AstrologyHistory was one of my better subjects at school, but now it seems my history teacher might have got it all wrong about how we won the Second World War. For a long time we thought it was a combination of an excellent navy and more importantly an excellent Royal Air Force, a dogged Russian front line, not to mention a little help from our friends in the good old US of A. Military tactics, technology, alliances, espionage, and intrigue defeated Hitler, no?

Or was it actually astrology? It has emerged that rather than studying battle plans and maps some of our intelligence chiefs tried to guess what Hitler and his minions were up to by studying his horoscope.

Weird. The leading figure in question was a Hungarian chap called Ludwig von Wohl who was able to persuade senior intelligence officers that he could replicate the forecasts of Hitler’s personal astrologer, which would help tell what advice Hitler was being given and thus give a better chance of second guessing what his next move might be.

Rather than being dismissed as an idiot his methodology appealed to many senior military leaders: including the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey, who was constantly frustrated at what he saw as Hitler’s erratic and often unpredictable strategic moves. Not everyone was delighted, MI5 and MI6 in particular were appalled that someone they regarded as a charlatan was being taken seriously by many of those charged with protecting the country. One MI5 officer remarked that none of de Wohl’s predictions had come true, apart from the prediction that Italy would enter the war, a fact that in his mind was “quite patent to anybody with the slightest knowledge of international affairs.”

The funny thing is that historians now tell us that Hitler paid no attention to astrology at all. In that regard he was much more intelligent and rational than many of our own intelligence personnel. With so many top brass military and intelligence personnel taking stargazing seriously it really is a wonder we won the war at all.

What the episode does show is how ready people are to believe nonsense when they’re desperate for answers and help. I’ve seen this kind of thing again and again in both religious and non-religious guise. About two years ago I went to see a Benny Hinn crusade and saw a lot of the same thing: desperate people turned out in the hope that they might encounter the God they read about in their Bible but who eluded them in their experience. From start to finish it was a carefully crafted festival of manipulation with Hinn very much the centre of attention. Right before he prayed for healing there was a money offering and people were implored to give because God would in turn reward them: the obvious implication being that if they gave money they would get healed. Hinn said that he felt God was telling him that there were people present with back pain. No shit Benny? A hall of 5000 people and there are a few present with back pain? Not so much the power of the spirit as the power of probability, me thinks. As the night progressed Hinn declared that people had been healed of all manner of illness: including one person healed of cancer. There was not a single shred of evidence to suggest anyone had been healed at all. But people bought into it. God was working. He was alive, he was not dead. Their faith was boosted (except that of the wheelchair bound who were kept at the back of the hall out of sight). Desperate people opt for desperate measures, however bizarre and non-evidential.

On another occasion I was leaving Edinburgh on an airport bus and happened to tune in to a conversation between two women sitting behind me. They had been to see a medium, and were quite excited by some of the things they had been told: about ill relatives getting better, dead relatives being happy in the Great Beyond, and how wonderful their lives might be in a few years time. It was the same story in non-religious guise: people who weren’t sure about their own place in the world, who weren’t sure how to think and conduct their own lives, who couldn’t find answers so turned to the weird and wonderful, and who were offered the same old vagaries by those skilled in the art of probability and people-reading.

Here’s the truth: my history teachers were right about how we won the second world war; and it had nothing to do with astrology. It was down to human skill and a bit of luck: good thinking, firm action, and hard work; not to mention a lot of sacrifice and hardship. That’s the rational way to conduct oneself. If you have cancer you are better off in a hospital than in the clutches of a manipulative televangelist. If you’re worried about your future then work for it and plan using your own mind and a little help from your friends. You can’t win a war – world or personal – by throwing yourself into the pit of the irrational.

Whatever we do we must never surrender our minds to charlatans when we do it.