Wolf Messing – a Lesson for Wikipediacrats

Like most others, I make frequent use of English Wikipedia for quick reliable information. I am grateful for that and have chipped in my $10 to prevent the organisation from downsizing. Like many other websurfers, however, I also feel very disappointed (or unhappy) with some of my wikisearches.

The flaws or inadequacies of Wikipedia’s small but significant collection of unreliable articles can usually be traced back to one or both of the following causes: the counterproductive inflexibility of Wikipedia’s definition of and (luddite) blanket ban on “research”, and in the case of controversial topics, the ingenious and exhausting use of Wikipedia’s arcane laws by “interested parties” to suppress or remove unpalatable facts from the controversial page.  (A rarer third cause is the ignorance of contributors, while an undeclared contributing factor is Wikipedia’s casual attitude to printed sources, especially books and bibliographies.)

The current English Wikipedia page for Wolf Messing is a depressing example of the first and third causes listed above, as I shall endeavour to prove.

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In the West, since at least 1970, we have been informed about Messing’s life and exploits by BOOKS like Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Shroeder’s sensational 1970 bestseller dealing with hitherto secret Soviet research, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain and in 1989 an English translation of Tatiana Lungin’s 1982 biography, as well as in articles and Encyclopedias like the Harper Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience (1991). (See Reference List.) From 1980 on, the controversial “omniscient” guru, Sathya Sai Baba brought Wolf Messing (d.1974) to the attention of his many devotees and to wider New Age circles by making three public reminiscences about their three alleged meetings. For non-devotees, the strange reminiscences have zero credibility.

Such works have told us over and over again, often citing the same sensational sources, that Wolf Messing (1899-1974) was a phenomenally successful Polish-born Russian stage performer of “mentalism” and hypnotism, accredited with quite extraordinary feats, involving Freud, Einstein, Gandhi, and Hitler, as well as Stalin and Beria, and other less well known people).

Note:

Wolf Messing’s very impressive and lucrative stage performances over several decades are similar to the sort of theatrical activities that Derren Brown is currently demonstrating and “explaining” to massive TV audiences and full theatres. Derren professes no supernatural powers, just special skills. In fairness to Messing, it has to be said that he is also on record as saying in 1961 in an interview with P. Oreshkin that he was not a ‘mind-reader’ but a ‘muscle reader’ (a play on words in the original Russian: mysl vs. muskl). However, it must also be borne in mind that charismatic Messing’s special success onstage was founded on a series of well-publicised sensational claims, which suggest to his fans that he must have supernatural gifts. From that factor above all, Messing derives his current superstar fame as one of the most important psychics of all time.

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Thirty two years after the publication of Ostrander and Shroeder’s bestseller, on 9 March 2002, the recently minted English Wikipedia article on Messing stood as follows:

“Wolf Messing (b. 1899) is one of the most talented mind readers of the world. Born to a Jewish family, Messing fled from Germany to Russia before World War II. He was sentenced to death by Hitler after declaring his prophecy about Germany’s defeat during attempted invasion of Russia. After world war, he worked for long years as a stage artist and he is suggested to be one of Stalin’s advisors.”

“Wolf messing also led to the three little pigs having to be temporarily re-housed due to the sudden and sequential loss of their self-built, ecologically-sound, detached houses.”

A mere stub of a stub, plus that irrelevant and cheeky addendum, which was promptly, and correctly, removed. Ten years later, on 24 December 2012, the English Wikipedia Messing article has failed to keep up with available information on the subject in print and on the Internet. It is still not much more than a stub (albeit a page long). The current stub includes two weak sources for its brief claims of some of Messing’s expertise, and a bare reference to a (vital) scholarly article in Dutch, which no Wikipedia contributor appears to have investigated in the past 8 years.

In 2004, that same Dutch scholar, Alexandra Nagel, completed an M.A. thesis about Wolf Messing and in 2005. This was published in a Dutch Journal. Here is the reference, as printed, at the end of the English Wikipedia article, and elsewhere.

Alexandra Nagel: Een mysterieuze ontmoeting…: Sai Baba en mentalist Wolf Messing / A mysterious meeting…: Sai Baba and mentalist Wolf Messing. In: Tijdschrift voor Parapsychologie/Journal for Parapsychology 368, Bd. 72 Nr. 4, Dez. 2005, S. 14-17.

However, Nagel also prepared a 25-page English version of her thesis and published it on www.exbaba.com on 10 November 2004. It should still be there. It has also been on the Internet, more or less ignored, for the past 7 years at this rather secluded URL.

Those interested in investigating Messing (including wikipedians and Wikipedia readers) who have not had access to a translation of Nagel’s Dutch thesis or to this English version will have missed a fascinating mine of information and questions for further investigation presented in this ground-breaking academic study of Messing’s life and work.

Basic contents of Nagel’s thesis:

A detailed description of the life and work of Wolf Messing, gleaned from very wide reading, beginning with the 1970 chapter by Ostrander and Shroeder, and the biography by Messing’s friend and confidante Tatiana Lungin, and digging even deeper to examine the important German study by Topsy Küppers and references to Soviet studies by Varlen Strongin, Ludmila Svinka-Zielinski and a few others. (Nagel acknowledges the help of Russian researcher Serguei Badaev with some of these texts.)

A critical examination of this valuable material leads Nagel to the conclusion that it reveals “myth-making” on a large scale (i.e. the constant repetition of Messing’s own stories as told by Ostrander et al). Nagel emphasises the almost total lack of corroborating evidence of Messing’s most famous (alleged) exploits, and she adds a list of other unresolved loose ends (mainly due to the lack of translations of Russian material).

Nagel’s hypothetical conclusion is that not all the famous Messing episodes are true:

“Aspects of Messing’s life are in need of further research”

“One may tentatively deduce that Messing’s narrative must for a large part be an invented life history. Probably unaware and unintended, Ostrander & Schroeder have played a role in spreading – probably false – stories. They should have cross referenced their material more thoroughly. For instance, they could have looked into the 200,000 mark put on Messing’s head in 1937 by Hitler, or the protest the German Embassy in the Soviet Union lodged when Messing in 1940 predicted the end of the German hegemony, or the ‘psychic bank robbery’ Stalin assigned him to perform. Lungin and Küppers (I cannot judge for Strongin) should have done so as well. The fact of the matter is, they did not, so one wonders whether this was due to laziness, accident or was purposive falsification.”

This thesis is worthy of further public attention – as the following new information, mainly from Russia, will underline.

Since 2005, the Messing success story (myth?) has featured in many articles and a few books and, since a sumptuous 16-part Russian TV series on his life in 2009, he is now worshipped even more widely, as a cult figure, thanks to a large number of You Tube videos (mostly without subtitles), many of 45 minute duration. His fame has reached a peak. He has his own fan club in Russia. And perhaps on Facebook?

Meanwhile, important new counter-evidence has been presented by a new and highly reputable source which supports in great detail Alexandra Nagel’s hypotheses about a) myth-making (i.e. that Messing invented many of the major incidents, precisely those that set him apart from other stage performers) and b) the authorship of his 1965 “autobiography”.

The major new source of information is Nikolai Nikolaevich Kitaev (N. N. Kitaev – Н.Н. Китаев), a distinguished Russian jurist and legal researcher, with a specialty in hypnosis. (One of his written works is titled ‘Hypnosis and Crime’.) Kitaev has been researching Messing’s life and work for 30 years (along with his many other projects) and, because of his professional rank and prestige, and especially because of the liberating effects of the break-up of the USSR, he has had free access to an impressive number of National and regional archives in Russia, Belarus and Poland and some access to German archives. From this huge trawl, Kitaev has produced an important booklet of about 100 pages, first published in 2006:

“Криминалистический экстрасенс. Вольф Мессинг. Правда и вымысел”

Forensic psychic: Wolf Messing. Truth and Fantasy.

(Links to a download of the 2010 version of the Russian book of the same name is included in the Reference list at the end of this article.)

Kitaev sets out evidence to refute the most spectacular episodes in Messing’s career, those which have given him his wide fame, far beyond that accorded to other stage hypnotists and mentalists. Forensically, he offers biographical evidence to suggest why the meeting with Freud and Einstein could not have taken place. The Gandhi meeting claim, always the weakest link in the chain, is easily dismissed and Kitaev also demonstrates at length that there is no archival evidence for Messing’s major claims of a relationship with Stalin.

Kitaev concentrates on the available biographical evidence about Messing and demonstrates (as Alexandra Nagel had suggested) that the only evidence we have of Messing’s major claims is in Messing’s own writings (and those of his close associate, Lungin). Other commentators (as we have seen above with Ostrander and Shroeder) have been content merely to repeat or paraphrase these same words over and over again. There are no eye-witnesses, no corroborating details supplied by other persons.

Another of Kitaev’s documented claims is that the somewhat shadowy 1965 memoirs in Nauka i Religiya (Science and Religion), published in a journal (with two different titles: About Myself and I am a Telepath) were not even written by Messing but by a very prominent Russian journalist and nonfiction writer, Mikhail Vasilievich Khvastunov (pseudonym, M. Vasiliev). Kitaev further suggests that it was Khvastunov who “beefed up” the Messing story for maximum effect, and sales. A ghost writer, in fact.  (Others, including Nagel, have suggested, that the Polish-born Messing would have needed help to express himself vividly in Russian.) And indeed, in the Russian Wikipedia page for Khvastunov, long since dead, the following appear in a list of his written works, both presumably posthumous re-editions of the 1965 work or works.

Вольф Мессинг «Я — телепат», литературная запись М.Васильева, СП «Интеркиноцентр» Рекламно-издательское агентство «Юго-запад», 1990.

Wolf Messing, I am a telepath, literary version, M. Vasiliev.  [M.Vasiliev, was Khvastunov’s pseudonym.]

«Феномен Д и другие». «Вольф Мессинг. О самом себе». Литературная запись М.Васильева. Москва, Издательство политической литературы, 1991.

Phenomen D and Other Matters. Wolf Messing. About Myself, literary version M. Vasiliev.

A substantial half-page reference to N. N. Kitaev’s lengthy investigation is included in the 6-page Russian Wikipedia entry on ‘Volf Messing’. The paragraphs, which refer to Messing’s writings and Khvastunov’s alleged part in them and to Kitaev’s broader work on Messing, are titled ‘Source of legends’ and ‘Participation in exposing crime’. Several very useful bibliographical references are also given.

Well done, Russian Wikipedia! 

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Observation:

Comment on a forum, by “paddylandau”:

“Derren Brown successfully repeated Wolf Messing’s trick with paper for money. Of course, as Brown himself makes clear, what he did was all smoke and mirrors (well, misdirection and trickery), and nothing whatsoever to do with psi powers, hypnosis or NLP.”

http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/hypnosis-hypnotherapy-UK/message/12701

References

Russian Wikipedia: ‘Volf Messing’. (This includes a link to Kitaev’s book and many other interesting articles.)

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Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, ed. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p 367-8.

Kitaev, N. N.

(There is an English reference to the Kitaev revelations (July 2009) here.

Китаев Н.Н. “Криминалистический экстрасенс” Вольф Мессинг. Правда и вымысел

Forensic psychic: Wolf Messing. Truth and Fantasy

A copy of the 2010 edition of his book in Russian is available here:

The 2006 version from can be seen here.

A detailed list of Kitaev’s law writings, including Gipnoz i prestuplenie (Hypnosis and Crime), is available here.

Lungin Tatiana, Volf Messing. Chelovek. Zagadka, (W.M., The Man. The Enigma), 1982. (It is available online here.

Lungin, Tatiana, Wolf Messing: The True Story of Russia’s Greatest Psychic (edited by D. Scott Rogo and translated from the Russian by Cynthia Rosenberger and John Glad), New York: Paragon House, 1989. (Contains material from the 1965 publication and more information from W. M.)

Ostrander, Sheila and Schroeder, Lynn, PSI. Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, London, Abacus, 1973 (1970). (See especially ‘Wolf Messing, the Psychic that Joseph Stalin Tested, pp. 58-73.) (This was soon followed by an equally successful book by the same authors, which contains the same chapter and title (pp. 38-52):

Ostrander, Sheila and Schroeder, Lynn, Psychic Discoveries. The Iron Curtain Lifted, London: Souvenir Press, 1997 (1970) [Introduced by Uri Geller]

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