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Arthur Magida: The Nazi Séance

A new book tells the story of a Jewish psychic who allied himself with the Nazis

Photo: Copyright 2001 Gary Bart - All Rights Reserved, License: N/A

Copyright 2001 Gary Bart - All Rights Reserved

The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle

Arthur Magida

Palgrave Macmillan

The idea that the Nazis dabbled, or were deeply immersed, in the occult is an enduring subplot of World War II. You could probably learn more about it right now if you channel-surfed over to the History and Military channels. Chances are they’re looping a docudrama about Heinrich Himmler’s belief in the World Ice Theory—which proposed that ice was the basic substance of all cosmic processes—or Hermann Göring’s belief in a “hollow earth.”

The truth behind these sensational stories—and we’re not here to debate them—is that Berlin between the wars was a huge destination for mystics, clairvoyants, and astrologers along with the artists, musicians, and painters we associate with the city of Bertolt Brecht and Lili Marlene. The city was a psychic pressure cooker. In that context, it’s easier to understand how a political philosophy based on a mythical Volk and race paranoia could arise.

In researching The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle (Palgrave Macmillan, softcover), local journalist and University of Baltimore professor Arthur J. Magida flew to Germany to study the story of one such traveling mystic, a mysterious Danish clairvoyant named Erik Jan Hanussen. Fresh from a Czech court where he had ostensibly proved his mental abilities before a judge, Hanussen’s reputation preceded him. He entertained theater crowds in Berlin with his ability to find hidden objects and guess the meanings of dates, and built a profitable side business providing psychic counsel to anyone who would shell out the pfennigs.

Hanussen, ever the consummate businessman and social climber, allied himself, quite tragically, with a few mid-level members of the emerging Nazi Party. The twist, of course, is that Hanussen was a Jew. The cruel irony: His psychic powers could not foresee his own demise.

Born Hermann Steinschneider to itinerant showfolk, Hanussen tried his hand at vaudeville, left the Vienna ghetto to join a circus, and, according to a highly suspect autobiography, learned to become a lion trainer, discovering his psychic abilities along the way, and remade himself into the Danish nobleman Hanussen. This much is record: He made headlines in Europe and New York, owned a fleet of fancy cars, and lived at a luxe Berlin address.

And he published a newspaper, Berliner Wochenschau, that praised the rising Nazis and supported Hitler’s bid for the chancellery. Their Jew-baiting, Hanussen rationalized, was just an election ploy. The so-called clairvoyant could ferret personal details and trivialities from his customers, but he failed to grasp the bigger picture until the day stormtroopers showed up at his apartment.

Magida paints a vivid tale of the era, when people on both sides of the Atlantic shelled out hard-earned money to see psychics, conjurers of the dead, strongmen, and, in one of Hanussen’s acts, strongwomen.

In describing Hanussen’s abilities, Magida details evidence from Hanussen’s own book Mind Reading and Telepathy, in which the clairvoyant lays out the process for his act: It comes down to asking deliberate questions and muscle reading—a twitch, a slight tilt of the head, an ever-so-tiny tug that helps the “mind reader” follow his subject’s lead. These are true skills, Magida concedes, but having plants in the audience and helpers asking clients pointed questions assured Hanussen’s success. Magida never fully buys into Hanussen’s self-myth, but he leaves enough wiggle room for the reader to decide on his own.

Nor does he try to draw the connection between the rise of what looks to us like a real and frightening supernatural power and a city so mad for any kind of assurance—religious, spiritual, mystical—that it would welcome that power. Magida doesn’t explore the clairvoyant’s conflicted Jewish identity, either; Hanussen’s Jewish heritage seemed to be a fact of birth he used when convenient and hid when necessary, and he wasn’t smart about knowing the difference. Magida wisely avoids theorizing about the implications of these questions, leaving it to the reader.

Rather, Magida’s gumshoe style—deadpanning the tale with an occasional wry aside and an interview appearance by master illusionist Teller—is the perfect vehicle for the narrative of Hanussen’s half-mythical rise to fame and predictable and ignoble execution at the hands of Nazi thugs. It’s so appropriate, it could be a voice-over for one of those cable TV docudramas. We’re no psychics, but here’s 10 bucks it’ll show up in the History Channel lineup sometime next year.

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