Strange Tale of Hitler's Jewish Psychic

Astrologer's Murder at Birth of Third Reich Remains Mystery

Center Stage: Psychic Erik Jan Hanussen leads a seance in prewar Germany. The Jewish-born mentalist improbably became an advisor to Adolf Hitler.
courtesy of mel gordon
Center Stage: Psychic Erik Jan Hanussen leads a seance in prewar Germany. The Jewish-born mentalist improbably became an advisor to Adolf Hitler.

By Eddy Portnoy

Published November 08, 2011, issue of November 11, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.