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Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl

Ernst Putzi Hanfstaengl together with Adolf Hitler, at Cafe Heck in Munich in the 1920s when he acted as Hitler's Press Agent
Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl together with Adolf Hitler, at Cafe Heck in Munich in the 1920s (when he acted as Hitler's Press Agent).

Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl (Munich, February 2, 1887 - November 6, 1975) was the only person known to have worked directly for both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.

Early Life

Ernst Hanfstaengl, nicknamed "Putzi", was born in Munich, Germany, the son of a wealthy and famous German art publisher and an American mother. He spent most of his early years in Germany and later moved to the United States. His mother was Katharine Wilhelmina Heine, daughter of William Heine, a (lithographer, Union General) and a cousin of John Sedgwick. His godfather was Duke Ernst II. He attended Harvard University where he composed football songs and became acquainted with Walter Lippmann and John Reed. He graduated in 1909. According to John Tolland's biographic book on Adolf Hitler life, Hanfstaengl is a tall man, with almost two metres height, his nickname, "Putzi", is a sort of irony, since it's mean "little".

He moved to New York and took over management of the American branch of his father's business, Franz Hanfstaengl Fine Art Publishing House. Each morning, he would practice piano at the New York Harvard Club, where he became acquainted with both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. Among his circle of acquaintances were newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, author Djuna Barnes, and actor Charlie Chaplin.

At the outbreak of WWI, he asked the German military attache in New York to smuggle him back to Germany. Slightly baffled by the proposal, the attache refused and Hanfstaengl remained in the US during the war. From 1917 onwards, the American branch of the family business was confiscated as enemy property.

On February 11, 1920, Hanfstaengl married Helene Elise Adelheid Niemeyer of Long Island. They had their only son, Egon Ludwig, almost a year later (he eventually enlisted in the US Army air corps). A daughter, Hertha, died at 5.

Hitler's Confidante

Returning to Germany in 1922, he was living back in his native Bavaria when he first heard Hitler speak in a Munich beer hall. A fellow member of the Harvard Hasty Pudding club who had become a U.S. Embassy official asked Hanfstaengl to assist a military attache sent to observe the political scene in Munich. Just before returning to Berlin the attache, Capt. Truman Smith, suggested that Hanfstaengl go to a Nazi rally for him and report on his impressions of Hitler. Hanfstaengl was so attracted to Hitler that he soon became one of his most intimate followers, although he did not formally join the Nazi party until 1931. "What Hitler was able to do to a crowd in 2˝ hours will never be repeated in 10,000 years," Hanfstaengl said. "Because of his miraculous throat construction, he was able to create a rhapsody of hysteria. In time, he became the living unknown soldier of Germany."

Hanfstaengel introduced himself to Hitler after the speech and began a close friendship and political association that would last through the 1920s and early 1930s. After participating in the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, he sheltered Hitler in the attic of his home in Uffing, outside of Munich and reportedly dissuaded him from committing suicide.

For much of the 1920s, Hanfstaengel worked to introduce the future Nazi leader to Munich high-society and polish his image in the eyes of the world. He also helped finance publication of Hitler's Mein Kampf and the NSDAP's official newspaper Völkischer Beobachter. Hitler was named godfather to Hanfstaengl's son Egon. Hanfstaengl wrote Brownshirt marches based on his Harvard football songs and, he later claimed, devised the chant of "Sieg Heil". Included among Hanfstaengl's friends during this period were Hanns Heinz Ewers and fellow Nazi party worker and journalist Kurt Lüdecke.

As a native English speaker with many connections to higher society in both England and America, he became head of the Foreign Press Bureau in Berlin. Aside from this official position, much of his importance lay in his friendship with Hitler, who enjoyed listening to "Putzi" play the piano. Hanfstaengl later claimed to have alerted nazi leadership to the Reichstag fire.

Fall From Power

As the NSDAP gathered power, several disputes arose between Hanfstaengl and Germany's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. He was shunted off Hitler's staff in 1933. He and Helene divorced in 1936. Hanfstaengl fell completely out of Hitler's favour after he was denounced by Unity Mitford, a close friend of both the Hanfstaengls and Hitler.

In 1937 Hanfstaengl received orders to parachute into an area held by the nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War, to assist in negotiations. Immediately suspecting a plot against his life, onboard the plane he pressed for more details from the pilot, who eventually admitted he'd been ordered to drop Hanfstaengl over loyalist-held territory, which would have meant almost certain death. Hanfstaengl convinced the pilot to let him escape at a fuel stopover by faking a machine damage.

The version of this story related by Albert Speer in his memoirs stated that this "mission" to Spain was nothing more than an elaborate practical joke concocted by Hitler and Goebbels, designed to punish Hanfstaengl after he'd displeased the Führer by making "adverse comments about the fighting spirit of the German soldiers in combat" in the Spanish Civil War. Hanfstaengl was issued with sealed orders from Hitler, which were not to be opened until the aeroplane he was instructed to board was in flight. These orders detailed that he was to be dropped in "Red Spanish territory" to work as an agent for Franco. The plane, according to Speer, was merely circling over Germany containing an increasingly disconcerted Hanfstaengl, with false location reports being given to convey the impression that the plane was drawing ever closer to Spain. After the joke had played itself out, the pilot declared he had to make an emergency landing and landed safely at Leipzig airport. Hanfstaengl was so alarmed by the event that he defected soon afterward.

He made his way to Switzerland and after securing his son Egon's release from Germany, moved to England where he was imprisoned as an enemy alien after the outbreak of World War II. He was later moved to a prison camp in Canada. In 1942 Hanfstaengl was turned over to the U.S. (likely after Roosevelt's personal intercession) and worked for the President's 'S-Project,' informing on 400 leading Nazis. He provided 68 pages of information on Adolf Hitler alone including personal details of Hitler's private life, plus he helped Professor Henry A. Murray, Director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, and psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer and other experts to create a 1943 report for the OSS designated as the "Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler." In 1944, Hanfstaengl was handed back to the British, who returned him to Germany after the end of the war. William Shirer, a CBS journalist who resided in Nazi Germany until 1941 and was in frequent contact with Hanfstaengl described him as an "eccentric, gangling man, whose sardonic wit somewhat compensated for his shallow mind."

Hanfstaengl wrote Unheard Witness (1957) about his experiences. In 2004, his story was told by author Peter Conradi in his book Hitler's Piano Player: The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl, Confidante of Hitler, Ally of FDR.

In popular culture

Hanfstaengel has rarely been mentioned or portrayed in dramatizations of Hitler's life or of life Nazi Germany. He was, however, an important supporting character in both the TV movie Hitler: The Rise of Evil (in which he was portrayed by Liev Schreiber) and author Ron Hansen's historical fiction novel Hitler's Niece.

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