The curtain opens on a frightening scene: Post-World War I Germany. Punishing reparations, a war-scarred public and a fractured society have doomed Germany’s Weimar Republic, paving the way for Nazism.
Amidst the chaos, a clairvoyant Jew named Erik Jan Hanussen cleverly exploits a desperate public’s fascination with the occult, rising to Berlin society’s top rank, and even entering into the inner circle of Hitler’s demonic advisors. Was there something exceptional about Hanussen? Fellow hypnotists marveled at his unique powers and declared, “This man must be in league with the devil.” He was known as “Europe’s greatest oracle since Nostradamus.” Yet, paradoxically, he failed to predict his own downfall in the brutality of the rising Nazi regime.
Arthur Magida’s new biography, The Nazi Séance, explores Hanussen’s supernatural ability to wield magic and foretell the future. Masterfully weaving the history of the Third Reich’s rise to power and Hanussen’s strange eccentricities that catapulted him from obscurity to prominence, Magida explores the intricacies of magic, alternately as both skeptic and believer, and follows the life trajectory of a complicated man whose mind plumbed the depths of some of the world’s most notorious evildoers.
“I’ve always been interested in magic,” Magida tells audiences as a prelude to discussing The Nazi Séance. An exciting adventure, Magida’s search for Hanussen’s legacy brought him in contact with characters as unique as Hanussen’s long lost daughter, a 90-year-old woman living in Italy who claims to be in touch spiritually with her murdered father, as well as the modern magician, “Teller,” of the famed duo, Penn & Teller.
Teller’s remark that “mentalists are insufficiently confident to admit that what they do is a trick” undoubtedly helped Magida balance his own conflicting perceptions of Hanussen, enabling him to portray Hanussen on stage and interpret his performances. Through sharp rhetorical questions, readers engage in the scientific discourses of the era. When Hanussen dazzles crowds by successfully navigating the streets of Berlin blindfolded and miraculously discovers a hidden object in Potsdamer Platz, his critics argue that he was merely unusually adept at sensing the minute muscle twitches and nonverbal cues of his audience, subtle actions that revealed the location of the object.
Although Magida acknowledges arguments dismissing Hanussen’s powers as parlor tricks, he also gives credence to Hanussen’s remarkable abilities, detailing how the seer repeatedly stood trial and defeated claims that he was a fake. During trials in Czechoslovakia and Berlin, Hanussen managed to bring to light critical evidence resolving a prosecutor’s murder case, predict the untimely death circumstances of a friend’s brother, and even avoid trick questions asking him the significance of specific dates in European history. True clairvoyance is hard to fake.
Hanussen became an international sensation and his reputation in Europe was secure. His public performances made him a celebrity, the rock star of his time. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Hanussen operated a spiritual consulting business out of his Berlin home, attracting many wealthy and famous clients. He also ran the newspaper, Erik Jan Hannussen’s Berliner Wochenschau, eerily predicting the events precipitating Hitler’s consolidation of power and nefariously merging his prophesies with the Fuhrer’s propaganda machine.
If there were a motive for Hanussen’s betrayal of his fellow Jews, and his “alliance with scoundrels,” Magida suggests that he likely was apathetic about the turbulent social, economic, and political drama that was taking shape in Germany, believing that he was above the fray, destined to be revered as a national spiritual icon. His unexplained return to Berlin, after a successful escape to Switzerland with his family, reveals Hanussen’s irresistible addiction to fame and his unquenchable need to remain in the spotlight to the end.
Clever, at times humorous, anecdotes describe the mad men and women who attended Hanussen’s séances and relied on his advice, making The Nazi Séance a fast-paced, enjoyable read. Packed with new analysis of the desperate cultural and political climate that enabled the Nazis, the book’s only fault may be that readers aren’t given an opportunity to cheer for Hanussen’s conversion to a better cause and or his ultimate survival. Audiences learn early in the book that the Nazis murdered Hanussen in April of 1933.
By the time the curtain closes, however, Magida’s well-crafted portrayal of Hanussen’s magical performances and the clairvoyant’s personal life establishes an enigmatic character of the interwar years whom audiences will sympathize with and ponder for years to come.