a darker shade of bad hat

‘Bad hats’ was a term employed in China during the 20th century to describe undesirable or simply ‘bad’ characters that landed in their treaty port concessions.

“In the 1930s a new breed of ‘bad hat’ began to emerge, often well-financed and politically affiliated with intelligence contacts in their own countries.The term began to take on a much darker shade in the press. One of the most notorious was a Viennese Doctor by the name of Hermann Erben.

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In 1924 he won a fellowship for study at the Psychiatric Institute for Medical Research in New Jersey. He moved to the USA and acquired citizenship. In 1926 he began a wandering life and ended up a ship’s doctor on the American Dollar and President lines. In 1934 he visited Papua New Guinea and struck up an aquaintance with the film star Errol Flynn.The two of them ended up bumming around together travelling to India, Abyssina and then Vienna. In 1935 the New York Herald Tribune reported his arrival abroad the freighter ‘City of Rayville” in the company of 1,100 monkeys that he was importing from Calcutta. Upon disembarkation in New York he encountered difficulties with the customs authorities. Eventually he secured admission with his simian charges and took lodging with them at the YMCA but left soon afterwards, following a difference of opinion over the bill.

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In 1937 he was reported to have been engaged in inciting a mutiny abroad an American cruise liner on which he was working. FBI inquiries revealed a pattern of challenging behaviour aboard the ship; he allegedly “wiped his hands on the American flag after taking food from the icebox”, had given the Nazi salute to a passing German ship and had threatened anyone criticizing Adolf Hitler that he would “sink his teeth into their throat”. His on board stage act was an uncanny impersonation of Adolf Hitler for anyone interested.

Baby Hitler found here

In 1941 Erben arrived back in China. He went directly from the docks to the German consulate, where he was interviewed by local Gestapo and bureau chiefs. Shanghai at this time, due to its non-defined territorial international settlement’s status, had become a hotbed of espionage activities,  its big hotels were famous for eavesdroppers and electronic bugs which had led to such wartime incongruities as a Nazi-controlled German embassy being housed in a British owned building on the Bund.

Shanghai in the 1940s found here

Erben, as a ship’s physician, was assigned to treat American sailors. He also received an order to contact the U.S embassy in his capacity as a U.S citizen with a view to learning about their security. Meanwhile he practiced medicine as a venereal disease specialist and abortionist for rich Chinese and foreign families. Extortion by sexual blackmail became something of hobby for him too, a well-known practice amongst corrupt doctors in the city. He also entered the opium smuggling business which proved more lucrative than espionage for the Nazis. Slowly the lure of easy money drew Erben away from his Nazi beliefs and he began selling ‘intelligence’ reports to Allies and Axis powers alike, often being creative in his write-ups. 

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The German intelligence establishment in Shanghai came to consider Erben an extremely questionable person and made inquiries about his background. In 1943 a message came from Berlin that Erben was an ‘imposter, narcotics dealer and American propagandist’. The Nazis in Shanghai decided to play one of their (few and far between) humourous jokes on him. His controller, a Gestapo officer called Habenicht, asked him to go undercover in an internment camp in order to gather intelligence; from there he could effect an escape with an American prisoner and flee to Chungking to work as a German agent. He was handed over to Japanese guards but Erben quickly became a pariah, due to the other inmates’ well founded suspicions. He spent two and a half years in the camp as a ‘volunteer’ with no word from his controller. It appears to have been a joke assignment from his Gestapo superiors.

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After the war he returned to Vienna and took up medicine again (where no one discovered another of his secrets -he never actually got his medical degree), dying at the age of 88 in an tiny unheated apartment in 1985. 

Published in: on April 22, 2012 at 12:33 am  Comments (49)  
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