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Ernst Hanfstaengl
Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl (February 2, 1887 - November 6, 1975), was a German businessman who worked for Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt, and was once engaged to the author Djuna Barnes.

Early life

Ernst Hanfstaengl, nicknamed "Putzi", was born in Munich, Germanymarker, the son of a wealthy German art publisher, Edgar Hanfstaengl, and an Americanmarker mother. He spent most of his early years in Germanymarker and later moved to the United Statesmarker. His mother was Katharine Wilhelmina Heine, daughter of William Heine, a cousin of American Civil War Union Army general John Sedgwick. His godfather was Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He had an elder sister, Erna, two elder brothers Edgar and Egon, and a younger brother Erwine.

He attended Harvard Universitymarker and became acquainted with Walter Lippmann and John Reed. A gifted pianist, he composed several songs for Harvard's football team. He graduated in 1909.

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

Upon the outbreak of World War I, 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 U.S. during the war. After 1917, the American branch of the family business was confiscated as enemy property.

On February 11, 1920, Hanfstaengl married Helene Elise Adelheid Niemeyer of Long Islandmarker. Their only son, Egon Ludwig, eventually enlisted in the US Army Air Corps. A daughter, Herta, died at the age of five.

Hitler's confidant

Returning to Germany in 1922, he was living in his native Bavariamarker when he first heard Hitler speak in a Munichmarker beer hall. A fellow member of the Harvard Hasty Pudding club who worked at the U.S.marker Embassymarker, asked Hanfstaengl to assist a military attache sent to observe the political scene in Munich. Just before returning to Berlinmarker the attache, Captain Truman Smith, suggested to Hanfstaengl to go to a Nazi rally as a favor and report his impressions of Hitler. Hanfstaengl was so fascinated by 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 2½ 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."

Hanfstaengl 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 Beer Hall Putschmarker in 1923, Hanfstaengl briefly fled to Austriamarker, while the injured Hitler sought refuge in Hanfstaengl's home in Uffingmarker, outside of Munich. Hanfstaengl's wife, Helene, allegedly dissuaded Hitler from committing suicide, when the police came to arrest him.

For much of the 1920s, Hanfstaengl introduced Hitler to Munich high-society and helped polish his image. He also helped to finance the publication of Hitler's Mein Kampf, and the NSDAP's official newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. Hitler was the godfather of Hanfstaengl's son Egon. Hanfstaengl wrote both Brownshirtmarker and Hitler Youth marches patterned after his Harvard football songs and, he later claimed, devised the chant "Sieg Heil". Included among Hanfstaengl's friends during this period were Hanns Heinz Ewers and fellow Nazi Party worker and journalist Kurt Lüdecke.

Fluent in English, with many connections to higher society both in Englandmarker and the United States, he became head of the Foreign Press Bureau in Berlin. Aside from this official position, much of his influence was due to his friendship with Hitler, who enjoyed listening to "Putzi" play the piano. Hanfstaengl later claimed to have alerted Hitler and Hermann Göring about the Reichstag fire.

Hanfstaengl's presence at his 25th Harvard reunion in 1934 created a furor. He was originally named a vice marshal of his class but he resigned it following complaints from Jewish alumni and anti-Nazi student groups. His arrival in New York was met by 1,500 protesters and two students were arrested at Harvard Commencement after chaining themselves to benches and disrupting the commencement address with shouts of "Down with Hanfstaengl" and "Down with Hitler." Months after the reunion, Harvard President James Conant rejected a donation of $1,000 from Hanfstaengl.

Fall from power

As the NSDAP consolidated its power, several disputes arose between Hanfstaengl and Germany's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Hanfstaengl was removed from 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 Nationalistmarker side of the Spanish Civil War, to assist in negotiations. While onboard the plane he feared a plot on his life and learned more details from the pilot about the mission, who eventually admitted he had been ordered to drop Hanfstaengl over loyalist-held territory, which would have meant almost certain death. Hanfstaengl convinced the pilot to let him escape.

This version of the story was related by Albert Speer in his memoirs, who 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 had been issued sealed orders from Hitler, which were not to be opened until his plane was in flight. These orders detailed that he was to be dropped in "Red Spanish territory" to work as an agent for Francisco 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 Spainmarker. After the joke had played itself out, the pilot declared he had to make an emergency landing and landed safely at Leipzig Airportmarker. Hanfstaengl was so alarmed by the event that he defected soon afterward.

He made his way to Switzerlandmarker and after securing his son Egon's release from Germany, he 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 Canadamarker. In 1942, Hanfstaengl was turned over to the U.S. and worked for President Roosevelt's 'S-Project,' revealing information on approximately four hundred Nazi leaders. He provided 68 pages of information on Hitler alone, including personal details of Hitler's private life, and he helped Professor Henry Murray, the Director of the Harvardmarker Psychological Clinic, and psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer and other experts to create a report for the OSS, in 1943, designated the "Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler ." In 1944, Hanfstaengl was handed back to the British, who repatriated him to Germany at 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 1974, Hanfstaengl attended his 65th Harvard Reunion, where he regaled the Harvard University Band about the authors of various Harvard fight songs. His relationship to Hitler went unmentioned. 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

Hanfstaengl has rarely been mentioned or portrayed in dramatizations of Hitler's life or of life in 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. He also features as a character in Faye Kellerman's novel "Straight into Darkness" set in the Munich of 1929.


  1. A nickname (which may have been acquired in youth) meaning "little fellow;" as an adult Hanfstaengl was 6'4" tall. (Toland)
  2. Some authorities suggest that Hitler was romantically involved with Erna, a tall and stately woman, or had romantic affections for her. ("Shirer"). See also Wikipedia article on Geli Raubal. While some historians have written that Hitler was nursed by Erna (and her mother) at Uffing following the Beer Hall putsch, Toland claims that this is a myth, resulting from the misinterpretation of the American journalists who interviewed the three Hanfstaengl women (the mother, sister and wife of Ernst) immediately after Hitler's arrest by the authorities. Toland, p. 181 (footnote).
  3. See A Sedgwick Genealogy: Descendants of Deacon Benjamin Sedgwick (p. 143) at ( Sedgwick Genealogy). His elder brother Egon served in the German Army in World War I and was killed in 1915; his younger brother Erwine died of typhoid in the American Hospital in Paris in 1914.
  4. The initial encounter was on 22 November, 1922 at the Kindlkeller, a large L-shaped beer hall. Toland, p. 128.
  5. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, (Sphere Books, 1971), Chpt.9, pp. 188-9.

Further reading

  • Hanfstaengl, Ernst 'Putzi'. Hitler: The Missing Years. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957. Arcade Publishing, reprint 1994 ISBN 1-55970-278-8
  • Peter Conradi Carroll & Graf. Hitler's Piano Player: The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl, Confidante of Hitler, Ally of FDR, 2004 ISBN 0-7867-1283-X
  • Metcalfe, Philip. 1933. New York, The Permanent Press, 1988. ISBN 0-9329-6687-X

See also

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