The recent publication of Benson Bobrick's The Fated Sky
will help to emphasise Louis de Wohl's place in astrological history as the astrologer that Churchill's government employed to assess and counteract the predictions that Hitler's astrologers might be making. Dennis Elwell, in his interview with Garry Phillipson
, recently stated that it was de Wohl's book The Secret Service of the Sky
that initiated both his and Ronald Davison's introduction to the noble art: "Imagine - the planets as spies in the sky, leaking secret information! It appealed to my Scorpio ascendant".
Dr Felix Jay, who wrote this article for The Traditional Astrologer
magazine in 1998, was intimately acquainted with de Wohl and offers a deep insight into the character of the man and his astrological involvement in war propaganda and British politics. Felix Jay died in 2004, a great veteran of astrology having explored it over a long period of time in a wide variety of cultures.
In WWII astrological propaganda played its part in boosting the national morale through the media. De Wohl gained a large following worldwide, using accurate snippets of intelligence to promote his credibility. He was fed horoscopes by the BSC girls in New York.
"Cursed be he who uses his knowledge for wrong purposes" (Common-sense Astrology by Louis de Wohl)
The year is 1938; the scene, the lobby of a private hotel in Maida Vale. The vast space, part of which serves as a dining room, is furnished in a heavy continental style with ponderous Klubsessel (German easy chairs covered with heavy leather into which a sitter sinks, with only his head visible), chandeliers and heavy curtain. The hall is occupied by a crowd of foreigners, mainly but not all refugees, speaking German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish and other European languages. The proprietor, a bespectacled white Russian, is introducing me to a rotund, bespectacled figure, seated on a round marble table, drinking black coffee and smoking a huge cigar: Louis de Wohl.
Before giving an account of my sporadic contacts with De Wohl, I should explain why I wanted to meet him. In my wanderings through the occult bookshops around the British Museum after I had become interested in astrology, I picked up Do Wohl's I Follow my Stars and also met several persons who knew him. All I then knew of him was that he had acquired a modest reputation in Germany as a popular novelist, contributing somewhat trite serial stories to some of the weekly illustrated papers. I remembered him vaguely under the name of Ludwig von Wohl. (The German 'von' indicates the lowest level of nobility; German princes - until 1918 there was no shortage of them - conferred this distinction upon well-deserving officials, bankers and businessmen; the title was hereditary.) Beyond this I knew nothing of De Wohl's antecedents and in the long years of our acquaintance he never discussed his ancestral setting with me, so that for me the sole source of information remained his autobiography. Its reliability can be assumed, as he did not pretend to have sallied forth from a baronial palace; the circumstances described are modest enough.
Born in 1903, he attended a grammar school; the poverty of his widowed mother compelled him at the age of 17 to become an apprentice in a bank, but he was sacked in 1924. This was followed by a miscellany of occupations, including dress designing and film publicity work. He struggled to become an author, though the actual dates given by him in passages in his books are contradictory. Then he seems to have succeeded in breaking into higher 'society'. These are the barebones of his formative years, and I cannot but state that I knew more of Count Cagliostro's youth than of Louis de Wohl's.
Louis descended on London in 1935. He was obviously a refugee, most likely Jewish or half-Jewish, and the reason for this move must have been - despite his statement that the Gestapo wanted him to undertake astrological work - that as a 'non-Aryan' work for the German press and film industry had become impossible for him. I have never been convinced that the autobiographical hints in his writings are entirely trustworthy: like Cagliostro he loved to give the impression of having been in many strange places and at many times, India (consulting Indian astrologers in Calcutta), Morocco, Egypt, the slums of Marseilles, Naples, etc.), leading an adventurous existence tracking down drug traffickers, assisting chiefs of police in difficult cases, meeting exotic mystery men.... This mystification process was complementary to the impression his charismatic personality created. More about this anon.
In the weeks following our first meeting my fascination for De Wohl grew. I also became acquainted with his way of living: 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.
How did he live? He already wrote books in English -which he mastered rapidly - but he also continued to contribute to German-speaking journals outside Nazi Germany; he mentioned quite early on that he had an extensive astrological practice, occasionally dropping some titled name or that of a rich refugee tycoon, indicating that he had begun to move in London society. I also discovered that he played cards for money. As he tried to induce me to join his card parties, I became acquainted with a peculiar type of rummy. Though the stakes were comparatively low, I came to the conclusion that he supplemented his uncertain income by gambling.
When I first met Louis he directed his glance at me, an almost hypnotic stare, an experience which the only critical observer of De Wohl, Ellic Howe, also had later. 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.
Then there was his streak of femininity: I remember that sometime in 1939 or 1940 he asked me to take part in a charity concert to be given at his hotel. I was to play the accordion. Louis indulged in one of his favourite pleasures, that of dressing up as a woman. And indeed, he looked the part, that is if you like Peter Paul Rubens' corpulent ladies. Now let us be quite clear about his sex relations: Louis was a normal heterosexual individual, somewhat feminine, but no homosexual or transvestite. He may or he may not have been married before he arrived in England (in his Common-sense Astrology, p.196, he mentions both an engagement and marriage, but nowhere states what became of his spouse). He never mentioned marriage to me, in any case we shall see that he did marry in the fifties.
As my first meeting with him had been astrologically motivated, our conversations revolved at first around astrology. De Wohl had described dramatically in his autobiography how he had been 'converted' and implied repeatedly that he had undertaken extensive research such as the examination of the maps of accident victims, professional types, mundane events, etc. When propounding a theory he was in the habit of backing it up with sensational examples of his practice.
While captivated by the man, I never fell for the scintillating astrological canvases he painted, I had already been warned by other continental astrologers, and my own academic training enabled me in most cases to distinguish facts from fiction and romance. Retrospectively it is clear to me that Louis' astrological wisdom was entirely second-hand and that like the filmscript writer he had been, he served up the evergreen ingredients garnered from others in an attractive, amusing and often sensational manner. However much he tried to be the 'prophet' he was no guru. Louis had a very fertile and receptive brain, a rapid intelligence, an easy pen, but he was neither academically trained nor an intellectual. His ignorance of modern psychology was patent, and though quoting Freud, Adler and Jung, it was quite obvious to me that he had never bothered to read any of them.
What he possessed was a splendid gift of dramatising the drab and simple lives of his clients who appear to have accepted him as a philosopher, saint, prophet and father-confessor, all in one. The latter role is not as far removed from the truth as it may appear to be; already at this early stage Louis exhibited religious tendencies which were to become prominent years later. His quasi-theological pronouncements often bordered on the ludicrous; they were pompous and high-sounding, verging on revivalism. Take for instance the concluding passage of his Secret Service of the Sky, (p.239):
Humbly I crave the blessing of the Holy Three who, nearly 2,000 years ago, set out from their three different countries because they had read in the stars that at a certain place, at a certain time, a child would be born, destined to become the greatest of all Kings - the blessing of the Holy Three Wise Men of the East.
To see the 'seer', with a big cigar in his hand, in a flowery silk dressing gown, with eyes raised to Heaven, pronouncing apocalyptic words, walking slowly across his hotel room, was surely something I would not have missed ever. Why then, if I realised early on that I could not learn much from him astrologically, did I continue to meet him? The answer is simple: I liked the man, I found his company sparkling, I was highly amused by his pretence, and I knew that he became fond of me.
Then came September 1939 and with more urgent preoccupations I lost sight of De Wohl. Late in 1940 I heard that he had moved from the hostelry in Maida Vale to the nobler environs of Hyde Park and was occupying a suite of rooms at the Grosvenor House in Park Lane. Rumour had it that he had not only improved his domicile but also his social standing, to wit that he held the King's commission in the Army. One day I betook myself to his quarters and found myself face to face with Captain de Wohl, dressed in a splendid officer's uniform, complete with a Sam Browne, an expensive, leather-covered cane lying on a chair and an enormous beautifully tailored greatcoat hanging near the entrance door. Naturally I had to salute a superior officer!
Louis was like a boy who had just received his Christmas presents. He stood up, he sat down, stood up again, walked around the room and looked into a large mirror in silent admiration. I admit that the miraculous metamorphosis of a Hungarian refugee from Berlin into a British army captain was indeed startling, and I must have been a trifle over-awed. Louis enjoyed my surprise immensely, as much as he must have enjoyed strutting round the West End and receiving and returning salutes. When I had recovered from my initial admiration of the great military figure I plucked up sufficient courage to ask him what martial functions he now fulfilled. I could not identify a regimental badge, nor had there been in his autobiographical writings any hint of previous military experience or exploits. In fact, the odd passages touching upon military matters were as remote from army reality as the early scripts of Hollywood or the Berlin UFA films.
He explained to me that because of his intimate knowledge of the work of Hitler's astrologers and their methods, the British authorities had entrusted him to read their minds and discover what advice they would give the Fuehrer, who, he said, was totally dominated by fortune tellers. He mentioned one astrologer in particular, Karl Ernst Krafft, whom I had never heard of at that time. The impression he conveyed to me was that he was hob-nobbing with the General Staff. Further questioning was avoided, quite properly, by reference to the Official Secrets Act. There always had been unsubstantiated rumours of Hitler's pre-occupation with occultism. One such story concerned a Berlin clairvoyant named Hannussen, already fashionable years before Hitler's advent to power, who in 1933 or 1934 mysteriously disappeared. De Wohl has been accused of fabricating a myth: the fact is that he did not create it, but, as he did in many other respects, he probably recognised its material possibilities and he exploited them to the full.
Months later I was once more in London. I cannot recall whether he still lived at Grosvenor House or whether he had already moved to a service flat in Piccadilly. When I met him he did not wear uniform. By this time I had had plenty of leisure in my Ulster barracks to reflect on what he had told me and had begun to have some ideas of my own, which, because of the nature of the matter, I had not even communicated to my wife. Aware of the general attitude towards astrology, I found it increasingly difficult to believe that the British High Command would consult an enemy-alien astrologer. I came to the conclusion that his work lay in a different direction. Astrologically seen too, there appeared to be a flaw in De Wohl's argument, in that the methods of astrology are not as determined as those of the physical sciences: assuming Hitler did consult astrologers, did Louis know what methods they applied? Personal horoscopes of the principal military and naval chiefs engaged in the struggle were susceptible to something like a common interpretation, but what about mundane maps?
My suspicions that his real work was of a different nature were then confirmed by his statement that he would shortly go to the United States to address a convention of American astrologers. His activities in the States, which remained unknown to me, have been described by William Stevenson (see reading list).
Some years passed and it was not until 1945 -or 1946 that I had an opportunity of meeting De Wohl again. By that time I had overtaken him in military rank, but if I had hoped for a salute I was to be disappointed: he told me that he had retired into civilian life. To my surprise, instead of an astrological conversation - I had arrived fully prepared to tell him something of the statistical astrological research I had done with army personnel - 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. It was either on this occasion or sometime later that he told me that he would shortly be invited into the Sovereign Order of the knights of Malta. Upon the comment that to the best of my historical knowledge you had to have a certain number of quarterings to be considered at all for membership, De Wohl replied that his "noble ancestry entitled him to this honour''. This incidentally, was the first and only reference to a high aristocratic background. To conclude this strange incident: in the fifties Louis sent me a photograph showing himself and his wife in the vestments of some religious order in Switzerland; it was certainly not the Sovereign Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but some other lay organisation, and I conclude that his quarterings had not satisfied the Maltese knights.
Throughout the years 1947-1953 I met Louis, sometimes on my own, sometimes accompanied by my wife. He enjoyed great prosperity, his style had become even more grandiose, the cigars bigger, the precious objects littering his quarters more numerous, and his conversation continued to be brilliant, a kaleidoscope of interesting facts, people he met and journeys he had undertaken, with hints of new powerful contacts. By this time I had become an audience rather than a participant in a conversation; astrological themes, already relegated to a secondary place earlier, now virtually faded away. I learnt that he had become the author of religious novels, and on one occasion he presented me with a leather-bound translation of the New Testament by Monsignor Knox together with the copy of one of his novels The Living Wood, a re-creation of the life and miracles of St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great. His religious convictions were doubtless genuine, but perhaps he could not help himself of extracting from every new turn in his intellectual or spiritual pilgrimage material advantages: he was to turn out novel after novel, everyone built around the life of saints: we have his St. Paul, his Santa Teresa, his Ignatius Loyola, his Thomas Aquinas, and perhaps some I have never heard of. In the late fifties he wrote to me from Lucerne informing me that he had received some important book prize in the United States and that he now wrote regularly for the Catholic Book Club. The source of his prosperity was then not entirely clear to me, but in 1952 appeared his last book with an Astrological content, The Stars of War and Peace in which he painted a sensational picture of his astrological contribution to the British victory. This book was the culmination of a concerted effort on his part to turn whatever his secret work during the war had been into a legend; an effort that, I heard much later, had started with a large number of syndicated articles all over the world. This legend, which proved very lucrative, has since been recognised for what it is, a carefully cultivated myth and not history.
The last time I saw De Wohl was in 1953 when I resigned from the Army and moved to the West Country. We did however, keep in touch. He spent sometime in the States and married a well-known German novelist Ruth Feiner, setting up a permanent home in Lucerne. His wife informed me of his death in 1961. I continued to exchange Christmas greetings with the widow until the mid-sixties when contacts ceased. His final years seem to have been happy, his wife loved and admired him and he was very prosperous. After the 'Storm and Stress' of his youth and the excitement of his real and legendary life, he settled down, not to an 'aristocratic' life but to a conventional bourgeois existence.
De Wohl's life proceeds like a stage play in acts and scenes of which only two are of interest to us and posterity; we shall omit a discussion of the war-time legend which has been amply discussed by others. This leaves us with his position as a writer and with his role as an astrologer. As an author Louis was a featherweight. His plots, the commonplace conflicts and situations, and a cloying and undistinguished style, both in English and in German, prohibit the application of cannons of literary criticism. It was not only the lack of style that affected his pen, but an almost naive and juvenile picture of the world, an astounding ignorance of the complicated web of human emotions and relationships. I often feel that he might have done well as a writer of children's books. This cherubic looking man saw nothing but the surface and mistook the puppets of the 'Punch and Judy' show for substantial characters. His plots and heroes move in a Michael Arlen, Maurice Dekobra or E. Phillips-Oppenheim world, without possessing the sparkle of these writers. His religious novels, which enjoyed a large circulation, appealed to semi-educated believers and were based on traditional hagiography. They nowhere attained the pathos of Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis or Wallace's Ben Hur. We might compare his novels with religious oleographs over the mantelpieces of pious homes and contrast them with the El Grecos, Rembrandts and Rouaults.
This comparative shallowness and naiveté affected his astrological writing too and his place among writers on the subject. He wrote a number of astrological books, beginning 1937 and terminating in 1952 and an analysis of their contents reveals no progress in thinking or method; if you read one, you know all. The books propound the traditional teaching of planets, signs, houses and aspects as can be found in any Alan Leo or Sepharial. He is not above an attempt to flatter his (then new) British readers with a patriotic passage, urging them to become the vanguard of fighters for the scientific recognition of astrology:
"England is a country which is always inclined to take the part of the 'under-dog', to be on the side of the oppressed. It must come from this country, which has given so many great men to astrology, such as Lilly, Pearce, Sepharial, Alan Leo, Raphael and many, many more; from this country which leads the world in common sense, without thereby giving itself up to materialism only. From England. Peraspera ad a.stra."
At other times he utters dire warnings to his lay readers not to dabble in astrology, such as:
"My aim is to bring light. But then Lucifer was a bringer of light also .... A doctor's poison cupboard contains wonderful means of healing. But what would they become in the hands of a layman who did not know how much he should take of them? Astrology can be poisonous in the wrong hands.... Anyone should not be allowed to study astrology, only those who take a solemn oath to use it only for good"
(Both quotations from Secret Service of the Sky)
My opinion is that Louis de Wohl made no contribution to the theory and advancement of astrology, and it always surprises me that he is still quoted in some serious works. I cannot judge his ability as a consultant and practitioner which spanned some twenty odd years. He seems to have impressed some important men and women sufficiently to recommend him, but here too his reputation rests mainly on his own word.
Then there is the embarrassing fact of the use of astrology for propaganda purposes during World War II, the exploitation of the bogy of Hitler's belief in the stars, the creation of the image of the 'evil' Krafft - all matters known to me only years afterwards. Whether the prostitution of a science or a belief, the use of phoney predictions, the adulteration of ancient material, like Nostradamus' Centuries is justifiable in war, is an ethical question which the practitioner must answer for himself. It lastly may depend on whether one believes in astrology or not. 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. He appeared to be wary of contact with other professionals and refused to join an intimate discussion group of friends of mine, some professionals and all interested in the predictive disciplines. When at our last meeting I asked him about his future astrological plans, he implied that he "had been called to devote his life to higher things", presumably his religious writings.
I would hesitate to be too severe to him. In his case, beliefs, material advantage, opportunism, showmanship and even sometimes humility were strangely mixed up and it is likely that he became truly convinced that his saints had called him to become their witness. I also had no doubt that his return to Catholicism or his conversion, was the result of a profound conviction. While I never had a high opinion of his astrological attainments, I was genuinely fond of him and greatly enjoined his company. I could visualise Louis in a rococo costume at the court of the margrave of Raritania, engaged in gold-making, entertaining his sponsor with his protean and sparkling conversation, dropping mystifying remarks and playing for high stakes at the prince's tables. Louis was one of the brightest and most entertaining conversationalists I have ever met. Of course I can hardly call him a friend, as the substance of friendship lies in an honest baring of personalities and of a revelation of past and present concerns and facts. He would never bare his self, and when he seemingly did so, the image that resulted was a compound of fact, romance and fiction. Nor was I inclined to uncover my soul to a confessor whose integrity I doubted.
There occurs in his Secret Service of the Sky a description of the Aquarius sun sign native in length and directness exceeding all other sun-sign descriptions, which to me seems to be a self-portrait. The following excerpts are, in my opinion, significant:
"In many respects this is perhaps the most interesting sign of all... There is nothing for which the Aquairian has not understanding. He has an open mind, learns easily and just as easily forgets. He is everything at one and the same time, conventional and eccentric, conservative and into anything new like a flash. He has a great sense of the romantic. His strongest asset is his imagination which stops at nothing. He is gay, loveable, good-natured but nevertheless keeping an eye open for himself. He likes social life but also enjoys solitude. He is never fully developed during his life, he is always young somehow.... Routine work is no good for him, the others must do that... He is actually often a writer... He is a poet ... and as a rule has histrionic talents. On the stage they can't do without him. But he acts in real life also.... He has generally something of the feminine in him, which shows, itself in every possible way, from innocent pleasures in colours, jewellery and ornament to effeminacy of every kind..."
Perhaps the reader can solve the enigma of this man by examining his horoscope always bearing in mind that it may well be a 'prestige' map. Ellic Howe in I Follow My Stars quotes him as saying that he was born at 7.45pm, but after the war he informed a well-known American astrologer that the correct time was 3.30pm. If Louis de Wohl was born in Berlin there should have been no doubt about the time of his birth, as Prussian birth certificates always recorded it.
Astrological works by Louis de Wohl:
I follow my stars. London, 1937
Secret Service of the sky. London, 1938
Common-sense Astrology. London. 1940
The Stars of War And Peace. London, 1952
Essential for the war-time role of Louis de Wohl:
Ellic Howe - Urania's Children. London, 1976
Ellic Howe - Astrology and Psychological Warfare in
World War II London, 1972 (an excert from Urania's Children)
Briefer references on Louis de Wohl appear in:
Francis King - Satan and Swastika. London-1976
W. Stevenson - A man called Intrepid. London-1976
West & G.Toonder - Case For Astrology. Baltimore-1973
Wilhelm Wolff- Zodiac & Swastika. London-1973
As a footnote Felix informed us that he received news that De Wohl's wife died on 4th January 1998.
Reproduced from the article published in issue 16 of The Traditional Astrologer magazine, (March 1998), pp.10-15. Published online: May 2006