This is exactly the kind of story everyone loves. Nazis. Magic. Glimpses of an alternative future that might have been. But there are hints of something more. A secret Jew who was prominent in Nazi Germany. A stage magician and entertainer who seemed to make uncannily accurate predictions, at least some of the time. An finally, the character behind all of these things was first murdered, and then surreptitiously dropped from history. Makes you go "hmm..."
Erik Jan Hanussen:
Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant
By Mel Gordon
Feral House, 2001
273 Pages, $24.95
The subject of this biography is scarcely obscure. He was a major figure in the European magic-show circuit in the 1920s, and the subject of sensational accounts in the American pulp magazines of the 1930s. Tales of his mysterious relationship to Hitler, capped by his brutal assassination in March of 1933, reached a more respectable audience as war approached. Articles about him appeared in the better magazines, and he figured in several novels. A contract was actually signed to do a major Hollywood biopic about him. Then silence about Erik Jan Hanussen descended quite suddenly, in September of 1942. There were no more major treatments in print, and the plans for a movie were shelved. Much later, interest in Hanussen revived in Europe. Some minor films were even made about him. Nonetheless, he dropped out of the popular memory of the English-speaking world.
This biography may help to end that anomaly. The author is Mel Gordon, a professor of theater at the University of California at Berkeley. He has written on the culture of the Weimar period before, in "Voluptuous Panic." Readers who have fond memories of Otto Friedrich's "Before the Deluge" are in for too much fun.
"Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" is sprinkled with small, apt photos and graphics from the Weimar era, as well as from the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Hanussen was born and raised. There are also short articles by Hanussen and his contemporaries, in translation, about stage-show magic and psychic phenomena. Most of all, though, there is the improbable tale of Hanussen himself, the secret Jew whose life is a cautionary tale about what happens to boys who run away to join the circus.
The subject of all this mystification was born Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider on June 2, 1889, less than two months after Hitler and not so far away, in the cell of a police precinct in Vienna. (Why there? It's a long story.) His parents were marginal theater-people. Herschmann (usually "Hermann" or, later, "Harry") left home at an early age, to seek his own career in small-town theaters and circuses. The term for such a person is "Jenischmann," the Middle European equivalent of "carney."
Harry's talents extended beyond the carnival. As a young man, he worked in Vienna as a songwriter and tabloid journalist; the latter activity seems to have involved some polite extortion of prominent people who did not want their private lives exposed. Still, he was essentially an entertainer, a function he continued to perform in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War.
It was because of the more upscale audiences that he encountered during the war that he adopted the stage-name "Erik Jan Hanussen." He took that identity with varying levels of seriousness, sometimes billing himself as "Hanussen-Steinschneider." On the other hand, there was a time when he claimed to be a Danish aristocrat. Usually he was content to be thought of as an ordinary Dane, though he spoke no Danish. He managed to diddle his Nazi admirers for a while with the story that he was a Danish orphan who had been raised by Bohemian Jews. In any case, the Hanussen name is how history knows him.
Even before the war, Hanussen had begun to specialize in mind reading, hypnotism and fortune telling. He was good at these things, in the several ways of it. One of the merits of this book is the explanations it gives, some of them provided by Hanussen himself, about how mind-reading acts work. This involved such things as information discretely gathered from the audience before the performance, or verbal and body-language codes used between the psychic and his aides. Some of the art is no more than the skilful playing of the game of "20 Questions." However, especially when the psychic was using an audience member to lead him to a hidden object, it also involved "muscle reading." This is essentially a hands-on form of the anxiety-detection that polygraphs do. Supposedly, it can be done without physical contact, simply by closely observing the subject. The effect would look like telepathy. If the technique works as described, it would be rather like the wiles of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert's "Dune."
On the other hand, though Hanussen was, for the most part, clearly just a stage magician doing stage-magician tricks, there were times when he himself thought there was more to it. There are gray areas in the work of a magician that require intuition, and at these he was unusually convincing. He described strangers and their history with an accuracy that was hard to account for. He was also good with the future, at least if you look at his prophecies selectively. His accurate predictions of public things, like the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the timing of World War II, might have been no more than keen political insight. On the other hand, there is a great treasury of anecdotes about correct forecasts of events in the lives of private persons, from auto accidents to murders, that he should not have been able to foresee and that he, probably, could not have caused himself.
Hanussen's career was not confined to the stage. Among his other pursuits, he had a lively and well-publicized practice as a "psychic detective." He seems to have been no worse than the police at finding lost people and things, even those that he had not stolen himself. In one famous case, he nabbed the culprit at the Austrian central bank who had been stealing freshly printed money. This secured him the public gratitude of respectable officials, who ever after attested to his uncanny gifts. Hanussen, in fact, managed to collect a long list of testimonials from businessmen, politicians and psychologists. The last group tested his psychic abilities repeatedly. Their conclusions were often along the lines of yes, he does cheat, but maybe not all the time.
All of this stood him in good stead during his prolonged trial in the Czechoslovakian town of Leitmeritz, were local officials charged him with fraud in such a way that they would have had to disprove the reality of psychic phenomena in order to win a conviction. Hanussen gained so much credit from his acquittal in what was called "the last witchcraft trial in Europe" that one wonders just why the prosecutor chose to pursue the case.
Other adventures include his work as a film producer, usually with himself playing Dr. Caligari-like roles. One long diversion, however, was a stint as an impresario. In that capacity, he was the long-time nemesis of the Zionist strongman, Sigmund Breitbart. Determined to show that anyone could do the feats of strength and invulnerability that Breitbart displayed on stage, Hanussen designed and promoted a Strong Woman act. The performer, "Marta Fara," bit through chains, lay down on a bed of nails and survived being run over by a wagon. The act played well in Europe, and even in America, though unscrupulous Yankees fleeced Hanussen there. The problem was that the premise of the act was wrong; "Marta Fara" suffered broken ribs and lost teeth. Three women played the role at various times, all departing to nurse their injuries and accuse Hanussen of tyranny and abuse.
Though he had had some experience of Berlin as young performer, it was only in the late Weimar period that Hanussen made the city the focus of his work. He appeared on stage, he did psychic consulting, he mixed with the wealthy and gullible. From about 1930, he became a fixture of Berlin life. Hanussen ran a considerable publishing business, specializing in newspapers and magazines that dealt with scandals and astrology. These were not partisan publications. Hanussen himself seems to have had no politics. However, in 1932, he began predicting that Hitler would soon become chancellor and that a rightwing dictatorship would ensue.
The amount of contact that Hanussen had with Hitler is a matter of dispute, as is the timing of any meetings they may have had. Hanussen, typically, bragged about his Nazi contacts; he almost certainly exaggerated them. Gordon cautiously says that we can be fairly sure that Hanussen and Hitler met more than once in 1932. This would be quite enough to make Hanussen an interesting figure, but I should point out that other accounts are willing to credit a very strong connection. According to John Toland in his biography, "Adolf Hitler," Hitler and Hanussen first met as early as 1926, at the home of a wealthy socialite:
"…Hanussen's first words were: 'If you are serious about entering politics, Herr Hitler, why don't you learn how to speak?' A master of body language, Hanussen explained that Hitler was not taking advantage of movement to emphasize his words. In the next few years, so Müllern-Schönhausen claimed, they continued to meet briefly and Hanussen not only taught him the tricks of elocution but also advised him on the selection of his associates."
As with so much about Hanussen, that's a good story that would be even better if we knew it were true. There are better stories yet, however. Consider this poem, which Toland says that Hanussen presented to Hitler on New Year's day, 1933, and which he assures us was "publicized and ridiculed":
This poem correctly forecasts Hitler's accession to the chancellorship on January 30. The phrase "through the bank" is a literal translation of "Durch die Bank," but the phrase also means "completely, across the board." In any case, Hitler had already received an invitation for negotiations at the home of a prominent banker about the possibility of forming a government. It is not at all unlikely that Hanussen knew that. The interesting thing is that the Hitler chancellorship was not a done deal until late January. As Henry Ashby Turner emphasizes in Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, there was no sentiment in the German establishment for a Nazi government. Even on the Right, the consensus was that the influence of the Nazis had already peaked. However, at the beginning of 1933, there was a particularly intractable cabinet crisis. All the serious candidates cancelled each other out. Hitler was chosen by President Hindenburg's advisor, Franz von Papen, as part of a petty scheme that was supposed to bring Papen himself to power. (Actually back to power: Papen had led a brief and unsuccessful government in 1932.) All of this was purely hypothetical at the beginning of 1933, however, so Hanussen surely deserves credit for foresight, if not necessarily clairvoyance.
This brings us to an incident that could not have been foreseen by ordinary political analysis. On the evening of February 26, the day before the Reichstag Fire, Hanussen held a memorable séance at his Palace of the Occult. Gordon gives this account:
"Hanussen asked her what she saw. Maria closed her eyes. She saw red. The master Clairvoyant wanted to know more. Could the red be flames? Maria straightened up. Yes, the red shapes could be flames. Flames from a great house…The Dane filled in the girl's prophetic image. 'There are fires. I see a Great House is being consumed by flames."
Noting that Hanussen's papers had for months been forecasting "the destruction" of the Reichstag in connection with parliamentary elections, Gordon waxes incredulous. While not dismissing the possibility that Hanussen may have really foreseen the fire, he prefers two other possibilities: either Hanussen had learned from his Nazi contacts that arson was planned, or he set the fire himself. We are told that there was some evidence linking Hanussen to the fire, but it has been destroyed. At least one of those who might have been in the know committed murder-suicide in public. This happened under a chandelier, as Hanussen had predicted many years before. That was a conspiracy with style.
The Reichstag Fire was certainly convenient for the new Nazi government. It permitted the declaration of a state of emergency from which the country never really emerged until 1945. Still, Gordon ought to have pointed out that most historians today are persuaded that the fire really was set by a single arsonist, the young Dutchman and former Communist, Maurinus van der Lubbe. The story that the Nazis set the fire themselves was the Communist Party line all over the world; it was being promulgated before the details of the incident were known.
Taking note of old accounts of Lubbe's distracted demeanor at trial, Gordon plays with the hypothesis that Lubbe may have been suffering from post-hypnotic suggestion. Maybe Hanussen, in collaboration with the Nazis, had hypnotized the young man, either to set the fire, or to take the blame for it. Again, that's a good story. It's probably too good a story, even for Hanussen-Steinschneider.
Hanussen's assassination was "over determined," as historians say of an event that has so many sufficient causes that it is hard to pick just one. He had no lack of professional and personal enemies. He eventually made peace with Breitbart, but Berlin was also full of jealous husbands. In later years, he had acquired political enemies on the Left. At first they disliked him because they believed that magic was reactionary; his later association with the Nazis outraged them. They were chief among the ill wishers who made sure that information about Hanussen's Jewish background found its way into Nazi dossiers. Hanussen's lethal error, however, seems to have been lending money to senior members of the SA.
Here is the version of Hanussen's end that Gordon tells. A squad of SA picked up Hanussen from his apartment on the evening of March 24. They demanded all documentation related to the debts owed by important Nazis. Then he was taken away, interrogated for several hours, and released. Returning home, he made panicked calls to friends and family. He was arrested again early the next morning.
Hanussen's body was found two weeks later, beaten and shot and partially eaten by vermin. His enterprises quickly evaporated, including the astrology sheets. Indeed, the next year the government banned fortune telling and most aspects of the commercial occult. It is reasonably certain that the Nazis did this, not because they did not take such things seriously, but because they took them very seriously indeed. The horoscope for Hitler that had appeared in Hanussen's publications was banned; later astrologers during the Nazi era fudged the hour of birth in order to suggest a less catastrophic end.
Then, of course, there is the wizard's final prophecy. Gordon supplies the text of a note that Hanussen is supposed to have written on that final evening, to an alienated show-business partner. It appeared in the May 1942 issue of "Redbook Magazine":
"Let's be friends again at the end…I always thought that business about the Jews was just an election trick of theirs. It wasn't. Read carefully what my colleague Daniel has to say on the subject, in Chapters 11 and 12. Count the days, but only after they have destroyed a hundred temples in a single day—that's the time to start counting. The first date you get will mark the fall of the man who wants to become ruler of the world by brute force. And the second date will mark the day on which will occur the triumphal entry of the victors. This is my farewell to you."
The passage he was probably thinking of has been the hope of the persecuted for over 2000 years:
Daniel 12: 11, 12.
The date that leaps to mind from the letter is November 9, 1938, known to history as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Since the date of publication of the letter is fairly late, 1942, it may well be that Hanussen did not write it, and that the real author was thinking of Kristallnacht, too. In 1942, that meant a comforting prophecy of a fairly short war. On the other hand, maybe Hanussen did write the letter, and, not altogether unreasonably, applied to Hitler the familiar prophecy of the downfall of the Man of Sin. Readers may entertain themselves by working out their own interpretation. Hanussen's shade can still keep people guessing, even after all these years.