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Hans Habe: An Ostentatious Leader

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Hans Habe awakened contradictory emotions in his men. They laughed at his aristocratic air, at his uniquely designed dress uniform (always carefully accessorized), and at the strange mix of Anglo-French words and expressions that colored his English. Behind his back they called him “Goldilocks,” because he added blond tints to his chestnut brown hair. But at the same time they deeply respected his contributions to the war effort. Ritchie Boy Paul A Meyer, for example, wrote to his wife: “Habe works sixteen hours a day. One can think about him as one will, but he is doing more for the war than ten colonels.” A classmate, Stefan Heym, agreed. “I know no one in the American army, except for a few extroverted generals like MacArthur or Patton, about whom people gossiped with such relish […]. But I also know no one whose individual contribution to the development of psychological warfare in this army contributed so much to its victory. […] Beneath all the flickering and all the glitz stood a man of industry, great knowledge, and, occasionally, heart.”1


Hans accepted these assessments and ascribed his personal attitude to one that was common during the reign of Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph. In the days leading up to the First World War, he explained, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been both a “hereditary feudal aristocracy” and “an aristocracy of the spirit, a creative aristocracy,” and he believed that it was his responsibility, as a representative of this creative aristocracy, to “instruct the masses” and not lose his temper with them. “The aristocratic liberalism of the era of Francis Joseph treated the people for what they are,” he said, “—a pack of children whom it might be possible, with a little love, to bring up as decent citizens” without giving them the right “to behave like ill-mannered adults.”2


He was born Janos Békessy in Budapest, Hungary, in 1911 and became Hans Békessy when he was eight years old and moved with his parents to Vienna. His parents were fully assimilated Jews, and Hans was baptized into the Protestant (Calvinist) faith. His life was turned upside down in 1926 when his father, the triumphant founder of five Viennese newspapers, was accused in the press of extortion and bribery. The tumult surrounding the Békessy “affair” drove the family out of Vienna, and Hans’s father into a first suicide attempt. Hans, however insisted on returning to Vienna to complete his schooling. He was 16 years old at the time.


He was determined to face down the taunts and ridicule of his classmates and, by his own extraordinary achievements, to restore—at least for himself—the Békessy name. From the moment he returned to the city, he had the feeling “of being watched [… and] to believe that from my behaviour people would draw conclusions as to the innocence or guilt of my father. I assumed that modesty would be interpreted as a guilty conscience, […and] that friendliness might be misunderstood, so I put on a mask of arrogance. I was afraid that from my silence people would conclude that I was ashamed of my name, so I acted noisily and impertinently.”3


This behavior became firmly ingrained in his teenage years, and helps to explain the contradictory ways he would be judged in later life.


From high school Hans went to the University of Heidelberg for two years. Here he applied for membership in a dueling fraternity and soon proved himself to be an expert swordsman. He had, he said “persistently tried to shake off a psychological sense of inferiority by escaping into physical bravado.”4 He was cast out of the fraternity pledge class, however, as soon as it was learned that he was a Jew. He returned to Vienna where, of all professions, he was determined to get into newspaper work.

A young Hans Habe with dark slicked back hair, a coat, and tie.
Hans Habe 1933

He worked as a crime reporter, then as an investigative reporter, making many scoops along the way. It was his newspaper editor that insisted he drop the Békessy name to avoid all association with his father’s scandal, and assume a new last name made up of his initials “HB”, which in German are pronounced Ha-Be [Bay].


Through incredible diligence and persistence, Hans acquired a reputation as one of the best reporters in Vienna. He also became known for his expensive lifestyle and for courting beautiful women. He described himself this way:


“All my life I have hated anonymity even more than hunger and diarrhea. A pathological desire for ‘fame,’ fear of being identified with the mass, the need for a privileged position and privileged treatment—all these were innate in me or had been instilled into me.”5


This desire to stand out did not play out solely in Vienna’s social circles; it gave him an incredible work ethic as he strove for fame in his profession. By age 21 he was the youngest chief editor of any major newspaper in Europe. In one spectacular reporting coup, he went to Hitler’s birth town in Austria, studied all the Hitler family records, and was able to report that, until Hitler’s father had changed his name, he was, by birth and by law, named Schicklgruber. This discovery was flashed around the world, and made a big splash even in America, where people began sporting Schicklgruber lapel pins. Hans said that he doubted that this story did anything to deter Hitler’s rise to power, but that he, for one, could not imagine a nation ever adopting the greeting “Heil Schicklgruber.”


In addition to his newspaper work, Hans published two novels—Three Over the Frontier and Sixteen Days—about the rising Nazi threat. These were quickly bought up and published in America to extremely favorable reviews. He was back to working as foreign correspondent in Geneva when war broke out in Europe. France announced general mobilization on September 1, 1939. That very evening Hans boarded the train for Paris to enlist as a volunteer in the French Army.


A Lapel Pin with Adolf Hitlers Head in the center. There are small swastikas on either side of him. The words Wanted for murder all caps above his head and " Adolf Schickelgruber alias'Hitler'"  underneath
Popular American “Schicklgruber” lapel pin (with misspelling)

He found the leadership of the French army frightfully disorganized, and the French volunteers poorly treated. Of his volunteer regiment of 2,100, fewer than 600 would survive the war. In June 1940, after the Battle of Sedan, when the French army gave way to the German army in chaos and confusion and allowed its entry into France, Hans was captured and transported to a prison camp in Dieuze.


Here he quickly distinguished himself as a leader among the prisoners. First, to keep up appearances, he traded two loaves of bread for a clean sergeant’s uniform. Then, as a fluent speaker of French and German, he was designated a Senior Prisoner, which assured him of certain privileges. With the aid of friends and the madame of a brothel in Nancy, he was able to escape the camp after a three-month stay. As soon as he arrived in America in 1941, he spent his first four months there writing up his experiences in a work that would be called A Thousand Shall Fall.


His arrival in America was most auspicious. Photographers met him and his wife at the boat, and, because he was the first man to escape from German captivity and arrive in the States, photographs of the couple graced the pages of newspapers across America. Publication of his work A Thousand Shall Fall not only became a best-seller and met remarkable critical acclaim, but established him as an expert eye witness to the failures of the French army. He lectured at West Point and was sent on a speaking tour to various military camps and college campuses all across the country to speak about “Why France Fell.” A film story by Lilo Damert and Robert Aisner was appended onto A Thousand Shall Fall, and it was released in 1943 as The Cross of Lorraine. In it Jean-Pierre Aumont took on the role the figure whose actions most clearly resemble those of Hans Habe.


And, in 1942, Hans exchanged his wealthy Austrian wife for a wealthy American one, Eleanor Post Hutton, heiress of General Foods. It was his third marriage, and her fourth. Hans had indeed found the fame he had longed for. When his wife gave birth to their son Antal Miklos (Anthony Niklas), Eleanor Roosevelt served as godmother.


It was only natural that Hans would acquire American citizenship and join the American army. And it was only natural that he would wind up at Camp Ritchie and be trained for action in psychological warfare as part of the American Army’s First Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company, or MRBC. “Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company” was a misnomer from the beginning: all aspects of psychological warfare were used in Africa and Europe. The trainers agreed, upon completion of the course, that Hans, as one of only three trainees in the MRBC program, be promoted to second lieutenant; as one officer put it: “He was ever so clever in human relations. […] He was rational. Not addle-pated, or distracted or visionary.”6 At the end of his training at Camp Ritchie he received his promotion and was sent to North Africa. He then participated in the invasion of Sicily and of Italy. Here he proved himself to be one of the most able of the men in psychological warfare, excelling in producing tactical propaganda pamphlets and in interrogating German prisoners of war. His marathon, 3-day interrogation of German Lieutenant Lehnigk-Embden, “the first war criminal in military history,” resulted not only in the lieutenant’s confession to having conducted a massacre of over 40 Italian civilians; it also led to an article about Hans’s interrogation techniques in The New Yorker.7


Hans was, in fact, so successful that he was brought back to the States in the fall of 1943 to develop psychological warfare skills in four new MRBCs. He was given free hand to develop the curriculum as he thought best. He was also allowed access to the Army’s card indexes, so that he could handpick the soldiers whom he wanted to train.


Besides linguistic skills, Hans looked for men who had been active in media and the arts, as well as for men who knew how to sell a product. He picked an artist who had worked in the Walt Disney studios on "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia." He picked an American cookbook author, a Bulgarian composer, a Czech film-maker, a number of Austrian actors, the music critic for the New York Times, a butterfly specialist, and a Hollywood special effects man. He also selected men who were teachers or college professors, radio personalities, and journalists, as well as insurance salesmen, railroad workers, and tradesmen. All of them were multi-lingual, and all of them were knowledgeable about European affairs, either through living abroad or through study.


Picture of Hans wearing  a midtoned shirt and smiling
Hans Habe at Camp Sharpe, 1944

Hans himself did all the training of the men in propaganda. As one of his soldiers, a Czech film-maker, noted:


"He was amazing. He was by turns German teacher, journalist, radio director, political lecturer, copy editor, language teacher, voice trainer, psychology professor—whatever the course material required."


Hans selected the area of specialization for each man in the four MRB companies: monitoring Axis radio and press materials, designing and composing propaganda pamphlets, writing for radio, broadcasting, photographing scenes at the front, and—the most dangerous job—“hog calling”; this involved addressing the enemy from the front lines. Ultimately, these men would be split into small teams before the D-Day landing; once they made the channel crossing, they would be dispersed among the different army units in France. At Sharpe, however, Hans insisted that the men learn all aspects of all types of psychological warfare, so that they would be prepared for any situation that arose at the front.



Eventually, with their training behind them, the 800 men of Camp Sharpe were transported to England and sent across the Channel to put their learning into actual practice.


Over in Europe, Hans continued to supervise and monitor his men, who often referred to themselves as members of “Habe’s Circus.” But Hans had trained them well, and they were extremely successful in all phases of propaganda. Men from Hans’s MRBCs were assigned to fighting units all along the lines, where they served with great success as interrogators, pamphleteers, radio broadcasters, and front line “hog callers.” Many of them were put in the way of enemy fire; some of them, tragically, died.


Hans popped up all along the front. He and OSS Major Patrick Dolan even evaded orders by entering Paris one day before the German garrison surrendered and the French general Jacques Leclerc was able to enter the city. Hans did so, he said, “for [his wife] Eleanor’s sake,” in order to “liberate” her Parisian home and contents. He said he was motivated by “a bad conscience. I had lied to her [about my heritage]: I was a Jew, not a nobleman. At least I must be a hero.”8 He then went one step further by driving to the Champs Élysées and forcing one of the city’s great designers to open her establishment so that he could select four dresses for Eleanor.


The next day, fifty of the MRBC men entered Paris and all participated enthusiastically in enjoying the rewards of a grateful city. Hans set out on foot with MRBC man Hanuš Burger to a broadcast station in a distant corner of the city, so that he could broadcast to the German soldiers that “Paris has freed itself.”9


When General DeGaulle entered Paris the day after that, Hans set out by Jeep to watch the parade with Hanuš Burger, but they were held up on the Place de La Concorde because of the mobs that had already gathered. Suddenly, gunfire erupted from one of the rooftops. The crowd went into a panic, since there was no place on the open square that offered protection. Burger has related what happened next:


“Habe reacted in a strange way that was unique to him. It was a bit theatrical, quixotic, perhaps a little ridiculous. But above all, it was, in these minutes, unexpectedly expedient.


“He stood up, drew his pistol from his belt, braced his left hand against his hip and fired in the direction of the rooftop, where the tiny, scarcely visible snipers were crouched behind their machine guns. It was completely senseless. His pistol could not reach that far under any circumstances. But he achieved that which he had probably intended. The people around us, who had sought insufficient cover behind our jeep, watched dumbfoundedly as the crazy American officer, who was standing with his legs apart in his open jeep, fired off all the ammunition in his pistol. The panic, at least from those within sight of our vehicle, abated.”10


Meanwhile, behind the lines: when the Allies captured Luxembourg, Hans set up the German section of the Allied broadcasting at Radio Luxembourg, staffing it with many members of the 5th MRBC. These men broadcast to the Germans, telling them the truth about the war, performing short sketches, reading undelivered letters, and recounting names of newly captured prisoners of war. They also aired news broadcasts in French, Italian, Russian, Czech, and Dutch.


Then, as the Allies entered German territory, Hans was tasked with establishing new German newspapers in the conquered cities to fill in the gap until vetted non-Nazi Germans could take them over. Hans served as chief editor of all of them, assisted by 12 of his MRBC men:18 newspapers in all, with a total circulation exceeding 8 million; this made it the second biggest newspaper concern in the world.11 To emphasize differences between them, Hans created new names for each paper and gave them different formats to create different “styles” of newspaper. He emphasized the uniqueness of each paper by using different fonts and type sizes, even though most of the articles that appeared in them were the same. For this service, Hans was promoted to Major. Then, after Germany’s surrender, Hans established a German-language newspaper to appear throughout the American zone, calling it Die neue Zeitung, or “The New Newspaper.” It had as its subheading “An American Newspaper for the German population,” and became the most popular newspaper in postwar Germany.



Hans sitting at desk looking at a newspaper with a group of men looking over his shoulder.
Hans Habe, with men from his newspaper team, 1945

It was no easy task making Die neue Zeitung a must-read newspaper. General Eisenhower presented the first obstacle. “We don’t want to entertain the Germans,” he told Hans, “but to instruct them. You’ve got to keep that in mind all the time.” When Hans tried to point out that the Americans could not force anyone to buy the Neue Zeitung, Eisenhower grew impatient, and told him that “we aren’t here to make concessions.” Eisenhower also dictated a personal message to be published in the first issue, in which he stated that, because there was no guarantee that Germany might not begin a new world conflict in the future, “Military thinking must be eradicated from the German mind. Aggression is regarded as immoral by all the civilized nations of the world; the Germans have yet to be educated to grasp this obvious truth.”12


Hans hired German author Erich Kästner to be in charge of the paper’s feuilletons, or cultural articles, even though the American Information Control Division was not at all interested in having the paper promote German culture. Hans defiantly published pieces by many of the best German thinkers and writers of the day. By this action alone he greatly raised the paper’s circulation.


But Hans remained disturbed by the difference between official policies in the Allied occupation zone and the Cold War politics at home in the United States. In the Allied press, it was ordained that nothing negative be said of the Russians and that de-Nazification be pursued through fiat in its pages. In the States the situation was reversed. There the House Un-American Activities Committee had begun investigating real and suspected activities of Communists in the United States, even as the United States was quietly suspending its de-Nazification program. As time went on, Hans also grew disenchanted with the American Military government's idea of re-educating the Germans. He complained that the Americans equated "re-education" with "Americanization," and that they defined "culture" as "popular culture", instead of in the European sense of "high culture”—that, for the Americans, baseball and comic strips took precedence over poetry and opera. In 1949 Hans left his position and returned to the States.


For a long time Hans wavered between living in America as an American or in Europe as a European. This was reflected in his marriages. When his marriage to Eleanor Post Hutton ended, he married (briefly) a German actress, Ali Ghito. He left her to marry a Hollywood actress, Eloise Hardt, who bore him a daughter, Marina. Hans adored the child; he dedicated his autobiography All My Sins to her, writing that it was “dedicated to immortality, to the immortality of a mortal, to a child playing in a sunlit meadow, to my daughter Marina, who has convinced me that there is a purpose in everything.”13


The marriage to Eloise Hardt was a happy one, but their years together were stressful, in that Hans attempted during this time to create two magazines in Munich: the Neue Münchner Illustrierte and Echo der Woche. Both ventures failed. During this same period Eloise put her acting career on hold in order for the family to be together in Germany.


Up until now, Hans had always been the one to end his marriages. But Eloise was now the one who did so. She left Germany in 1954 and moved back to Hollywood with their daughter Marina. Hans remained in Europe, where he met and married former Hungarian actress Licci Balla. It was the one enduring marriage of his life. Through these years Hans maintained a close contact with his daughter by having her spend her summer vacations with him at his home in Switzerland.


Hans Habe and his wife Eloise solemnly standing side by side both wearing black
Hans Habe and Eloise Hardt at their daughter’s funeral

Tragedy accompanied Hans’s visit back to the United States in 1963. He had returned to visit Eloise and Marina and was horrified by the “malevolence and hatred” that were rampant in the United States at that time. It was while he was criss-crossing the country that news came of the murder of President Kennedy, and that provoked his next book: The Wounded Land. America’s troubles were, according to the blurb on the book cover, “ancient and domestic ones now swollen to a size where they can no longer be ignored: America’s longing to return to a simpler past, its boastful materialism, its anti-intellectualism, its political naivete, and its racial prejudice.” The book was a best-seller in Germany while receiving a much more muted reception in the States.


Tragedy in America took a far more personal turn for Hans when, on December 30, 1968, his 17-year-old daughter Marina was abducted from the driveway of Eloise Hardt’s home. Hans rushed to the States as an intensive search was carried on—on foot, by car, and by helicopter. Her body was finally discovered in the brush at the foot of a ravine about seven miles from the Hardt home, fully clothed, but riddled with stab wounds to the neck and chest, and beatings around the head. It was determined that she had been attacked by at least two people.


The murder was never solved, although the Tate-LaBianca murders ten months later by the Charles Manson clan provided similarities, in that these victims, too, were killed by multiple knife-wounds to the neck and chest.


Hans did not return to the United States, but spent the rest of his life in Switzerland.


He wrote at least 26 books, with a likelihood of having written even more, since he is said to have written under the pseudonyms Antonio Corte, Frank Richard, Frederick Gert, John Richler, Hans Wolfgang, and Robert Pilchowski. And he covered a wide range of subjects. His books were often polemical, such as his essayistic work Our Love Affair with Germany (1953), in which he critiqued America’s contradictory behavior towards Germany from the moment of Germany’s surrender up until the present day. Some of his novels were equally critical of America and American policy, such as Walk in Darkness (1948), which told the story of a Black army corporal in postwar Germany, and The Mission (1965), which, under the guise of fiction, presented an historically accurate account of the 1938 Evian Conference, at which nation after nation refused to raise its immigration quota numbers to admit Jews into their countries. In Countess Tarnowska (1962) he reproduced in novel form the true story of a 1907 murder in Russia; in Ilona (1960) he created a fictional three-generational history of women whose lives are drastically affected by two world wars; and in The Devil’s Agent (1956) wrote the fictional memoirs of a spy.


Ironically, the first book by Hans to be published in the States just four months after his daughter’s murder was The Poisoned Stream (German title: Das Netz). Its publication at this time was, in the words of an Englishman who interviewed Hans, a “cruel coincidence,” since the novel dealt with a middle-aged man who murders young girls. Hans stated that he had tried to postpone the book’s publication for two reasons: first, “to let the emotional impact of the tragedy lessen,” and, secondly, “because the macabre story is written with humour.” But, because it was “impossible to hold the book up in all the thirteen countries in which it was due to appear,”14 the book was released in the States while memories of Marina’s death were still fresh and before the Charles Manson gang had committed its most egregious murders.



Actress Elke Sommer with Hans Habe on the film set of Das Netz,
Actress Elke Sommer with Hans Habe on the film set of "Das Netz," 1975

In spite of the “cruel coincidence,” this work is one of Hans’s most ambitious and successful ventures. Set in Rome, it depicted the thoughts of not just the murderer, but also of seven other people who profit from it, including an ambitious journalist, a lawyer, the murder victim’s friend, and even the victim’s father. In this “bitterly funny story,”15 “a profoundly moral comment on corruption evolves[,] as the poisonous greed of contemporary man is examined.”16


Hans’s next venture was a visit to Israel; this resulted in the book, In King David’s Footsteps (German title: Wie einst David, 1971), a travel account that included a retrospective of the rise of Israel and the wars that continued to threaten its peaceful existence. A critic for the Münchner Merkur declared that this book “reads like a magnificent declaration of love to Israel. We do not know any better or more objective description of Israel.”17


Hans remained active in journalism right up until his death; here his writing was often polemical and contentious. He was, he often said, “an extremist of the center,”18 a man who was both anti-Nazi and anti-Communist, and both a critic of President Eisenhower and an admirer of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. We in the States might be most interested in the pieces that he wrote in a weekly column for the Sunday edition of the Daily News in Los Angeles. He produced these pieces during an 18-month stint from 1952 to 1954. The column was called “Outside U.S.A.” and in it he provided commentary and analysis of America’s domestic and international policies from the standpoint of a European. All his life he remained a fighter, even to engaging in a number of personal and politically motivated lawsuits.


He was the recipient of numerous awards, including, in the last five years of his life, the Theodor Herzl Prize from the World Jewish Congress (1972), the Grand Order of Merit from the West German government (1976), and the Konrad Adenauer Prize from the Germany Foundation (1977).


He died in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1977. He was 66 years old.



Beverley Driver Eddy

November 2023


 

Citations

 
  1. Stefan Heym, Nachruf. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994, 265. My translation.

  2. Hans Habe, All My Sins, An Autobiography. Tr. E. Osers. London, Toronto: George G. Harrap & Co., 1957, 203. Most of the biographical information for the first half of Hans Habe’s life comes from these 1957 memoirs.

  3. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 111.

  4. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 139.

  5. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 264.

  6. Alfred de Grazia, A Taste of War: Memoirs. Princeton NJ: metron: 2011, 136.

  7. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 341.

  8. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 343, 345.

  9. Hanuš Burger, Der Frühling war es wert: Erinnerungen. Munich: C. Bertelsman, 1977, 182. My translation.

  10. Hanuš Burger, Der Frühling war es wert, 184. My translation

  11. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 352.

  12. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 361-362.

  13. Hans Habe, All My Sins, 9.

  14. Mark Kahn, “The Cruel Coincidence,” Sunday Mirror [London, England], 13 April 1969, 26.

  15. Tom Vickerman, “Among New Whodunits,” The San Francisco Examiner, 15 Oct., 1969, 39.

  16. Harry Heusted, “Jacksonville Library Reviews—New Books,” Jacksonville Journal Courier [Illinois], 26 Oct. 1969, 21.

  17. Cover blurb for Hans habe, Wie einst David: Entscheidung in Israel; ein Erlebnisbericht. Munchen:Heyne, 1978. My translation.

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