The 7 Most Heroic Con Artists of All Time
In a world full of bullshit artists trying to sell us things and get elected to office, let's take a moment to celebrate the good ones. These are the Oskar Schindler types, the guys with a talent for hustling who, when circumstances called, used their powers for good.
In 1944, the only major Jewish population that hadn't been Hitlered yet was nervously holed up in Budapest. The Nazis sent a nasty little man named Adolf Eichmann to Hungary to flush them out, and already wary of guys named Adolf, the American War Refugee Board sent Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest to bat for the good guys.
Yeah, this is pretty much what we'd expect Sweden's greatest war hero to look like.
Wallenberg didn't actually have the authority to do much, since the Swedes were staying neutral at the time, but he wasn't going to let a little thing like inability to do anything stop him from doing something. During his tenure at the Swedish embassy, he started mocking up fake passport documents called "schultzpasses" that granted Jews a free ticket to Sweden. While this is kind of like infiltrating the Pentagon by writing the word "pass" on a napkin, the official-looking schultzpass papers went largely unquestioned.
And Wallenburg's heroic bullshit didn't stop there. He soon began renting apartment buildings all over Budapest, brazenly declaring them Swedish diplomatic territory and packing them full of Jews, again without any authority whatsoever. Apparently afraid of pissing off mighty Sweden, the Nazis couldn't set foot inside and were reduced to standing on the sidewalk and just shaking their fists at the buildings.
"Ten marks if you can hawk a loogie into the Oberleutnant's hat."
Thanks largely to Wallenburg's diplomatic con job, thousands of Jews held off a trip to the gas chambers before the Soviet army marched in to push out the Nazis. By that time, Adolf Eichmann tried to step up the extermination by just burning down some Jewish ghettos. Not on Raoul Wallenburg's watch. He directly confronted Eichmann and told him to his face that he would personally see him hanged. Eichmann, seeing the viking blood welling up behind Wallenburg's eyes, called off the massacre and fled Budapest, saving 70,000 lives. Who ever said diplomacy doesn't accomplish anything?
As a reward for his heroism, the Russians arrested Wallenburg and made him disappear forever.
Don't you just love happy endings?
And while we're on the Nazis...
Joan Pujol Garcia
Juan Pujol Garcia fought in the Spanish Civil War and knew a thing or two about hating fascism. So when the Nazis waltzed into Spain, Garcia offered his services to the British as a spy. When the Brits said they weren't hiring, Garcia did it anyway, using his powers of pure bullshit.
And his mighty beard.
Contacting the Nazi authorities, Garcia spun a tall tale about his fanatically pro-fascist leanings and desire to spread Hitler's good word in Britain. The Germans hired him to spy on the British government, but Garcia took their money and moved to Portugal instead, sending his employees an occasional postcard with Big Ben on it and complaining about how rainy it was in England where he totally was.
Of course, Garcia's entire job was to feed the Nazis intelligence about Britain, which he knew nothing about. So he simply spent his days watching newsreels, reading about Britain in the library, and compiling reams of secondhand bullshit and useless information. As if this wasn't brazen enough, Garcia began recruiting imaginary sub-agents and building himself an imaginary spy network within a country he'd never been to. And he submitted their expense reports. We're wondering what Nazi auditors thought when they came across Hugh Jass's expense report for fifty crates of beer and one hundred tacos.
"Have you ever tried to undermine democracy without high-grade marijuana and dozens of call girls?"
When Britain caught word that this guy was playing the most hilarious and epic prank in history in their honor, they reconsidered his request to put him on the payroll. Now backed by the British government, Garcia and his new friends continued to expand their totally imaginary enterprise to leech an ever increasing salary from the German government, almost certainly writing their letters in the grip of hysterical laughter and high-fiving. In the end, Garcia had scammed over $4 million in today's dollars out of the Nazi government.
And they still didn't catch on. At the end of the war, Garcia was presented with the Iron Cross for his faithful and dedicated service to the Third Reich, making him one of only a small handful of people who won medals from both sides in World War II. When he got tired of it all, he faked his own death and ran a bookstore in Venezula for forty years. No, seriously.
"Thanks for the medal. I'll cherish it until the moment I find a trash can."
Juan Carlos I
Spain is a peaceful land of giant hats and luchadores (or maybe we're getting that confused) but it was a horrible place as recently as 1969 when it was under the brutal rule of dictator Francisco Franco. Franco wasn't the rightful King of Spain, but for decades he procrastinated on restoring the monarchy for fear that whoever he promoted to the crown would be a filthy lefty who would undo all of his fascist hard work.
In all fairness, a man who looks like this doesn't have many career options other than "insane old dictator" or "crack addict".
Juan Carlos, grandson of the last true king, decided to schmooze his way back into the dictator's good graces. But he didn't do it by putting flowers in rifles and melting the old man's bitter, frozen heart. Carlos swore loyalty to Franco's far-right party, hobnobbed with him, and by all accounts was a complete ass-kissing toady. By the time the dying autocrat decided he needed an heir to his brutal fascist regime, he chose Carlos in the belief that he'd left his nation in good, evil hands.
Unbeknownst to Franco, Carlos was just the kind of scheming, clandestine liberal that Free Republic imagines exist under every couch cushion. He'd been secretly meeting with progressives and political reformists for years, right under the old man's nose. After Franco died and Carlos was crowned king, he immediately backflipped, stripped himself of all but ceremonial power, and turned Spain into a constitutional democracy within three years.
He's like a jowly George Washington who somehow managed to establish a strong democracy, and become king.
Franco still had some old buddies who weren't about to stand for this democracy shit, and in 1981, 200 of Franco's loyal guards attempted a coup to restore fascist rule. In response, Juan Carlos went on television and calmly asked the rebels to stand down, which they did, with no one hurt.
He's only had ceremonial powers ever since, and enjoys the eternal love of the Spanish people. Oh, and fat stacks of cash, but really, that's the least they can do.
See kids? If you lie long enough and hard enough, you might just get a palace.
Finland was neutral during World War II, but only because they couldn't figure out which side they hated more. For Finnish president Risto Ryti, the question of whether to ally with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany was like asking whether he'd rather sleep in a bed full of spiders or eat a bowl of poop.
"The one on the right would make a cooler tattoo."
The Soviets had been trying to annex Finland ever since they decided Communism was awesome and they were going to share it whether they wanted it or not. Realistically, the only way Ryti could prevent a Soviet takeover was to buddy up with Hitler, a guy who nobody but crazy old Mussolini wanted to wind up in a photograph with. His ultimate solution was something akin to a Nigerian 419 scam, but with arms deals.
Has any country ever exchanged bullets for friendship without it biting them in the ass?
Ryti gave Germany what sounded like a firm commitment for anyone who doesn't bother to read between the lines -- he stated that, as long as he was President, Finland and Germany would have warm, cuddly, personal relations. Germany went all goopy at the idea of having just one friend in the world (who wasn't goddamn Mussolini) and sent them a giant shipment of guns and supplies as a loving affirmation of their union.
Once the guns showed up, Risto immediately resigned as President. His replacement, Carl Mannerheim, called off the allegiance under the condition that it was only valid so long as Risto Ryti was in charge, and told the Nazis to piss off while they stood around making confused spluttering sounds.
Above: Ryti, trying to choke back a maniacal laugh as he meets with Hitler.
Now armed to the teeth, Finland made a peace agreement with the Soviet Union, the Nazis were left broken-hearted and Finland remained independent. A happy ending for everybody, except Risto, who got 10 years hard labor for collaborating with Nazis. Way to make with the gratitude, Finland.
Ancient Persia sure had a hate-boner for Greece back in the 5th Century BC. Having already tried to invade once, the Persians were gearing up for a second shot at the title, and the Greeks might all have been speaking Persian before long if not for the crafty antics of one popular politician, Themistocles.
Themistocles knew that Persia was probably planning a second attack, and what was more, Greece didn't have the naval power to fight them off this time. Problem was, nobody believed him. His political rivals believed that Persia was too distant a threat to be concerned with, and the people were at best apathetic. As luck would have it, the Greeks were in the midst of a silver mining rush, but the citizens were much more interested in having a bunch of silver in their pockets than they were with building some lousy ships.
So Themistocles invoked the kind of political stunt that McCarthy would make famous millennia later -- disregarding the threat from Persia, he suddenly started talking up the menace of Greece's closer rival, Aegina. Though Aegina wasn't really a threat at all, the Greeks hated the shit out of them and their dumb pottery, so tantalized with the idea of blowing those jerks off the map once and for all, the people changed their tune and voted for the ships.
Knowing ancient Greece and Naval tradition, those things must have been floating orgies.
Sure enough, to the surprise of everyone except Themistocles, the Persians suddenly showed up and started kicking ass. If you've seen 300, you already know a highly inaccurate version of what happened next. But what you didn't see was the way Themistocles messed with the Persians behind the scenes.
Xerxes' shirt wasn't the only thing the movie left out.
While the Spartans were chopping heads off on the front line, Themistocles was sending demotivational messages to Xerxes to make him question the loyalty of his allies the Ionians, as well as trying to assure him that the Allied navy was falling apart (it wasn't) and that he could basically just sail right through and take Greece (he couldn't). He was basically Lucy with the football throughout the entire damn war.
If you've heard of Mohammed Al-Fayed, it probably has something to do with his son, Dodi, the guy who got killed in a car alongside Princess Di. But Mohammed is better known to many as the incredibly slick businessman who took an insane voodoo dictator for all he was worth, and got away with it.
Throw a monocle on there and he's the Arab Monopoly Guy.
Al-Fayed was a self-made Egyptian businessman who worked his way up over the years from Coca-Cola salesman to a shipping magnate, but for some reason (boredom, perhaps) he decided to try taking over a small Caribbean nation. After throwing a dart at a world map, he caught a chartered plane over to Haiti, where he started claiming to be a rich sheikh from Kuwait. Before long, he was introduced to "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the Haitian dictator best known for being completely batshit insane.
Also, according to this picture, he had a giant head and was best buds with Hitler.
It helped that nobody in Haiti had actually heard of Kuwait, so he might as well have claimed to be the President of Fakeistan. Nevertheless, he set about wooing the paranoid dictator with extravagant and stomach-turning zeal, repeatedly sending flowers to Duvalier's palace. According to a journalist, "Papa Doc was spellbound, blinded by Fayed."
Charm was really all it takes when you're talking about a guy almost too crazy to tie his own shoelaces. Duvalier soon offered Fayed a 50 year contract to dig up all of the oil in Haiti (after cancelling a similar contract he made with the last guy who charmed his pants off). Not only that, but Fayed was put in charge of shipping, and eventually, even got into the pants of Papa Doc's daughter and almost became heir to the goddamn throne. He probably could have asked for Port Au Prince to be renamed "Fayedville" and gotten away with it.
Papa Doc wasn't Al-Fayed's only friend in a high place.
How did the scam end? Papa Doc got into financial difficulty and asked Fayed for a measly gift of $30,000. Fayed immediately booked it on the next plane out, with the entire port fund in his personal bank account. We like to think Papa Doc tried to strike back with voodoo, but just couldn't fashion a doll with big enough balls.
Once more we have to come back to Hitler and the Nazis, who apparently spawned the golden age of Schindler-style heroic bullshit artists.
Wilhelm Canaris was a German rebel, ardently opposed to Hitler, and involved in numerous plots to take the Fuhrer out. He also happened to be in charge of the Abwehr -- the German military intelligence service. Hitler should really have checked the guy's resume.
He had a better poker face than James Bond and Will Riker combined.
The fact that Canaris was in charge of the agency tasked with sniffing out and arresting rebel conspirators was a massive relief to all the rebel conspirators hiding out in Hitler's ranks. But more than that, Canaris was chiefly responsible for the rest of the world knowing exactly what was going on in the secretive Nazi regime. He smuggled detailed reports of Nazi atrocities to the Vatican, as well as warning France and Britain about impending invasions. That didn't work out so well for France, but at least he was partly to thank for Britain's ass not being swiftly handed to them through a surprise offensive.
Throughout his short career as Germany's head spy, Canaris was actively involved in several campaigns within Germany and abroad to assassinate Hitler. Unfortunately, Hitler had the luck of an Irishman with an entire stadium of four-leaved clovers, so when that never panned out, Canaris went right ahead and tried to broker a peace treaty with the Allies behind the Fuhrer's back. Though British Intelligence was right on board with the deal, President Roosevelt flatly refused to negotiate with "these East German Junkers."
FDR: Surprisingly, specifically racist?
Hitler didn't catch on that his head intelligence agent was screwing him over until July 1944, when Canaris' final attempt to take Hitler out failed spectacularly, but even after being tortured for a year, he just kept up the ruse while Hitler was left to wonder why so many people didn't seem to like him. We'll say this about HItler: salesmen must have loved seeing the guy walk onto the lot.
For more amazing bullshit artists, check out The 5 Ballsiest Con Artists of All Time.
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