Friday, July 5, 2013

Who Was Erik Hanussen?

Well, I think it's about time for another book review here at Chet Loggins' Bloggin's. I recently read a very interesting biography called, "Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" by Mel Gordon. "Have you heard the one about Hilter's Jewish Psychic?" It's sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, but the man who Adolf Hitler turned to for astrological predictions and advice in the early days of the Nazis' struggle for power in the Reichstag was born a Jew in Vienna in 1889. His birth name was Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider, and his birth certificate read "Hebrew male".

"Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" is a relatively short book, but in it's 273 pages it tells more than anyone would ever want to know about a man, who is really only remembered at all for his brief association with the National Socialists and Adolf Hitler. Hanussen's association with the Nazis lasted only just over a year, from March of 1932 to April of 1933, but this was a very important and chaotic period in the Weimar Republic and the Nazis' struggle for power. But before the author tells us all about this fascinating period of Hanussen's life, he takes us through his whole life and the events that lead to his notorious association with the Nazi party in Berlin.

Herschmann Steinschneider grew up in a slum of Vienna, known as the Ottakring district. His parents were traveling performers in the cabaret circuit, and when he wasn't traveling from show to show throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire states he spent much of his time on the streets. When he became a teenager Herman or "Harry" ran away from home to join a traveling cabaret circuit himself and then a traveling circus. He then had a brief stint in the infantry, and after being discharged became a sensationalist gossip journalist/blackmailer and writer of obscene ditties and comic monologues.

He went on to bluff his way into a variety of occupations for which he had no qualifications, such as a bass singer in a traveling opera troupe and stage magician. He began performing Psychometry, "muscle-reading," phony telepathy and fortune-telling at variety-bars and taverns in Berlin where his first wife, Betty, was being treated for TB. After Harry had a vision where he foresaw the very hour of his wife's death the con-artiste began to agonize over whether fortune-telling was just a low stage con or if he really possessed clairvoyant abilities and if such abilities even existed for real. Thus the man, who would later adopt the stage name Hanussen, began his odyssey as a showman and student of the occult.

Harry began taking muscle-reading and "pseudo-telepathy" lessons from an "Experimental Psychologist" from Munich, called Joe Labero and began an intense study on his own of hypnotic suggestion and other psychological-occult stunts. The amateur stage magician perfected his craft while touring Moravia one summer with his mentor. But soon WWI broke out, and Harry was once again in the Austro-Hungarian infantry.

While in the military Private Steinschneider, besides infuriating his superiors and shirking his duties, entertained the troops with his "telepathy" routines and fortune telling. He also became interested in dowsing, finding ore deposits and fresh water with bifurcated branches and twisted metal rods for his cheering comrades. Near the end of the Great War the now Lance Corporal Steinschneider went AWOL from the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army to give a performance at Vienna's massive Konzerthaus. This would be his first performance as the master-clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen. Harry and an ambitious impresario called "Peppi" Koller invented the Scandinavian stage name and persona of an aristocratic magician from Copenhagen as the opening act for a concert by a traveling erotic dance sensation from Denmark. Harry liked the name and character of  Danish aristocrat Erik Jan Hanussen, and it was the alias he performed under until his death.

 Hanussen was hailed as an "occult phenomenon" in the Viennese press. Even members of the Austrian royal family become fascinated by the mysterious magician from "Copenhagen." He was made the Royal Dowser of Bosnia-Hercegovina. After the war was over Hanussen traveled throughout Central Europe performing as his new persona. He wrote books on magic and the occult and even wrote, directed and starred in his own film called, "Hypnosis: Hanussen's First Adventure," where Hanussen played a psychic detective. He worked with and against famed Jewish strongman Zisha Breitbart, eventually developing his own strongwoman, "Iron Queen" Martha Farra, to compete with him. Hanussen even traveled and performed briefly in America, where audiences were not as thrilled with his tricks as most Central European ones were. But near the end of the 1920's Hanussen's toughest audience of all turned out to be the Czechs.

While Hanussen was performing in Teplitz-Schonau (Teplice) and other Sudeten spa towns in the newly formed Czechoslovakia he was being followed and scrutinized by Czech plainclothes police officers. After the officers felt they had enough evidence Hanussen was charged with fraud and larceny. He spent 9 days in jail, and after being freed on bail he was forbidden from participating in any occult affairs in Czechoslovakia until his trial. He was indicted in Leitmeritz (Litoměřice) on charges of duping the fine citizens of the republic out of their money by deceptive means. It was stated by the court that clairvoyance did not exist. Countless Czech witnesses and even some of Hanussen's friends and former companions testified against him. Hanussen's only defense seemed to be to prove that he did indeed possess supernatural abilities. In the end the defendant wound up wowing the courtroom and winning the case against him in his own dramatic way. The showman allowed the prosecution to try to "prove" that he didn't possess clairvoyant abilities by blindfolding him and subjecting him to a number of experiments. This wound up playing into the stage-magician's favor, and he won the case for himself and clairvoyance blindfolded and with his ears stuffed with cotton.

 After the trial Hanussen hightailed it to Berlin, where during the period between the wars there was a great interest in the occult and supernatural. He had a lot of competition in continental Europe's largest city, but he quickly rose to the top of bills there, attracting the attention of Berlin's socialites and elites. The magus prospered. He moved into a nice apartment, bought fancy cars and yachts and was surrounded by beautiful women everywhere he went. He also purchased a printing firm to start his own self-promoting media empire. "Hanussen Magazine" was mostly for those interested in the paranormal and the occult and "Berliner Woche" was a weekly tabloid journal. The BW was full of gossip an sensational news, but it also featured articles about the occult and Hanussen's own musings and predictions. The March 25, 1932 issue of BW featured the bold headline: "Hanussen In Trance Predicts Hitler's Future." In  the cover story Hanussen predicted that Adolf Hitler, who at he time still didn't even have German citizenship papers, would be made Reichschancellor in one year's time.

Almost no one in Berlin at the time thought that the Nazis had a chance. The prediction was amusing for most Berliners. The superstitious and megalomaniac Hitler, who believed strongly in portents and omens, did take the prediction seriously however and wanted to meet with Hanussen. It's not clear when Hanussen met with Hitler. The Nazis later destroyed most of the documents that linked them to Hanussen. Historians do agree that the meeting took place at the Hotel Kaiserhof, which Hitler used as his Berlin command center. More meetings between the two men followed. Hanussen began to use the Fraktur typeface favored by the Nazis in his tabloids, and he printed horoscopes of Hitler, Rohm, Strasser and other top ranking Nazi party members of the time. No one know can agree about what exactly took place during the Hanussen Hitler meetings. Some say Hitler wanted private readings from the clairvoyant, and others say Hanussen also gave Hitler lessons in public speaking and using hand gestures and staging for dramatic effect and crowd control (mass hypnosis). I don't know how this would have gone down, but I was imagining scenes from "The King's Speech".

Hanussen was getting cozy with other members of the Nazi party as well. He was partying with his buddy, the depraved and sadistic SA officer, Count Von Helldorf, and loaning enormous sums of money to Hermann Goering and others in the SA leadership. Meanwhile the Nazis' biggest rivals for control of the Reichstag, the Communists, were trying to expose Hitler's personal clairvoyant as a swindler and con-artist. They believed Hanussen was Hitler's weakest link and wanted to show that the fascists could only rely on fantasy and the occult to appeal to the German public. The Communists also tried to expose the Danish Aristocrat's true origins. They sent a letter to Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, who promptly warned everyone that Hanussen was a "Czech Jew".

The noose was tightening around the "Prophet of the Third Reich." He was questioned by Helldorf and other SA members about Goebbels' allegation. He frantically tried to come with explanations for his past but confessed to a friend that he knew his days were numbered. Before his time was up, however, Hanussen had one more grand trick to play. He had purchased an old mansion that he was having converted into his very own "Palace of the Occult." Hanussen's new "Palace" had lots of neon lighting, gold leaf covered walls, marble statues representing figures from Greek mythology, stone Buddhas, Indian prayer benches and mystical writing and astrological signs everywhere.

The grand opening of the "Palace of the Occult" was a huge social event in Berlin. Lots of politcians and celebrities were in attendance, whether they were Aryan militants or Jewish. Everyone was wowed by the over the top extravagance of the converted mansion. Near the end of the evening everyone entered the "Room of Glass" for a séance. In the center of the room was a large circular glass topped table surround by Buddhas and aquariums full of deadly snakes and other exotic reptiles. The participants placed their palms on the glass table, and Hanussen sat in the middle of the circle in a swivel chair. A wheel covered with Kabbalistic writing and zodiac symbols was then turned underneath the glass tabletop, and Hanussen gave a reading. He said, "A Great House is being consumed by flames." The party goers left, and exactly twenty hours later the Reichstag burst into flames.

Hitler, who had been made a "handcuffed" Reichschancellor with little real power by Hindenburg only months earlier (as Hanussen had predicted in his magazine), was delighted by the burning Reichstag. He declared the arson a terrorist act and together with Hindenburg created the "Enabling Act." The "Enabling Act" suspended civil liberties and freedom of the press and gave Goering's police the power to arrest Communists and anyone else deemed a threat to the Nazi Party and Germany. The Third Reich was born. Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider, aka Erik Jan Hanussen, was arrested by a squadron of SA men less than a month later, and a couple weeks afterwards his body was discovered in a forest outside Berlin.

Hanussen's murder was to be one of the first of thousands of unsolved murders in Berlin in the next two years. Goering's State Police was not cited in any of these. The were many reasons why the Nazis would want Hanussen out of the way. SA officers owed him tons of money. He knew way too much about many of their strange afterhours pursuits and sexual predilections. It very was embarrassing to them that they had let a Jew get so close to their inner circle. He published another horoscope of Hitler where he predicted disaster for the Fuhrer. And maybe the most immediately troubling thing for them was that Hanussen obviously had some inside knowledge of the Reichstag arson and was therefore a loose canon who needed to be promptly liquidated. Even though a young Dutch Communist was arrested and tried for the fire, the only ones who stood to gain from the conflagration were the Nazis.  During the trial, the Dutchman appeared dazed or drugged, and people attending the trial said that the young man seemed to be hypnotized or under some kind of spell, which along with Hanussen's startling prediction added to the mystery and conspiratorial aspect of the whole thing. But for many historians Goering is the chief suspect.

Erik Jan Hanussen was buried in a Catholic cemetery. Amazingly, after all the unresolved controversy about his Semitic origins and only about a month before his arrest and execution, Hanussen was formally baptized as a Catholic and inducted into the SA. He was given a uniform and a card certifying his membership in the National Socialist Workers Party. Maybe the Nazis were keeping their friends close and their enemies closer. The whole story of Hanussen seems so strange and implausible. As I said in the beginning of this post, "Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" sounds like a bad joke, and this Rasputin of the Nazis creates a strange dilemma for historians. There was an article on years ago reviewing "Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant," where the author, Mel Gordon, gives his thoughts as to why Hanussen would have tried to befriend and help the Nazis and why the Hanussen story is known to most Germans but almost completely lost to Americans. Below you can listen to the author being interviewed about the book on a radio show.

Well, this "review" is getting mighty long. And just like in Mel Gordon's book you have to slog through a lot of backstory about the man who would become, at least for a very brief period, a sort of spiritual advisor for Adolf Hitler. Erik Jan Hanussen isn't celebrated as a great magician, like Houdini, but for his infamous ties to the Nazis. And even though all the back-story is necessary in a biography, the most interesting part of the book is when Hanussen gets to Berlin and starts hobnobbing with the Nazis. The book includes lots of photos and excerpts from programs and posters and from Hanussen's own writings and essays. Interestingly, a lot of what the stage magician published were essay's debunking stage tricks and what he considered phony magic, which was pretty much the same "magic" he was performing. Gordon paints a picture of a man who often liked to play the part of cynic and disbeliever and seemed to have contempt for his gullible audiences. Hanussen also published things like tests to see if you are a medium or a hypnotist, which are also included in Gordon's book. Below is the first experiment.

What does this have to do with art? Not much really. I don't remember there being any mention of Hanussen schmoozing with Expressionist painters while he was conquering Weimar Berlin's nightlife. However, in my mind I did imagine a portrait done by Max Beckman or Otto Dix. I like Dix's brutally realistic and unflattering portraits of Weimar society. His portraits seem to be mostly satire. Below is Otto Dix's portrait of Erik Jan Hanussen.

"Hanussen's Last Séance", 2013

30" x 24", oil on canvas

Ok, I tried. But Otto Dix did paint a portrait of Anita Berber, and the author of "Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" also wrote a biography of the actress/dancer Anita Berber called "The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity."

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