Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Hitler’s Jewish Magician

August 17, 2012 2:07 pm 2 comments

A poster for a 1988 film on Erik Jan Hanussen, who cleverly exploited the desperate Nazi public's fascination with the occult, rising to Berlin society's top rank and even entering the inner circle of Hitler's demonic advisors. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →