As World War I left Berlin devastated, a depressed and bewildered citizenry turned to the occult for comfort — private seances and one-on-one psychic readings provided a sense that the tragically dead weren’t completely out of reach, and a much needed escape from reality. In the early 1930s, Erik Jan Hanussen, a famous Jewish-German mind reader, gained eerie and unlikely entree into Hitler’s inner circle. Eager to please the fuhrer, Hanussen transformed his life and changed his occult publication into a Nazi propaganda rag. Ultimately, Hanussen’s psychic knowing wasn’t enough to save his life… Want to learn more? You can hear the rare nonfiction author Arthur Magida, a writer in residence at UB, discuss his book on Hanussen, The Nazi Seance (Pallgrave Macmillan), at the Ivy Friday evening at 7.
“The Nazi Seance is my third book about controversial and unsavory characters,” Magida says. “Others with this theme include The Rabbi and The Hit Man , the true story of a New Jersey rabbi who was given life imprisonment for hiring two hit men to kill his wife; and Prophet of Rage , the first and still — more than a decade after it appeared — the only biography of the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan.”
I talked to Magida about his attraction to antiheroes and his interpretation of Hanussen’s tricky psychology.
How did you first discover and become fascinated by Erik Jan Hanussen?
I’ve always been interested in magic, though I have no abilities in that vein. While reading a book about the famous Indian rope trick late at night a few years ago, I was bolted wide awake by a vague reference to a man who thought he’d solved the trick — Erik Jan Hanussen, who the author of the book I was reading identified as “Hitler’s Jewish clairvoyant.” That description defied logic. I began researching Hanussen the next day.
As Rabbi David Geffen points out in a review, you’ve said that “the chaos at the center of life” is an ongoing theme in your writing. What draws you to this complex place that seemingly lacks answers?
A place with no answers is more intriguing than one with them. Life is a mystery. Magic is a mastery. Hanussen (and other people I’ve written about) are mysteries. Why settle for the easy and the pat when you can wrangle with the difficult and the complex, which is usually the unknowable?
Speaking of answers, can you begin to explain, in a couple of lines or so, how did Hanussen find a home among the Jew-hating Nazis? And how (psychologically) could he live with himself during the time that he did?
Hanussen’s alliance with the Nazis was mutually beneficial. The head of the Storm troopers in Berlin was always in debt; Hanussen often bailed him out. And when the entire Storm trooper operation was almost bankrupt in 1932, Hanussen provided them with boots, food, even loaned them his limos. In return, these thugs — who didn’t know Hanussen was Jewish until late 1932 — made sure Hanussen was safe from the frequent street fighting between Nazis and communists and that no loud-mouthed cynics interrupted his shows, for which he needed complete concentration. Hanussen thought he could con the Nazis just like he’d conned audiences throughout Europe with his “clairvoyance.” He was wrong.