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Hanns Scharff: The Extraordinary Interrogation Technique of a Nazi Interrogator

BY Gavin Alexander July 13, 2018
Hanns Scharff

Hanns Scharff. (German Federal Archive)

When thinking of master interrogators, cruel individuals come to mind. Individuals who are able to inflict a great deal of physical or emotional pain on another without feeling empathy. A completely inhuman occupation but in the realms of society, it has always been an essential commodity, especially during times of war.

The same thought applies when thinking about the NAZIs, an idea of evil individuals. While this is untrue for the majority who were simply following a regime, others – many of those at the head of the party – took pride in their policies and practices. So when the two are combined – a NAZI interrogator – the phrase has a very dark connotation.

This particular interrogator worked his way up the ranks and by World War II oversaw prisoner camps known as Dulag Lufts. When enemies of the state were captured they were brought to the attention of the specialist known as Hanns Scharff. Fluent in English he quoted himself as “…the spider sitting on its web…”

From salesperson to interrogator

Scharff was born in 1907, in the East Prussian Empire. He grew up in the town of Leipzig where he studied art and learned the family’s textile business. On reaching adulthood he was sent to South Africa which made him fluent in English. He excelled in the sales division of a company, handling clients who considered him to be a gentleman to do business with.

Hanns married an English lady called Margaret Stokes who happened to be the daughter of a legendary RAF (Royal Air Force) Captain named Claud Stokes. This information would be a coincidence to some extent later in the story. The newly-wed Hanns and Margaret went on holiday to Germany one summer but it would turn into a longer stay than first hoped.

World War II broke out and still a German citizen, Scharff was sent to the Wehrmacht division for military training, destined for the Russian front. He was persistent to stay in Germany however and used his fluency in English to be promoted, becoming a Lance Corporal. The German ended up in Oberursel near Frankfurt, at an Intelligence and Evaluation Center operated by the notorious Luftwaffe Air Force. Their facility was where captured Allied pilots (excluding Soviets) were interrogated. Scharff became an Interrogation Officer.

The new officer was quick to enforce his own methods as he was far from impressed by current techniques. In the Dulag Luft, the captives would mostly come from downed British airplanes whose pilots would have been terrified about being captured by the Nazi regime. Rumours already circulated about the secret police called the Gestapo who were said to administer horrifying torture techniques.

Despite the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, illegal torture persisted. When some US Army pilots were captured, Scharff got his first opportunity. The work started before the meeting as he obtained every piece of information possible about them. He declined to wear a uniform; casual clothes were all he needed to extrapolate information.

I was like the spider sitting on its web, with all the elements I could use at hand, except the brutality.” -Hanns Scharff

Scharff’s interrogating technique

The prisoners would not find a spider but a gentleman. And this is why Hanns Scharff is so special. He was both a Nazi and an interrogator but chose not to do what was expected of him. The history of interrogation has always involved torture but he was brave enough to condemn it.  No doubt at first the prisoners and his colleagues alike would have presumed it to be a trick but Scharff was highly successful in using psychology, and never force.

The fact he spoke perfect English meant he gained their trust. He created the illusion that he knew more than he knew, making the pilots feel that any details they gave were already common knowledge. Some even volunteered it due to being treated so well: They were taken on excursions to forests and the zoo with Scharff as their guide. They received medical care and a generous supply of food. Their good experience and treatment is reflected in the camp’s guestbook where the prisoners described the hospitality of the place.

The only devious aspect – a great weapon for the interrogator – was letting the prisoners know that he would give them to the infamous Gestapo if they did not cooperate or try to escape. But in honesty, he never did. Because for the one prisoner who said nothing – famous pilot ‘Gabby’ Gabreski – Hanns did not punish him. Even though Gabby never helped him they stayed friends and met again after the war was over.

Hanns knew that while these captives were his enemy by name, they were humans who did not start the war. He would be remembered and revered for never inflicting pain on another soul despite being expected to.

Influence on FBI and becoming a US citizen

Long after World War II finished, Scharff eventually settled in various countries – but never his – enemy, the US. The Pentagon was aware and persuaded him to work for them. Newspapers and magazines began to publish his methods. He reported for the US air force and would be an influence for many including former FBI agent Ali Soufan who was involved in investigating 9/11 and at Guantanamo Bay.

In retirement, Hanns would become a US citizen and followed his first love – art; designing mosaics at famous monuments such as Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Hanns is an amazing example of standing up for what is right which is extremely heroic considering what took place in Nazi Germany.

He believed that people are people no matter where they are from and he treated the allies with the same respect he did the axis. Even when wars are taking place there are still shining lights like Hanns Scharff who are not just intelligent but brave enough to put it into practice.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart: The One-Eyed Invincible Soldier“.

Recommended Read:
The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff, Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe | By Raymond F. Toliver

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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