The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle
By Arthur Magida
Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pages, $26
Where else but in the annals of Jewish history does a boy born to a pair of impoverished runaways become a world-famous mind reader, psychic, astrologer, crime fighter, newspaper publisher, novelist and, if that’s not enough, adviser to Adolf Hitler. The bizarre and tragic story of Erik Jan Hanussen, the famed mentalist born as Hermann Steinschneider in Vienna, is truly stranger than fiction.
A number of books and films have told the story of Hanussen, a popular figure in Europe for decades. With Arthur Magida’s “The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle,” this remarkable tale is offered up to the Anglosphere.
Cautioning the reader to look upon it with a jaundiced eye, but nonetheless relying heavily on Hanussen’s own unreliable autobiography, Magida starts with the inauspicious beginnings of the famed clairvoyant and takes us to his inauspicious end, at the hands of the Nazis, in 1933.
Born in 1889 to Viennese vagrants Julie Kohn and Siegfried Steinschneider, Herman Steinschneider had a remarkable childhood, during which he discovered his preternatural abilities and claimed to have psychically manipulated his parents. While all children manipulate their parents to some degree, young Hermann exhibited powers far beyond those of a normal child.
Unlike most nice Jewish boys, Steinschneider ran away to join the circus when he was a teenager. There he absorbed a great many tricks of the low-culture performance trade. But at the onset of World War I, in a fit of patriotism, he left the circus to join the Austrian army. To combat the boredom of army life, he began to give mind-reading performances to his fellow soldiers, who were left stunned by his psychic skills. Little did they know, he’d been steaming open their mail to find out what was going on in their lives.
In the midst of the war, Steinschneider went AWOL to give psychic performances in Vienna. To keep the army from discovering his disappearance, he did not perform under his real name; his manager cleverly invented the name under which he would perform, Erik Jan Hanussen. With it he became a Danish noble, achieving enormous popularity with his hypnotic performances and selling out large venues throughout Germany and Austria.
His fame grew dramatically in the 1920s, when he had a harrowing run-in with another Jewish performer — renowned strongman Zishe Breitbart, whose incredible feats of strength he attempted to imitate. Hanussen’s variation on the strongman theme consisted of hypnotizing a woman whom he would command to bend iron. She even had cement blocks smashed on her belly while she was under Hanussen’s magic spell.
But by the end of the decade, “Europe’s greatest oracle Since Nostradamus” found himself under arrest for fraud in the Czech town of Leitmeritz, where the authorities were very much displeased with his divinations. They also accused him of hypnotizing young ladies in his hotel room and having his way with them. A consummate performer, Hanussen transformed the trial into a media circus, where he proved his psychic “powers” before the court and was set free.
Again at the top of his game, Hanussen moved his operation to Weimar’s cultural center, Berlin, where he became a major draw during the late 1920s. In addition to publishing his own newspaper, he turned his massive apartment into the Palace of the Occult, attracting the cream of Berlin society. Sprinkled into this “cream” were a number of top Nazis. Hanussen’s attraction to power was apparently stronger than his interest in his own family origins, and this would cost him dearly.