Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Nazi Seance: The Strange Story of The Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle, by Arthur J. Magida

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
269 pp


first: a thank you to both the LibraryThing early reviewers' program and to Palgrave Macmillan for my copy of this book.

To summarize the wildly out-there autobiography of Erik Jan Hanussen, born Hermann Steinschneider in 1889, his life was just one amazing feat after another.  It's pretty obvious that a reader shouldn't  depend on Hanussen's exaggerated account of his life, so in The Nazi Seance, Arthur J. Magida  has tried to discover the realities behind the man.  From humble beginnings as the son of poor Austrian Jewish parents, Hanussen not only remade himself into a wealthy mind reader, psychic and hypnotist under the not so modest title of "Europe's greatest oracle since Nostradamus," but also into Danish nobility.   Sadly, the psychic failed to predict his own death in 1933 at the hands of the Nazis.  The author of this book first heard of Hanussen while reading a book about the famous Indian rope trick; with his interest piqued, he started researching this colorful character, leading to the publication of Nazi Seance.  While Hanussen takes center stage in this book, around his story Magida also, albeit somewhat briefly, explores the cultural scene in Berlin, "primed for someone like Hanussen," as well as the economic and political climate which would allow for the rise to power of the Nazis.

Hanussen is certainly a strange subject, one who would make an interesting character in an historical novel.  Yet as Magida shows, he was all too real, going through his career with a number of critics who challenged his psychic credibility.  After a brief period away from Europe (leaving New York, for example, before he could be prosecuted)  he returned to Europe, where after being found not guilty in a fraud case in Czechoslovakia in 1930, he boarded a train for Berlin.  The Czech case had garnered Hanussen a lot of fame, and in Berlin, he found a ready-made audience for his  "telepathic acts." As the author notes, the modern age that brought forth "speedy trains, miracle medicines, inexpensive goods, mass production..." also produced people who were "anxious and adrift," who, having "lost their way," often turned to the spirit world for help.  Hanussen soon
"became a magnet -- for pretty women; for the lost and confused who paid large sums to know their future..."
taking advantage of their fears and becoming very rich in the process. He also started a newspaper, had plans to open a healing spa, and made a lot of enemies.  Soon he began cultivating the friendship of Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, who had turned to the Nazis after his economic problems led to a bankruptcy,  became the head of the Sturmabeteilung (SA -- Storm Troopers) in 1931, and  according to Magida, "had the confidence of the highest levels of the Nazi machine," by 1933.  Keeping the fact hidden from Helldorf that he was a Jew, Hanussen loaned him large sums of money in return for Helldorf's protection and clout.  He also began avidly promoting Hitler and the Nazis in his newspaper, and held on to several IOUs from Nazis who borrowed money from him -- which would, along with the events of a seance the night before the Reichstag fire, lead the psychic down a path that even the great Erik Jan Hanussen could not foresee.

In terms of historical value, the book is helpful for anyone who might want a barebones outline about the interwar years in Berlin, offering a very brief look at the cultural, economic and political circumstances in which the Nazis were able to assume power and later set aside any pretense of a democratic government. As a Jew cozying up to Nazi acquaintances during this time, Hanussen's story is intriguing and definitely worth examining, but it is difficult to feel much sympathy for this con man/huckster except where his daughter is concerned.  The author's presentation is also a bit waffly.  For example, it's difficult to decipher here whether or not Hanussen actually even met Hitler -- the author is less than clear on this issue. In examining different sources that put the two together or deny they ever met,  the author uses phrases like "It's improbable," or "slightly more probable," or "this version has the ring of truth;" after examining one account by a "left-wing German editor who had waged a campaign against Hanussen in 1932,"  stating that Hitler and Hanussen never even met, the author notes "That should settle the question..." then in the next sentence, "It doesn't," summing up this entire chapter by saying "If it was true that Hanussen and Hitler met..."   There is a lot of this type of meandering theorizing that goes on, even as far as whether or not Hanussen actually did or didn't have real psychic powers, and I must say it didn't inspire a lot of confidence on my end in this author.

Despite my misgivings, and in and around the waffling, there's a good story here that piqued my own curiosity enough to want to learn more.  If you want a straight point A to point B kind of biography, this book might be a little challenging but otherwise, the story of this "Jewish Psychic" is worth reading.