15 January 2012


Arthur J. Magida. The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

It seems to be a characteristic of some of the more successful and charismatic stage magicians and mind-readers that they eventually believe their own publicity and start to imagine that they do genuinely have extraordinary psychic powers. Usually this results in nothing more that a severe dressing-down from sceptics such as CSICOP, but in the case of Erik Jan Hanussen (née Herman Steinschneider) this delusion had the most tragic result.
Hanussen was born in 1889, just fifteen minutes after his mother, Julie Kohn, was released from a prison cell. She had eloped with Siegfried Steinschneider, and her father had them arrested for vagrancy. Siegfried escaped from prison shortly after his son's birth, and traced his wife and son through the infant's crying. Or so it says in Hanussen's autobiography.

This autobiography, Meine Lebenslinie, also tells of how as a child he woke in the middle of the night, rushed to a neighbour's house and saved their daughter from a deadly explosion; leapt onto a farmer's cart and drove it away from a tree a moment before it was struck by lighting and helped capture a notorious criminal in Bohemia. At the age of 14 his elopement with his 45 year old cabaret singer lover was only frustrated by his father's unexpected return home, and later he worked in a circus, when one night the lion-tamer was too drunk to do his act, the youngster, with no previous training, walked into the lion's cage and subdued the animal with a blow across the face with his whip.

If you conclude from this that Hanussen's autobiography should be taken with a massive load of salt, you would be quite right. However Hanussen/Steinschneider did find work in circuses and variety shows across what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Posing as an opera singer, he made his way to Istanbul, where, after the company he was in went broke, staged a fake opera performance, and conned enough money to make his way back to Greece, claiming to be a famous Italian tenor. In the course of this he unmasked a phoney fakir who was stealing jewellery from the wealthy passengers. Of course, almost everything in that account should be prefaced by the word 'allegedly'.

Arriving in Berlin shortly before the First World War and buying a selection of conjuring tricks from a magic shop he began a series of jobs as singer, entertainer, waiter and conjurer at cafes and cabarets in the city. He also took his first stab at journalism, taking over the editorship of Der Blitz, a scandal sheet which makes today's tabloids look very mild indeed.

Soon after, the war broke out and Steinschneider as he was still calling himself, was sent to a nightmarish posting on the eastern front. Here he began a series of fund-raising performances where he started developing his 'mind-reading' skills. Eventually he was spending so much time away from the fighting that he became virtually a deserter. Thanks to a lucky meeting he was asked to perform in Vienna, and at this point he adopted the name Hanussen, posing as a Danish minor aristocrat. This enabled him to escape detection as a deserter, and distanced himself from his Jewish roots.

Under this name he performed at the Vienna Konzerthaus in April 1916, finding to his consternation that Emperor Karl and members of the Imperial Royal Family were in the audience. He gave a creditable mind-reading performance, using the technique of 'muscle reading' with members of the audience. Asked by a member of the Royal party to perform another show, he became an overnight sensation.

After a disatrous tour in the USA with a strongwoman act, Hannuson returned to Europe, settling in Berlin, where he began the most successful stage of his career as a mind reader and hypnotist, calling himself "The world's greatest hypnotist" and "Europe's greatest oracle since Nostradamus". Despite brushes with the law in Czechoslovakia and Berlin, his reputation, and fortune grew. In 1930, Hanussen was introduced to the Nazi Wolfgang-Heinrich von Helldorf, head of the Berlin SA stormtroopers. With antisemitism and political violence rising in the city, Hanussen felt in need of a protector within the establishment. With Helldorf's profligate spending, and Hanussen's growing wealth, the ever-increasing piles of IOUs that Hanussen was receiving from the Nazi felt like an insurance.

At this time, he was not only still hiding his Jewishness, but also seemed to be enthusiastically supporting Hitler's rise to power. He had started his own newspaper, Eric Jan Hanussens Berliner Wochenschau, a weekly which comprised of horoscopes, movie news, lonely heart advice and plugs for Hanussen’s own psychic salon, as well as adverts for his magical paraphernalia. But soon it began enthusiastically supporting the Nazis, giving its pages over to praise of Hitler as the coming superman and saviour of the German nation..

But as the rumours around Hanussen grew - that he was Hitler's astrologer and that the Fuehrer relied on his advice and foresight, which was quite untrue - his world began to crack. His Jewishness was revealed by a Communist newspaper; and eventually coming to believe in his own impregnability and his powers as a psychic he was loose-lipped with advance knowledge he had gained of the Reichstag fire. His pile of IOUs proved an ineffectual shield when the stormtroopers' guns were held to his head.

Magida looks carefully at Hanussen's alleged powers, attempting to define what - if any - were real, how his showmanship worked, what was rumour, what was fact, and what was sheer invention from the stories that surrounded him. Ultimately the powers that he had convinced himself that he wielded were shown to be shadows against the greater shadow that engulfed and destroyed him. A fascinating, meticulously researched account of a life that stretched from the broadest farce to the darkest tragedy, and with lessons about power and belief that have a wider resonance. -- John Rimmer

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