In A Nutshell
Hanns Scharff wasn’t your typical Nazi interrogator. Unlike the infamous Klaus Barbie, he didn’t believe in using physical violence. Instead, Scharff got prisoners to spill their secrets through trickery and kindness.
The Whole Bushel
When the Gestapo arrested French Resistance leader Jean Moulin, they used just about every method in the torturer’s handbook to make him talk. Officer Klaus Barbie and his secret policemen put hot needles under Moulin’s fingernails, tightened his handcuffs until his wrists snapped, and slammed a door on his hands until his fingers broke. Despite the brutal beatings, Moulin never cracked. He kept his mouth shut until he slipped into a coma and died. It was a tragic ending to a heroic life, and a strong indicator that Barbie’s methods, while bloody, weren’t all that effective. Perhaps if Moulin had been sent to Hanns Scharff, the story would have had a happier ending.
Scharff was the friendliest interrogator of World War II. Fluent in English, Scharff grilled pilots who were shot down over Germany. Unlike the notorious Barbie, Scharff had a much more positive approach to interrogations. This Luftwaffe officer was a master of mind games. Before he quizzed a prisoner at the Dulag Luft camp, Scharff dug up as much background information on his subjects as possible. Even if he could only find basic info, he fooled prisoners into thinking he already knew all about their objectives. Since he was already aware of their activities, they might as well talk about them, right?
Next, Scharff disarmed his prisoners by becoming their best bud. He often took them on trips to the local zoo, and he even let one prisoner take a ride in a German plane. After building a rapport with a POW, Scharff would take him on walks through the Oberursel forest. Together, the Nazi and the Allied pilot would stroll through the pine trees, observing the birds and chatting about America or England. The whole time, Scharff was listening for little slip-ups that would reveal information vital to the German war machine. Prisoners might inadvertently mention something about bomb sights or causally say something about operational plans. They might tell a story about their training or talk about the planes they used to fly. Scharff was such a smooth talker, such a friendly guy, that the prisoners had no idea they were being conned. They were just glad they weren’t being electrocuted. Many of them signed his guestbook before leaving the camp. In fact, after the war, he was invited to many POW reunions because he was such a gentleman.
Eventually, Scharff moved to the US where he helped the Air Force come up with survival techniques for downed pilots, and taught intelligence agencies how to peacefully interrogate suspects. The Army was so impressed with Scharff’s methods that they incorporated his methods into their curriculum, and soldiers attending interrogation school learn all about his techniques. Although he had a knack for discovering secrets, Scharff’s real passion was art. He opened a studio in California and was commissioned to create mosaics at UCLA, the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas and, most shockingly, Disney World. Scharff passed away in 1992, but you can still see his work inside Cinderella Castle and at the Epcot Center. Next time you visit the Magic Kingdom, just remember the artist who designed those mosaics had a 90 percent success rate when it came to interrogating Allied POWs.
Show Me The Proof
BBC History: The WWII interrogator who used kindness over violence
LA Times: Hanns Scharff; Creator of L.A., State Capitol Mosaics
Art Of The Mouse (photos of Scharff’s Disney World mosaic work)
Jewish Virtual Library: Klaus Barbie