Ernst Hanfstaengel, the son of a wealthy publisher and art dealer, was born in Munich, Germany, on 2nd February, 1887. He had an American mother and his grandfather, William Heine, was a general who fought in the American Civil War.
Hanfstaengel was educated at the Royal Bavarian Wilheim-Gymnasium where his form master was the father of Heinrich Himmler. He completed his education at Harvard University. After graduating in 1909 he joined the family business on Fifth Avenue.
Hanfstaengel remained in the United States during the First World War and did not return to Germany until 1919. Soon after arriving in Berlin he met Captain Truman Smith, a military attache at the American Embassy. It was Smith who advised Hanfstaengel to go and see Adolf Hitler speak at a National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) meeting.
Hanfstaengel later recalled: "In his heavy boots, dark suit and leather waistcoat, semi-stiff white collar and odd little moustache, he really did not look very impressive - like a waiter in a railway-station restaurant. However, when Drexler introduced him to a roar of applause, Hitler straightened up and walked past the press table with a swift, controlled step, the unmistakable soldier in mufti. The atmosphere in the hall was electric. Apparently this was his first public appearance after serving a short prison-sentence for breaking up a meeting addressed by a Bavarian separatist named Ballerstedt, so he had to be reasonably careful what he said in case the police should arrest him again as a disturber of the peace. Perhaps this is what gave such a brilliant quality to his speech, which for innuendo and irony I have never heard matched, even by him. No one who judges his capacity as a speaker from the performances of his later years can have any true insight into his gifts."
Hanfstaengel became one of Hitler's inner circle. He was one of his earliest financial supporters and in March, 1923, provided $1,000 to ensure the daily publication of Völkischer Beobachter. The newspaper, an anti-Semitic gossip sheet had previously appeared twice a week. With Hanfstaengel's money it was published every day. As the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) has pointed out: "It became a daily, thus giving Hitler the prerequisite of all German political parties, a daily newspaper in which to preach the party's gospels."
In November 1923, Hanfstaengel took part in the Beer Hall Putsch. "Hitler began to plough his way towards the platform and the rest of us surged forward behind him. Tables overturned with their jugs of beer. On the way we passed a major named Mucksel, one of the heads of the intelligence section at Army headquarters, who started to draw his pistol as soon as he saw Hitler approach, but the bodyguard had covered him with theirs and there was no shooting. Hitler clambered on a chair and fired a round at the ceiling."
After the failed coup he hid Hitler in his villa in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler was eventually arrested and put on trial for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch. If found guilty, Hitler faced the death penalty. While in prison Hitler suffered from depression and talked of committing suicide. However, it soon became clear that the Nazi sympathizers in the Bavarian government were going to make sure that Hitler would not be punished severely. At his trial Hitler was allowed to turn the proceedings into a political rally, and although he was found guilty he only received the minimum sentence of five years. Hanfstaengel visited him during his prison term at Landsberg am Lech and helped to reestablish his political career after his release. The two men remained close and Hanfstaengel became a member of his inner-circle.
Hanfstaengel later recalled that Hitler talked to him a great deal about America. He was especially interested in the ideas of Henry Ford and the Ku Klux Klan. "In his questions Hitler revealed to me that his ideas about America were wildly superficial. He wanted to hear all about the skyscrapers and was fascinated by details of technical progress, but failed utterly to draw logical conclusions from this information. The only American figure for whom he had time for was Henry Ford, and then not so much as an industrial wonder-worker but rather as a reputed anti-Semite and a possible source of funds. Hitler was also passionately interested in the Ku Klux Klan, then at the height of its questionable reputation. He seemed to think it was a political movement similar to his own, with which it might be possible to make some pact, and I was never able to put its relative importance in proper prospective for him."
His biographer, Louis L. Snyder, has pointed out: "A towering 6-foot, 4-inch giant with an enormous head, a pugnacious jaw, and thick hair. Hanfstaengel endured the nickname Putzi throughout his career. He was a gifted pianist who used his huge hands to pound out the more flamboyant passages of Liszt and Wagner.... Hanfstaengel, the only literary member of Hitler's inner circle, introduced the coarse Austrian to the Munich milieu of art and culture and attempted to make him socially acceptable.... The tall Bavarian was a gay and amusing companion on political campaigns. With his practical jokes and broad sense of humour, he was regarded as a kind of Shakespearean jester whose main task was to provide relaxation for the harried leader."
The journalist, William L. Shirer, met Ernst Hanfstaengel while working in Germany: "An eccentric, gangling man, whose sardonic wit somewhat compensated for his shallow mind, Hanfstaengel was a virtuoso at the piano and on many an evening, even after his friend came to power in Berlin, he would excuse himself from the company of those of us who might be with him to answer a hasty summons from the Fuehrer. It was said that his piano-playing - he pounded the instrument furiously - and his clowning soothed Hitler and even cheered him up after a tiring day. Later this strange but genial Harvard man, like some other early cronies of Hitler, would have to flee the country for his life."
in 1931 Hanfstaengel was appointed Foreign Press Chief of the Nazi Party. Over the next few years he tried to use his contacts to improve the image of Hitler in other countries. He also spent time with foreign visitors. This included Unity Mitford, the daughter of Lord Redesdale. According to Armida Macindoe: He (Hanfstaengl) was more of a means than an end, he introduced her to Nazis." Hanfstaengel admitted that Unity and Diana were outstanding Nordic beauties: "They were very attractive but they made-up to the eyebrows in a manner which conflicted directly with the newly proclaimed Nazi ideal of German womanhood." As a result he insisted they removed some of it: "My dears, it is no good, but to stand any hope of meeting him (Hitler) you will have to wipe some of that stuff off your faces."
Ernst Hanfstaengel arranged for British journalists like George Ward Price and Sefton Delmer to meet Hitler. He pointed out in Hitler: The Missing Years (1957): "Sefton Delmer of the Daily Express took a great interest in our campaign and became very much persona grata with the nazi leadership. He was really very partial to Delmer and, when he became Chancellor, willingly agreed that the Daily Express man should be given the first exclusive interview." He also introduced the British politician, Robert Boothby, to Hitler: "I received a telephone call from my friend Putzi Hanfstaengel, who was at that time Hitler's personal private secretary and court jester. He told me that the Führer had been reading my speeches with interest, and would like to see me at his headquarters in the Esplanade Hotel. It is true that when I walked across the long room to a corner in which he was sitting writing, in a brown shirt with a swastika on his arm, he waited without looking up until I had reached his side, then sprang to his feet, lifted his right arm, and shouted Hitler!, and that I responded by clicking my heels together, raising my right arm, and shouting back: Boothby!"
Hanfstaengel had serious doubts about Hitler's radical political beliefs. Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "Hanfstaengel attempted in subtle ways to influence the Hitler to moderate his political, religious, and racial views, while Hitler on his side resented any interference. On one occasion at a crowded reception, Hanfstaengel loudly called Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, a swine. This kind of frankness did not endear him to the Nazi establishment."
In March 1937 Hanfstaengel was warned that Joseph Goebbels was involved in a conspiracy to murder him. He later recalled: "The evil genius of the second half of Hitler's career was Goebbels. I always likened this mocking, jealous, vicious, satanically gifted dwarf to the pilot-fish of the Hitler shark. It was he who finally turned Hitler fanatically against all established institutions and forms of authority. He was not only schizophrenic but schizopedic, and that was what made him so sinister."
Deciding he was in danger, Hanfstaengel fled to Canada. In the summer of 1942, Hanfstaengel was interviewed by John Franklin Carter. He left the meeting convinced was eager to work for the Allies against the Nazis. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that Hanfstaengl should be recruited but Winston Churchill disagreed because he feared that it would confuse people into believing "that there are good and bad ex-Nazis". Roosevelt eventually got his way and on 24th June, 1942, he was flown to Washington under the name of Ernst Sedgwick. In July 1942, he was established on a farm in Virginia under the control of Donald Chase Downes. He later was used by Roosevelt as a "political and psychological warfare adviser in the war against Germany."
Ernst Hanfstaengel died in Munich on 6th November, 1975.