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Historians digging into the archives to reconstruct the chronicle of the twentieth century will have to deal with this strange phenomenon of Hanussen, born Herschmann Steinschneider in the humble home of a poor Jewish actor in Vienna. It will be their task to unravel a complex maze of reality and legend, myth and romance, to reach the core of the true personality of Steinschneider, alias Hanussen, and his influence on one of the most significant chapters of European history, the ascent and reign of Adolf Hitler.
— Pierre van Paassen, Redbook, May 1942
The story of Erik Jan Hanussen, the Viennese-Jewish psychic who befriended Adolf Hitler and became known as the “Prophet of the Third Reich,” is one of the most peculiar in modern European history. Few twentieth-century historians have acknowledged Hanussen as a factor in the dissolution of the Weimar Republic. That the Führer had engaged a wily Jewish clairvoyant might seem the stuff of mocking political fantasy or occult make-believe — but the story is true.
When Pierre van Paassen, the prominent Dutch author and foreign correspondent, wrote the above passage in the American periodical Redbook, the amazing exploits of Erik Jan Hanussen were still hot international copy. At least fourteen stories on Hitler’s Jewish astrologer and clairvoyant had appeared in the American press alone beginning in 1937. Several exposés were penned by Germany’s greatest journalists, then in exile — acclaimed writers such as Bella Fromm, Egon Erwin Kisch, and Arthur Koestler.
But after September 1942, the name Erik Jan Hanussen disappeared from public discourse. The strange tale of “Hitler’s Pal” (as Hanussen was tagged in American true crime periodicals) was stricken from the record, only appearing in secret wartime Office of Strategic Services memos related to the character analysis and psychopathology of the Führer. By the time the American home front had geared up for total war, the very notion of European Jews as anything less than the targets of Fascist genocide could be viewed in Washington as a form of fifth columnism. The story of a Jewish mystic who helped usher in the era of the Third Reich and then became one of its first victims was buried — and with it, one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of the Second World War.
Erik Jan Hanussen arrived in Berlin in 1930. He had already achieved fame and notoriety as a stage clairvoyant and mentalist in Austria and Czechoslovakia. In Germany, he hoped to transform a decent living into a fortune and, possibly, an empire.
A metropolis of four million, inter-war Berlin was Europe’s largest and most dynamic city. It was the international center of finance, graphic art, publishing, fashion, modern architecture, avant-garde cinema, and musical theatre. But more important for Hanussen, it boasted a nightlife unlike any city before or since — with thousands of restaurants, risqué dance emporiums (the erotic subculture of Weimar Berlin included exactly 120 registered gay and lesbian lounges and dance halls), cabarets, and honky-tonks.
In 1930, fewer than one percent of Berlin’s cosmopolitan citizens attended traditional church services. Faith in modern political ideologies, the occult, or old superstitious beliefs replaced them. Berlin alone was estimated to have some 20,000 fortune-tellers, astrologers, tarot readers, hypnotists, crystal-ball gazers, fakirs, hollow-earth theorists, faith healers, stigmatics, yogic masters, palmists, and bizarrely costumed leaders of mystic brotherhoods and doomsday cults.
A Jewish cottage industry of conjurers, mentalists, and the like was flourishing. The Hebraic origins of these entertainers were often masked in Gypsy greasepaint or in eastern turbans and flowing robes. Some pretended to be Slavic wonder-healing mystics, others Chinese monks, American Indian shamans, or scions of Scandinavian aristocracy.
Hanussen’s cover was that he was an itinerant Danish nobleman with exceptional supernatural powers, a history suggested to him by one of his longtime promoters at the Vienna Konzerthaus, and thoroughly entrenched by the time Hanussen reached Berlin. In truth, Hanussen was born Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider to a family of unsuccessful cabaret performers and raised in his father’s native village of Prossnitz, a sleepy market town at the edge of the expiring Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1903, he pawned his bar mitzvah watch and joined a traveling circus. By 1910, he was writing cabaret jingles and tabloid journalism in Vienna. It was while researching the secrets of telepathy for an exposé on Leo Rubini, a reigning Jewish stage magician, that he discovered he could perform Rubini’s tricks better than the master. During World War I, Hanussen dazzled audiences with a telepathy-and-circus-show routine. By 1918 he was filling the Vienna Konzerthaus night after night, where he was billed as “Europe’s greatest clairvoyant.”
Hanussen was also possibly Europe’s best-known soothsayer by the time he set himself up in the freewheeling Berlin. On stylish Kurfürstendamm Avenue, he opened a private consultation parlor, which was instantly successful. His fees were exorbitant by any standard, but Hanussen’s reputation, and his wealthy clients, allowed for it. He also performed in Berlin’s most gilded venues, and soon counted among his inner circle the cultural elite of the city: singer and stage impresario Leo Slezak, opera great Richard Tauber, film starlet Lilian Harvey, expressionist playwright Ernst Toller, and the up-and-coming Jewish-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre.
Hanussen became a multimillionaire in Germany. He soon procured a sanatorium where a panoply of occult cures was offered (including a hormonal cream he invented to increase male virility and female desire). His new wealth also secured him an absurdly decadent lifestyle. He had several luxury cars, seven apartments, and a yacht larger than any a Rockefeller might ponder, which he named the Ursel IV. For his forays into the nocturnal demiworld of Berlin, Hanussen enlisted a menacing retinue of six pistol-toting bodyguards, and was also immediately recognized by the bevy of stunning actresses always at his side, each swathed in a net of jewels and attired in revealing dresses that the master himself designed.
Hanussen’s yacht was the scene of lavish feasts, where drugs were offered that even sophisticated Berliners — who were quite familiar with the enchantments of cocaine — didn’t know about. Naked women and exotic boys performed shocking revues. Sometimes, after midnight, Hanussen demonstrated one of his specialties: his ability to hypnotize women into sexual frenzy and then sustained orgasm. A Swedish baroness, Barbara van Swieten, otherwise known on the nightclub circuit as La Jana, often hosted these events and sometimes acted as a willing participant. Even for a Berlin accustomed to debauched nighttime displays, Hanussen’s were considered phenomenal, over the top.
A debate over the veracity of Hanussen’s omnipotent powers was on every fashionable Berliner’s lips. But still he capitalized on public interest by purchasing a Breslau printing firm in 1931, and then launching an occult journal, Hanussen Magazin, and a biweekly tabloid, Bunte Wochenschau. Prominent writers and artists such as Gerhart Hauptmann, Hanns Ewers, and Conrad Veidt furnished pieces on their experiences with the paranormal. Thomas Mann, the leading novelist of the day, was a regular contributor. Subscribers were encouraged to apply for memberships in the Hanussen Society, where tickets to his stage productions were offered at a fifty percent discount. Clairvoyant workshops and discussion groups formed around the magazine, and its circulation rose into the hundreds of thousands. But as the psychic’s fortunes grew, Germany’s fell.
In 1931, the Great Depression had not eased in Central Europe. Long-established banks closed their doors permanently, and bankruptcies among the middle class and landowners were soaring. Shaken Ruhr industrialists slowed production, and, most threatening to the already weakened social fabric, unemployment rates tripled. Eight million Germans were out of work.
The political process stalemated. At the national Reichstag and in the provincial assemblies, the traditional parties offered few lasting solutions. Their patrician bickering seemed to cancel out whatever short-term bromides were concocted. Coalition party cabinets shifted by the month and votes of no-confidence in the Reichstag became the norm. The common ground had fallen away.
The German public responded to the deadlock in various ways. Big-city thrill-seekers intensified their pursuit of back-alley pleasures; those ground down materially and spiritually by the endless civic chaos gravitated perilously into the beckoning arms of religious fanatics and “kohlrabi” prophets like Josef Weissenberg and Therese Neumann; and tens of millions enlisted in or began supporting extremist parties on the political fringe.
More than three million militant workers swelled the ranks of the German Communist Party. And stunning the political pundits, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists — the radical Nazi movement — had increased its electoral might by a factor of nine, or by seven and a half million new votes, by 1930. Heavily armed militias from rival Communist and Nazi factions roamed Germany’s streets at will. Riots and murderous violence followed them everywhere they appeared. Municipal police services, like the national politicians, seemed helpless against the throngs — the army continually threatened to apply extraordinary measures, but continually failed to re-establish order.
In this chaos, support for the Nazis fell. In 1932, the electorate was having second thoughts about Hitler’s campaign of nonstop terror, and Nazi party coffers were effectively depleted by February of that year. Hitler’s uncompromising bid to be appointed chancellor was openly challenged by the Nazi movement’s inner council. Talk of replacing Hitler as the party’s figurehead gained momentum. The future certainly did not look bright for the Nazis — but it could not have looked bleaker for the Führer himself.
Like many other Berliners at the time, Hanussen had more than a passing interest in the unstable political scene. And, though he had fame and money, he longed for respectability. His magazines usually skewed toward articles about magnetic healing or how to achieve marital bliss through hypnotic suggestion. But he wanted to be known as an intellectual — not merely a clairvoyant and popular showman but a real social thinker. On March 25, 1932, Hanussen issued his first electoral premonition. He could not have been prepared for the fallout.
The headline in Hanussen Magazin read HANUSSEN IN TRANCE PREDICTS HITLER’S FUTURE. The cover story proclaimed, in breathless prose, that Adolf Hitler, the Austrian housepainter still without German citizenship papers, would be appointed Reich chancellor in exactly one year’s time. Furthermore, according to Hanussen’s ecstatic vision, it would be Hitler’s deadly foes, Hindenburg and his Nationalist allies, who would point the Nazi Führer to the exalted chair at the head of the Reich Chancellery.
In March of ’32, Hanussen’s prediction was a deranged and comical assault on conventional political thought. Sophisticated Berliners viewed Hitler as a hysterical, Chaplinesque figure and his Nazi zealots as little more than thuggish losers, hawking a senseless racist ideology, adorned with swastika-laced trinkets. Few took Hanussen’s portent seriously — except, notably, the Führer himself, who was then barricaded in the Hotel Kaiserhof with a few remaining political allies.
Hitler was seen by many Germans, even then, as an extremely troubled and neurotic individual. But his firm belief in his historical mission and overall megalomania probably had much to do with his seductive appeal. Hitler sustained his personal convictions, often against all objective reality.
He was known to rely heavily on otherworldly omens and Southern German folk superstitions. So someone like Hanussen was of interest to the Führer. The Nazi press ran with the story of Hanussen’s premonition under the heading hanussen, the man who is never wrong! And while Hitler lost the next presidential election to Hindenburg by six million votes, the psychic was nonetheless welcomed into the Nazi fold as someone who might be of great use to the movement.
Count Wolf Helldorf, a Nazi insider and unrepentant libertine, was the first National Socialist to meet with the seer. On the Ursel IV, Helldorf partied and had his fortune told. At one orgy, it was reported, Helldorf flagellated a naked boy so strenuously that the youngster fainted from pain. Other Nazi officers in Berlin soon joined Helldorf on visits to Hanussen’s yacht. Later many of them complained to the Count about Hanussen’s large circle of Jewish friends and nearly all-Jewish staff.
In June of 1932, Helldorf offered to introduce Hanussen to the Führer, who had been meaning to extend his warm gratitude to the clairvoyant. Hanussen agreed enthusiastically — finally, someone was taking his thoughts seriously. Hanussen then gave a huge donation to the SA fund and showed up at Helldorf’s bank to quietly pay off the Count’s enormous overdrafts, which had accumulated from his nighttime activities and gambling.
Hitler and Hanussen, soon to be nicknamed the two “H’s,” had much in common. Just as Hitler brought prophecy into politics, Hanussen blended politics with prophecy. They were born within weeks of one another, and both were raised in German-speaking villages on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As children, they suffered from neglect and ran away to Vienna, where they hoped to make their fortunes as artists. On Vienna’s Praterstrasse, they may have dawdled over coffee and Sacher tortes in the same dives. They loved amusement parks and served as lance corporals in a common cause during the Great War. And finally they came to Germany, to Berlin, propelled into the great city by the fuel of ambition.
But Hitler, who railed unceasingly against the existence of the Jewish people in Europe, didn’t know Hanussen was actually Herschmann Steinschneider, a Jew, born of Jewish parents, and by then married three times in traditional Jewish ceremonies. Hanussen told Hitler that he was the son of an aristocratic Danish family, and was fortunate that no one in Hitler’s circle ever asked him to utter a word in Danish, in which he knew not even how to say “thank you.”
Run ragged with electioneering in the summer of 1932, Hitler began to take regular sessions with the great magician. Hanussen charted the Führer’s horoscope, taught him the proper use of the mandrake root, and improved Hitler’s manic body language and patterns of speech for better public effect. In exchange, the Führer promised Hanussen high office and the directorship of an Aryan College of the Occult Arts.
While Hanussen was becoming closer to Hitler, the Communist popular press became obsessed with the clairvoyant, running more than twenty-eight features on Hanussen in 1932. Bruno Frei, the editor of Berlin am Morgen, and soon a particularly destructive enemy to Hanussen, launched a vitriolic series entitled A CHARLATAN CONQUERS BERLIN: WE EXPOSE THE SWINDLER-CLAIRVOYANT ERIK JAN HANUSSEN. In it, Hanussen was vilified as the “Prophet of the Third Reich” and “Hitler’s Spiritual Father.” If Hanussen had kept his public persona relatively free of political partisanship until then, and his dealings with Nazis fairly private and after-dark, now he found himself — as did, by association, the readers of his publications — pushed squarely into the Hitler camp. The SA, who took care of their kind, replaced Hanussen’s private bodyguards. In return, the psychic began to incorporate Nazi symbolism into his tabloid.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Frei and his digging reporters unearthed the truth about Hanussen’s Jewish background. Rumors had been floating — some chorus girls couldn’t keep it to themselves that the Aryan prophet had a circumcised penis. Frei couldn’t have invented a better story for his newspaper’s series: Hitler, the defender of the German nation against the international Jewish conspiracy, was himself under the spell of a duplicitous Jew. An exposé of Hanussen’s origins ran on August 14, and then, to add fuel to fire, Frei sent a personal letter to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, stating that Hanussen was a full-blooded Jew, the nephew of a rabbi from the Austrian ghetto of Pressburg. The allegation appeared in a December issue of Goebbels’s daily sheet, Der Angriff, where Hanussen was described as a “Czech Jew.”
Count Helldorf, now the titular head of Berlin’s SA, was appalled and even frightened by the news. Could his leading benefactor and valued evening companion be an impostor named Steinschneider? Helldorf visited Hanussen’s private office on the Kurfürstendamm, where the psychic fabricated a more detailed personal history for himself. Yes, he said, the Czech passport was authentic, but the newspaper stories were not. Hanussen explained that his parents were young Danish nobles, who died in a mountain-climbing accident in Moravia. Hanussen said he was then adopted by a kindly Jewish couple in the nearby village of Prossnitz — which is why, he explained, he spoke a smattering of Yiddish and had a special affinity for Jewish people.
Hanussen then produced forged adoption papers from a drawer. Convinced, Helldorf informed a disbelieving Goebbels of his discovery. Der Angriff issued a short retraction on December 13: Erik Jan Hanussen was no Jew.
Of course, the noose was tightening around Hanussen nonetheless. Against odds that had seemed unsurpassable only months before, Hitler was coming to power. Hanussen’s Jewish staff were leaving Berlin — taking extended winter vacations in Paris, Vienna, Prague, or Budapest. Some transferred German bank accounts to secure firms in Switzerland. But Hanussen took the opposite tack. As Hitler edged toward the victory line, Hanussen expanded his Berlin operations. He bought a mansion on Lietzenburgstrasse, which he then converted into a gilded venue called the Palace of the Occult.
The place was pure extravagance: gold leaf and Carrara marble covered nearly every surface, and inscribed on the palace’s doors and passageways were mystic and astrological signs from the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian pantheon. Blue-eyed attendants in diaphanous garments of white and pale green floated through maze-like hallways, leading visitors into inner sanctums, like the Room of Silence, where a throne rested on a platform that could hoist Hanussen thirty feet in the air. In the centermost chamber of the palace, under a massive domed ceiling, stood a colossal bronze sculpture of the master, dressed in a toga, with his left arm raised in the Nazi gesture of victory.
And for the Nazis there was a victory. Hanussen’s mad premonition from 1932 had come true. On January 30, 1933, Hitler accepted the title of Reich chancellor of Germany. President Hindenburg, no lover of the Nazis, believed that stability could be achieved by placing Hitler in high office, that this would both stunt the growth of Communism and appease the Führer’s lunatic hordes.
SA and SS storm troopers took to the streets in glorious celebration. Hanussen became ever more desperate to ingratiate himself with Hitler and Goebbels. Conspiracy theorists have it that it was then he became involved in a plan that would propel Hitler from appointed leader of Germany to its absolute dictator, no longer subject to constitutional restraints or checks from unsympathetic commanders of the army — something that would forever keep Hanussen in Hitler’s good books.
The strategy was simple: destroy the Reichstag building through arson, and then place the blame at the feet of the Communists. Hitler could then rule by extraordinary decree. A patsy, the person who would light the fire, was needed. He is said to have been found in a down-and-out Berlin pub. Marinus van der Lubbe was a drifter from the Netherlands, a Communist Party member, and mentally impaired. Whether or not he was hypnotized by Hanussen remains the subject of rumor, but in any case, van der Lubbe was shown blueprints of the Reichstag and taught how to use specially designed incendiary devices.
Which Nazis were involved in the plot is still open to question as well. It is more than probable that Count Helldorf and a few of his aides participated in its history-shattering execution. What we do know is that three days before the planned arson, Hanussen ran an article in his occult magazine predicting the Reichstag’s fiery demise. And at a séance in his Palace of the Occult, before Helldorf and a slew of invited reporters, Hanussen ranted about a fire that would engulf the German nation. He saw it clearly, he said: the conflagration would take place in the center of Berlin.
The Reichstag fire broke out twenty hours later. The Berlin police caught van der Lubbe, who confessed to the criminal deed and his membership in the Communist Party. In the two international trials that followed, it was remarked that the Dutchman didn’t seem crazed as much as under some kind of hypnotic trance. Hitler used the Reichstag fire to outlaw the Communist Party and then issued a series of laws that in March 1933 would shock Germany and the world. The dreaded Third Reich officially commenced.
In its first days, Hanussen felt secure. He was booked for a few Berlin shows, his tabloid was one of two publications issued to prisoners in the newly created concentration camp at Dachau, and Nazi bigwigs continued to frequent the Palace of the Occult.
But his grand complicity in the Reichstag plot, the huge amount of money owed to him by Helldorf and his SA underlings, as well as films of Nazi orgies recorded on the Ursel IV, were all capital liabilities. Hanussen, who may have had faith in blackmail as a way out, forgot that blackmail was very poor protection against those quite comfortable with murder.
Goebbels was still smoldering from the Angriff retraction, which he didn’t believe anyway. Hanussen was a Jew. He was a Jewish pest. He was no longer useful to the movement, and his embarrassing proximity to the Führer needed to be excised from German history.
SA officers in Hanussen’s circle were suddenly reassigned or demoted. On March 20, 1933, Count Helldorf, who had been appointed high police commissioner of Berlin in February, was summarily dismissed from his post. Nazi Minister of the Interior Hermann Goering informed him that his new position was that of chief commissioner of Potsdam, where one of his prime functions involved the breeding of horses.
Then, on the evening of March 24, a squadron of SA men showed up at Hanussen’s apartment. The Prophet of the Third Reich was about to depart for a nine o’clock performance. When informed that he was under arrest, Hanussen laughed it off as a practical joke. The commanding officer then demanded that all of the loan receipts Hanussen had collected from his SA debtors be turned over immediately. Hanussen was driven to Gestapo headquarters on General-Pape Strasse, where he faced charges of complicity with Communists and of submitting a phony Aryan certificate in order to gain admittance to the Nazi party. A few hours later Hanussen was executed with three pistol shots. Two struck him in the head. His corpse was robbed of everything except thirty marks in bills, and he was dumped in a field north of Berlin.
When Hanussen’s disfigured body was discovered by a farmer two weeks later, Hanussen’s relatives were asked to come to the morgue and identify it. By then the Palace of the Occult and Hanussen’s seven apartments had been thoroughly looted.
Marinus van der Lubbe was beheaded at the conclusion of the Reichstag arson trial in 1934. From exile in Prague, Paris, and Mexico City, Bruno Frei continued his journalistic crusade against Hanussen and Nazism long after the seer’s demise and after the many materials linking Hanussen to the Führer were thought to have been destroyed. Count Helldorf, in July 1944, assisted in a Wehrmacht conspiracy to assassinate Hitler at the Führer’s Wolfsschanze retreat. This Nazi plot failed. After a sixteen-day investigation, Helldorf and seven other staff officers were found guilty of high treason. They were hung from meat hooks and left to die by slow asphyxiation.
In the end, the Hanussen-Hitler saga proved to be an embarrassment for everyone involved: Nazi historians — as well as their Allied counterparts — attempted to destroy or conceal all materials linking the two “H’s.” The relationship was bad for the National Socialists and bad for the Jews. For post-war America, exposure of the complicity of any Jews in Hitler’s coup and the Nazi policies that followed was, at the very least, an exercise in poor political taste. The most famous clairvoyant in Europe was consigned to the dustbin of history, with only traces left to tell his extraordinary story. &