Erik Jan Hanussen looked out at the sea of bewildered, startled faces and knew he had them. Hanussen pointed to a woman in the crowd and told her she had a broken mirror in her pocketbook. Then he recited her home address. The lady gasped and nodded. He was undeniably accurate on both counts.
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This is exactly the kind of story everyone loves. 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 T he subject of this biography is scarcely obscure. He was a major figure in the European magic-show circuit in the s, and the subject of sensational accounts in the American pulp magazines of the s. Tales of his mysterious relationship to Hitler, capped by his brutal assassination in March of , 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 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. He has written on the culture of the Weimar period before, in "Voluptuous Panic. 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, , 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. 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. 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.
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 , 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 , 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 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 , at the home of a wealthy socialite:.
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, , and which he assures us was "publicized and ridiculed":.
This poem correctly forecasts Hitler's accession to the chancellorship on January The phrase "through the bank" is a literal translation of "Durch die Bank," but the phrase also means "completely, across the board. 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.
Even on the Right, the consensus was that the influence of the Nazis had already peaked. However, at the beginning of , 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 All of this was purely hypothetical at the beginning of , 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. Gordon gives this account:. 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.
Extraordinary stage clairvoyant who made a great reputation in Germany during the s and s, combining blatant trickery with the most astounding mental phenomena. Because of the accuracy of his predictions he became known as "the Devil's Prophet. At an early age he left school to join a circus, where he became a knife thrower, fire eater, and professional strong man. He served in World War I , and when his company was cut off from water supplies Hanussen demonstrated a weird talent for water witching without apparatus.
Erik Jan Hanussen
In the weeks leading up to Adolf Hitler's appointment as Reichschancellor on Jan. Results of the November Reichstag elections were disappointing for his National Socialist Party, with the Nazis suffering losses in the German parliament while retaining about a third of the seats there. Nazi coffers had been drained dry by the campaign. Hitler had endured significant defections from his movement and threatened suicide. It was at this point that Hitler, falling back on his belief in the occult, called the most renowned clairvoyant in the land to his headquarters at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin for a private session. Hanussen, 43 at the time of the Hotel Kaiserhof session, was a man whose name was synonymous with psychic phenomena in Central Europe.