Battle of Britain had been directed freely in accordance with such intel just prior to the Coventry raid. To suggest that Churchill would make an exception in acting upon Enigma-derived intelligence because the target was “only” an industrial northern town, is to assume an unbelievable level of disdain for the lives of one’s own citizens. All to briefly extend the life of a cipher that would as a matter of routine be changed and require equally routine re-breaking by Bletchley Park. Shades of 9/11 Conspiracy there, I fear.

Also implied is that the RAF was even capable of successfully defending a given target in 1940, with its overstretched squadrons of obsolescent and misconceived night-fighters. Fighter Command was able only to play catch-up in 1940 – unable to effectively intercept (especially at night with no or limited radar sets), they often resorted to shooting down bombers on their way back from the target in an effort to reduce Luftwaffe materiel and manpower. Orders and doctrine along these lines were in place well before this incident.

As usual, facts are not on the side of the conspiracy theorist. To me it seems that these claims (like others) are kept alive by emotion, suspicion of authority, their relative plausibility, and a political agenda. NOT a body of evidence. The significant wartime and post-war suffering of Coventry and the Midlands seem to colour the playwright’s perception of history. He says that his “strong feeling” is that with foreknowledge of Coventry’s fate, Churchill made a “spur-of-the-minute decision” to let it happen. Unfortunately, the evidence to support this notion is thin on the ground, and the use of another unproven and refuted Churchill myth – that he deliberately allowed the Lusitania to be sunk, shows that the goal here is to turn “elite” history into social history. I commend that sentiment, but misrepresentation of the past is not the way to go about it. It can be argued that vital hints on the correct target were missed. Or even that they were ignored for fear that London would suffer instead. Arguably the establishment (including Churchill) would favour the defence of the capital over the industrial North. This is understandable, if unequal in retrospect. But to suggest conscious and deliberate action in letting Coventry be bombed, is unsupportable and seems to me to be political agenda, not an historical one. For example, did the majority of the city of Coventry really not see WW2 as “their war“? This is a bold claim to make on behalf of so many who are now voiceless, even if some did (and do) feel this way.

As ever, if anyone reading this has some evidence in favour, or any corrections, please let me know and I will update this entry accordingly.

Rosslyn and the Loch Ness Monster


Nessie and Rosslyn – closer together than you might think…

No, I haven’t lost the plot. I’m just looking to coin a new expression; the ‘Nessie Effect’. This is when a heritage site embraces unsupported speculation in order to pay the bills. At Loch Ness it’s a real boost to the local economy. In the ’90s, it was on the order of $36 million dollars a year (rather less now admittedly). The downside is (arguably) that this level of focus on a piece of mythology (represented as plausible fact) distracts from the real treasures of the region and the country. But this isn’t really about Nessie. For that, you’d best head here or back to Google. No, I’m suggesting that the same phenomenon applies to many sites in Britain, but specifically Rosslyn Chapel (subject of many of my past posts).

I may spend a fair bit of time criticising unfounded claims about the past, but I recognise that they can bring in a lot of money that can benefit important sites like Rosslyn Chapel. It’s an ethical dilemma really. As a custodian of a cultural or historic thing, do you steadfastly stick to the known facts and struggle to get by? Or do you “sell out” by entertaining alternative history in order to keep the money rolling in?

I think the answer is to strike a balance. The Rosslyn Chapel Trust stock both serious and speculative books in the gift shop, and of course fiction like the Da Vinci Code. This does allow visitors to make up their own minds, and makes money from different audiences at the same time. Unfortunately, they go further and allow events like the live performances of the so-called Rosslyn Motet. You could argue that this is little different than a museum hosting a corporate event within its galleries, but the difference is that the latter do not passively endorse dubious claims about its exhibits.

For me, the Rosslyn approach is simply too uncritical, too laissez-faire. But from their perspective – why bite the hand that feeds? I really can’t blame them for it. But what does it say about your attitude to your visitors when you do this? Aren’t you casting them as gullible punters to be herded in, harvested for money, and sent on their way none the wiser? I for one would rather visitor centres strive toward fact-based interpretation as accredited museums are obliged to do.

But I’m just an armchair commentator. It’s not easy running a site like Rosslyn without significant external funding. And it’s clear that their approach has worked as far as increased visitor numbers and income, as this Scotsman article details. It remains to be seen whether this is used to its fullest potential.

Besides, let’s not forget the media’s role in peddling the pseudohistory that places like Rosslyn take advantage of. On that score, I was pleased to see from the linked article that the Scotsman has moderated its tone regarding the musical cubes ‘discovery’ that it reported on rather uncritically in 2005. The following year it even suggested that when the music was played, it might unlock a lost secret. I wrote a series of posts debunking these claims – see also Jeff Nisbett’s definitive article. Pleasingly, the latest media mention as linked above, is this:

Among Rosslyn’s many intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes or boxes protruding from pillars and arches with a selection of patterns on them. It is unknown whether these have any particular meaning.

Many people have attempted to find information coded into them, but as yet no interpretation has proven conclusive.

Now that’s how to report speculative history. I wish more of those in charge of the UK’s cultural landmarks were so circumspect.