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

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2012)

Journalism professor and award-winning author Arthur J. Magida (The Rabbi and the Hit Man; Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan) brings his interest and expertise in 20th century Jewish history to bear in this latest addition to the legend and literature of Erik Jan Hanussen, an Austrian Jew who concealed and repeatedly rewrote his genealogy; became a celebrated stage mentalist and hypnotist in Germany and elsewhere; was an outspoken supporter of the National Socialists and Adolf Hitler; and whose wealth and celebrity eventually led him to a violent end at the hands of the Nazi storm troopers. His body, summarily dumped in the woods in a forest out-side Berlin, had three gunshot wounds: one each to the abdomen, neck, and back of his head. He was 42.

Hanussen has been the subject of other studies, including the 2001 biography, Erik Jan Hanussen, Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant by Mel Gordon. The strengths of Prof. Magida's new work lies particularly in its provision of meaningful historical background, offering context beneath what was going on in Berlin and Germany at the time. In effect, the story a compelling tale of power, political intrigue, and human venality is one of a city, and a nation, gradually going insane. The author presents an insightful view not only into events of the era, but into Hanussen's personality, and how the political nail tried to make the most of the bizarre milieu in which he found himself. But the fact is, although faced with extraordinary circumstances, Hanussen was not an extraordinary man, and so within a dramatically short period of time, his attempts to manipulate and control events to his advantage failed. Three bullets serve as mute testament to the degree of his political innocence and personal incompetence.

In the 2001 book, Prof. Gordon devoted greater focus than does Prof. Magida to close details of Hanussen's performances and performing career events, and that book is worth tracking down for its wealth of graphic materials and photographs. Although acknowledging that Hanussen and Hitler were only seen together once, on an occasion in which Hitler merely "nodded" toward the mentalist, Prof. Gordon nevertheless entertained some of the conjecture about a more extensive personal relation-ship between the two men, for which there is scant sup-porting evidence or logic. Indeed, both authors manage to toy with the ludicrous notion of whether Hanussen was actually psychic; while Prof. Gordon ostensibly leaves this to the reader to decide (a dubious editorial choice). Prof. Magida seems at one point to seriously consider the possibility in a manner that threatens to undermine his investigative credibility.

Sociopaths and psychopaths can often be extraordinarily successful for a time. Bernie Madoff made it last longer than most. Perhaps two percent of the population is socio- or psychopathic (but only a small fraction of that fraction, two or two percent, become violent criminals), which means we all probably know one, or maybe even two or three. When we brush up against such beings, we often have trouble believing that they are merely deeply dam-aged goods. Charm and social effectiveness mask as humaneness, and we look for complex explanations where simple ones suffice: such people are different than you and I, and fundamentally lack a moral center a con-science. One day the guy's your pal at the diner; the next day he's on a plane, leaving a ruin of personal wreckage behind. Hanussen himself was as much a predator in his personal life as in his professional one: a serial philanderer, he abandoned multiple wives as well as his daughter.

Although Hanussen was indeed successful and wealthy by the end of his life, he did not achieve the international stardom of some of the most famous magicians and mind-readers of the era. Apparently a master of muscle-reading, using the skill to locate objects and "deliver mail" in the form of notes written by spectators and intended for other members of the audience, Hanussen combined this core trick to build an hour headliner act along with the use of confederates, stooges, stage hypnotism, standard one-ahead techniques, and the like. Hanussen was an entertainer, plain and simple, but following a tradition which some still uphold today, he used his stage tricks to help him take advantage of the gullible and uninformed. Aggressively marketing himself as a genuine psychic, he also made a great deal of money giving private readings, often to high society in the arts and politics, who could afford his substantial fees. (Albeit not likely to the extent of a newspaper report at the time which Prof. Magida naively repeats as fact that Hanussen could supposedly manage to see 100 clients in a six-hour day for psychic readings, amassing the equivalent of $44,000 in return.)

But so far, so what? Hanussen's name would probably remain all but unknown today were it not for the fact that the opportunistic hustler managed to brush up against some of the high and mighty co-conspirators in Adolf Hitler's assault on Germany, Jews, the world at large, and the very notion of decency itself. In the various books and movies about Hanussen, all tend to promote the story of the entertainer-cum-con-man by exploiting his supposed personal association with Hitler himself, allegedly as every-thing from personal advisor, astrologer, and public speaking coach, all the way even to co-conspirator in the Reichstag fire—the event which led to the National Socialists moving beyond their electoral frustrations and outright seizing power and suspending individual liberty in Germany.

But as Prof. Magida points out, the evidence that Hanussen and Hitler maintained such close and continuing contact is all but nonexistent, and based almost entirely on conjecture and questionable accounts. Rather, he was little more than an ambitious and malicious opportunist who let his overwhelming desire for fame and for-tune, combined with a remarkable capacity for self delusion, convince himself that he could manipulate the Nazis to his own power and purpose. Silly rabbit.

The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle • Arthur J. Magida • hardbound with full-color dustjacket • 270 pages • 8 pages of photographs • 2011