16 September 2019
Memories of the war are mostly bitter, but there are also lessons to be learned. Photo: Reuters
Memories of the war are mostly bitter, but there are also lessons to be learned. Photo: Reuters

Friends with the enemy: An interrogator’s best tactic

Years of watching Hollywood movies about the second world war have convinced us that Gestapo tactics in dealing with prisoners of war always involved the use of violence or the threat of violence. That’s what really happened during the war, of course.

But a little known episode in the annals of the war revolves around the exploits of a master interrogator of the German military. He was Hanns Joachim Scharff, whose method of extracting information from prisoners is the complete opposite of our idea of a sadistic Nazi officer confronting a captured enemy. Instead of violence, he used gentle talk; instead of threats, he employed kindness; instead of asking questions, he provided information.

In the first place, he was not a career military officer. Scharff was a businessman in Johannesburg, where he lived with his British wife and two kids. When war broke out, he was vacationing in his hometown in Germany, and unable to leave his country, he was eventually drafted into the army. But his wife, using her own connections, was able to get him to work far from the battlefronts, first as an interpreter and eventually as an interrogator of captured Allied pilots in Germany and France.

It was as an interpreter that Scharff developed a highly effective technique that enabled him to gain valuable information from prisoners without them knowing that they were divulging secrets — much less, betraying their country’s war effort.

In one celebrated case, an American fighter pilot was assigned to him. During the interrogation, he invited the prisoner to walk with him in the German countryside, and even offered him some cookies baked by his wife. As they took the leisurely walk, the conversation went from one seemingly innocent topic to the next, with Scharff doing most of the talking.

He, for example, observed that American tracer bullets left white smoke rather than red, and he said this was due to a shortage in its chemical composition. The captured soldier immediately corrected him, explaining that the white smoke was meant to tell the pilots that they were running out of ammunition.

That’s exactly what Scharff wanted to know, and the prisoner gave it to him voluntarily. 

Years after the war, several researchers and psychologists studied his techniques, tried to develop them into a system, and test its effectiveness. The bulk of the research on Scharff’s strategies was done by Pär Anders Granhag, a psychology professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Writing in the Pacific Standard, a US magazine on human behavior, social science writer Eric Horowitz said the Scharff Technique basically has four key components: 1) a friendly approach, 2) not pressing for information, 3) the illusion of knowing it all, and 4) the confirmation/disconfirmation tactic. (Scharff used the last one to learn about the tracer bullets.)

Studies by Granhag and several of his students showed that Scharff’s techniques were indeed more effective in extracting information from uncooperative subjects than the usual direct approach normally used during police and military interrogations.

“One study, led by the University of Liverpool’s Laurence Alison, found that adaptive interpersonal behavior—being respectful, warm, non-judgmental, etc.—lead to more disclosure, while maladaptive interpersonal behavior—being distrustful, punitive, patronizing, etc.—led to less disclosure,” Horowitz said.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there about human relations, too. Treating everyone, including your enemy, as a human being will lead to better results. 

– Contact us at [email protected]