The Literary Character of Ernst Blofeld was Based on Otto Skorzeny
The character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, as presented by Donald Pleasence in the movie ‘You Only Live Twice‘, has gone on to become one of the most iconic cinematic super-villains of the half century. Some may recognize him as the character who was parodied in the Austin Powers trilogy as Dr. Evil.
But have you ever wondered if the original Blofeld character was based on a real person?
Well.. as I found out over the years, he is- but not in the way you think. Moreover, the life-story of the guy that character was based on is even more interesting than the literary super-villain. However, I also realized something else.. The author of the James Bond series, Ian Fleming, took great care to obscure and hide the connection between his literary super-villain character and the guy he was almost certainly based on. As readers will see, Fleming had a very good reason to hide the true identity of the guy who served as the inspiration for one of his most iconic literary characters.
In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that it took me some time to figure out the identity of the person who inspired the Blofeld character. Here is why.. My first exposure to this character came from watching James Bond movies, especially as played by Donald Pleasence. To put it another way, I (like most of you) saw his character on screen before reading about it in a book. The best clues to to true identity of Blofeld are found in some of the first James Bond novels. Having said that, his first cinematic representation of Blofeld (and Dr. Evil) holds one important clue to his true identity.
Notice something common to both Ernst Blofeld and Dr. Evil?
Apart from the fact that both Blofeld and Dr. Evil are bald, they both have a peculiar scar on their face. But what would cause such a scar? Well, it turns out that such scars are the result of an old Germanic academic tradition known as Academic fencing. While researching a bit more about academic fencing, I came across a picture of Otto Skorzeny who apparently had one of the larger and more photogarphed version of such a scar. Some of you might wonder, as I did, if depicting the super-villain character with such a scar was simply a cinematic device. Well.. that is certainly a possibility. But why chose such an obscure, if dramatic looking, scar that had no role in his path to super-villainy? Here is my theory- The producers of ‘You Only Live Twice’ tried to further obscure an already obscured literary character because the real-life inspiration for him was still alive when that movie was produced and released.
So why do I believe that the literary character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld was principally inspired by the career and exploits of Otto Skorzeny? Let me start with the original physical description of Ernst Blofeld in Ian Fleming’s older novels as summarized on Wikipedia.
Blofeld is described physically as a massive man, weighing roughly 20 stone (280 lb; 130 kg), has black crew-cut hair, black eyes (similar to those of Benito Mussolini), heavy eyelashes, a thin mouth and long pointed hands and feet. He has violet-scented breath from chewing flavoured cachous (breath mints). A meticulous planner of formidable intellect, he seems to be without conscience but not necessarily insane, and is motivated solely by financial gain.
Readers will immediately notice that this physical description is nothing like the one depicted in any James Bond movie. This is our first clue that the character of Blofeld was originally based on someone who looked very different from his cinematic version. Another set of clues are found in biographical facts about the literary version of this character.
According to the novel, Blofeld was born on 28 May 1908 (which is also Fleming’s birthday) in the city of Gdingen, then part of Imperial Germany (now part of Poland and known under the name Gdynia); his father was Polish and his mother was Greek, hence the well-known Greek name Stavro. As a young man, Blofeld was well-versed in the social science disciplines, but also in the natural science and technology disciplines. He first graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in Political History and Economics, and then from the Warsaw University of Technology with a degree in Engineering and “Radionics”.
Correctly foreseeing the coming of World War II, Blofeld made copies of top-secret wires and sold them for cash to Nazi Germany. Before the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he destroyed all records of his existence then moved first to Sweden, then to Turkey, where he worked for Turkish Radio and began to set up his own private intelligence organisation. During the war, he sold information to both sides. After the defeat of Erwin Rommel, he decided to back the Allied war effort, and was awarded numerous medals by the Allied powers after the war’s end. Blofeld then temporarily moved to South America before founding SPECTRE.
Taken as a whole, these autobiographical facts about Blofeld are not particularly helpful in uncovering the identity of his real-life inspiration. They do, however, contain three important clues. Firstly, he was born in 1908 in a city that is now in Poland. Secondly, he was an engineer by training. Thirdly, he was a very pragmatic person who switched loyalties as needed. Lastly, he moved to South America after WW2 to found SPECTRE.
So, the real-life inspiration for Blofeld was a dark-haired, tall and muscular culturally Germanic guy. He was born in 1908- either in Poland or his family had Polish roots. He then went on to study engineering and worked for the Nazis during WW2. After the war, he disavowed his previous loyalties and went into the international private “security” business as the head of a private organisation initially based in South America.
Now have a look at this guy..
Otto Skorzeny was born June 12, 1908, in Vienna, Austria into a middle class Austrian family with Polish roots. Skorzeny spoke fluent German and French and was educated locally before attending university. While there, he developed skills in fencing. Taking part in numerous bouts, he received a long scar on the left side of his face. This along with his height (6’4″), was one of Skorzeny’s distinguishing features.In 1931 Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party and soon became a member of the Nazi SA. A charismatic figure, Skorzeny played a minor role in the Anschluss on 12 March 1938, when he saved the Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot by Austrian Nazis. A civil engineer by trade, Skorzeny came to minor prominence when he saved Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot during the Anschluss in 1938. This action caught the eye of Austrian SS chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Skorzeny attempted to join the Luftwaffe but instead was assigned as an officer-cadet in the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (Hitler’s bodyguard regiment). Serving as a technical officer with the rank of second lieutenant, Skorzeny put his engineering training to use.
In 1940, as an SS Untersturmführer (second lieutenant), he impressed his superiors by designing ramps to load tanks on ships. He then fought in the Netherlands, France and the Balkans, where he achieved distinction by forcing a large Yugoslav force to surrender, following which he was promoted to Obersturmführer (first lieutenant) in the Waffen-SS. Skorzeny went to war in the USSR with the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and subsequently fought in several battles on the Eastern Front. In October 1941, he was in charge of a “technical section” of the German forces during the Battle of Moscow. Skorzeny was wounded by shrapnel from Katyusha rockets in December 1942. Though injured, he refused treatment and continued fighting until the effects of his wounds forced his evacuation. Taken to Vienna to recover, he received the Iron Cross.
Given a staff role with the Waffen-SS in Berlin, Skorzeny began extensive reading and research into commando tactics and warfare. Enthusiastic about this alternative approach to warfare he began advocating it within the SS. Based on his work, Skorzeny believed that new, unconventional units should be formed to conduct attacks deep behind enemy lines. In April 1943, his work bore fruit as he was selected by Kaltenbrunner, now the head of the RSHA (SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt – Reich Main Security Office) to develop a training course for operatives that included paramilitary tactics, sabotage, and spying. Promoted to captain, Skorzeny quickly received command of Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal. A special operations unit, it was redesignated 502nd SS Jäger Battalion Mitte that June. Relentlessly training his men, Skorzeny’s unit conducted their first mission, Operation Francois, that summer. Dropping into Iran, a group from the 502nd was tasked with contacting dissident tribes in the region and encouraging them to attack Allied supply lines. A list of the other pre-1946 operations he was involved in can be found in this link. FYI- His leadership of the successful commando raid that freed Mussolini in 1944 is widely seen as the moment when he first attracted significant international attention.
But it was his post-WW2 exploits that made him a legend.
After Germany surrendered in 1945, he like many other high-ranking German Army officials was imprisoned and tried at Dachau for war crimes. However a combination of circumstances and the reticence of many potential allied witnesses to testify for fear of divulging their own war crimes resulted in his acquittal for those charges in 1947. Skorzeny was then detained in an internment camp at Darmstadt awaiting the decision of a denazification court.On 27 July 1948 he escaped from the camp with the help of three former SS officers dressed in US Military Police uniforms who entered the camp and claimed that they had been ordered to take Skorzeny to Nuremberg for a legal hearing. Skorzeny afterwards maintained that the US authorities had aided his escape, and had supplied the uniforms. Skorzeny hid out at a farm in Bavaria which had been rented by Countess Ilse Lüthje, the niece of Hjalmar Schacht (Hitler’s former finance minister), for around 18 months, during which time he was in contact with Reinhard Gehlen, and together with Hartmann Lauterbacher (former deputy head of the Hitler Youth) recruited for the Gehlen Organization.
Skorzeny was photographed at a café on the Champs Elysées in Paris on 13 February 1950. The photo appeared in the French press the next day, causing him to retreat to Salzburg, where he met up with German veterans and also filed for divorce so that he could marry Ilse Lüthje. Shortly afterwards, with the help of a Nansen passport issued by the Spanish government, he moved to Madrid, where he set up a small engineering business which helped serve as a front for his operations with the ODESSA network as he had become the Spanish coordinator. On April 1950 the publication of Skorzeny’s memoirs by the French newspaper Le Figaro caused 1500 communists to riot outside the journal’s headquarters. There is a strong possibility that he also worked for as a high-ranking security “adviser” for Juan Peron in the early 1950s, and is rumored to have had an affair with Evita Peron- yes, that Evita!
And it gets even better..
In 1952, when the country had been taken over by General Mohammed Naguib, Skorzeny was sent to Egypt the following year by former General Reinhard Gehlen (who was now working for the CIA) to act as Naguib’s military advisor. Skorzeny recruited a staff made up of former SS officers to train the Egyptian army. Among these officers were SS General Wilhelm Farmbacher, Panzer General Oskar Munzel, Leopold Gleim, head of the Gestapo Department for Jewish Affairs in Poland, and Joachim Daemling, former chief of the Gestapo in Düsseldorf. In addition to training the army, Skorzeny also trained Arab volunteers in commando tactics for possible use against British troops stationed in the Suez Canal zone. Several Palestinian refugees also received commando training, and Skorzeny planned their raids into Israel via the Gaza Strip in 1953-1954. One of these Palestinians was Yasser Arafat. He would eventually serve as an adviser to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But wait, there is more..
Skorzeny later provided intelligence to Mossad on ex-Nazi scientists working for the Egyptian government. Skorzeny agreed to cooperate with Israel on condition that Simon Wiesenthal erase his name from the list of wanted Nazi war criminals and act to have an arrest warrant against him cancelled. Though Wiesenthal rejected this request, Skorzeny decided in the end to cooperate with Mossad anyway. Yes.. you read that right- he even worked for Mossad. Take a second to reflect on the irony of a guy who was in the inner circle of the Third Reich working for Mossad.
And then there is his central role in the formation of the Paladin Group which was pretty much a real life-version of the fictional SPECTRE.
The Paladin Group was created in 1970 in the Albufereta neighborhood of Alicante, Spain, by former SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny and former US Colonel James Sanders. A former special operations officer, Skorzeny had become a member of the ODESSA network after the war, helping to smuggle Nazi war criminals out of Allied Europe to Spain, South America and other friendly destinations to avoid prosecution for war crimes. Skorzeny himself resided after the war in Spain, protected by Franco. Skorzeny envisioned the Paladin Group as “an international directorship of strategic assault personnel [that would] straddle the watershed between paramilitary operations carried out by troops in uniforms and the political warfare which is conducted by civilian agents”. In addition to recruiting many former SS members, the Group also recruited from the ranks of various right-wing and nationalist organizations, including the French Nationalist OAS, the SAC, and the ‘Légion étrangère’. The hands-on manager of the Group was Dr. Gerhard Hartmut von Schubert, formerly of Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, who had trained security personnel in Argentina and Egypt after the war. Under his guidance, Paladin provided support to the PFLP – EO led by Wadie Haddad.
The Group’s other clients included the South African Bureau of State Security and Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. They also worked for the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 and the Spanish Dirección General de Seguridad, who recruited some Paladin operatives to wage clandestine war against Basque separatists. The Group is also reputed to have provided personnel for José López Rega’s notorious Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance death squad. The Paladin Group was also allegedly allied with a number of other right-wing governments, including Salazar’s Portugal, and some of the Italian neo-fascists involved in the strategy of tension attacks of the 1970s and 80s. The Paladin Group also held offices in Zurich, Switzerland. The Soviet news agency TASS alleged that Paladin was involved in training US Green Berets for Vietnam missions during the 1960s, but this is considered unlikely, since Skorzeny’s methods were considered somewhat antiquated, and he resented the USA for its role in destroying Nazi Germany.
This is why I believe that the literary character of Ernst Blofeld was based on Otto Skorzeny.
So why did Ian Fleming and the producers of the James Bond movie franchise took pains to obscure the true inspiration for that character? Well.. consider the timeline. Skorzeny died in 1975 and many of the most memorable James Bond movies came out in the 1960s. Would you really want to get on the bad side of a guy like Skorzeny?
What do you think? Comments?