Hitler's clairvoyant

A new biography tells the bizarre tale of the Jewish psychic who met with the future F

Published February 27, 2002 8:12PM (EST)

In the weeks leading up to Adolf Hitler's appointment as Reichschancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, there was nothing inevitable about the Austrian corporal's ascension to power. Results of the 1932 November Reichstag elections were disappointing for his National Socialist Party, with the Nazis suffering losses in the German parliament while retaining about a third of the seats there.

Nazi coffers had been drained dry by the campaign. Hitler had endured significant defections from his movement and threatened suicide. Some Nazis began to wonder if he had the right stuff to be their Führer.

It was at this point that Hitler, falling back on his belief in the occult, called the most renowned clairvoyant in the land to his headquarters at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin for a private session. The man Hitler met with that day is the subject of a recent biography (the first in the English language), "Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant," by Mel Gordon.

Hanussen, 43 at the time of the Hotel Kaiserhof session, was a man whose name was synonymous with psychic phenomena in Central Europe. The Vienna-born con man/celebrity seer was known for predicting the future, casting prescient horoscopes and astounding audiences with his feats of hypnotism and mind reading. In Berlin, Hanussen was a rock star before there were rock stars, with a vast business enterprise trading on the voracious German hunger for all things paranormal.

Hitler became a Hanussenite when in March of 1932 the psychic's own weekly newspaper, Erik Jan Hanussen's Berliner Wochenschau, printed the startling prophecy that within one year's time the future Führer would become Reichschancellor. Most Berliners scoffed. For many, Hitler was a megalomaniacal clown.

But if the average Berliner thought Hanussen's prognostication absurd, Hitler certainly didn't. When Hanussen came to him that cold day in January, the Nazi leader was filled with dread anticipation, and kept the meeting secret should the results be negative. Hanussen placed Hitler on a seat in the middle of the room, examined his hands, counted the bumps on his head and sank into a mystical trance. The words he spoke filled the Führer with elation, says Gordon.

"I see victory for you," Hanussen said. "It cannot be stopped."

By the end of the month, Hitler had cut a deal with his enemies and become titular head of a coalition government. Hanussen's vision had given him hope in his hour of uncertainty. One can only wonder the intensity of his rage, if the raving anti-Semite had known at the time that the man he had adopted as his personal soothsayer, the chap nicknamed "the Prophet of the Third Reich," the decadent mystic who had just run his hands through his Aryan locks, was in fact ... a Jew. According to Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California at Berkeley and author of such colorful tomes as "The Grand Guignol: The Theater of Horror and Terror," and "Voluptuous Panic: the Erotic World of Weimar Berlin," Hanussen started life as Hermann Steinschneider, with a birth certificate that read "Hebrew male." An unlikely beginning for one destined to become Hitler's favorite fortuneteller.

Gordon's complicated, fascinating tale is one familiar to many Germans, but completely unknown to Americans, save for some devotees of magic who regard Hanussen's name, acquired while his career was in its infancy, with a reverence second only to that of Harry Houdini's. Despite the 1988 film "Hanussen" by Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (starring Klaus Maria Brandauer in the strangely Aryanized title role), and a number of articles written in English by German imigris in the 1930s and '40s, Americans have had almost no exposure to this bizarre tale of a Jew who played the part of psychic advisor to Hitler. No wonder the uninitiated roll their eyes when Gordon starts to talk about it.

"It's like saying, 'Hitler's favorite rabbi,' people are waiting for the punch line," confesses Gordon. "But it's not a joke. Hitler and Hanussen did meet about a dozen times between 1932 and 1933. Of course, if Hitler had known that Hanussen was Jewish, he would have disposed of him as fast as he could have. But it's not so much later that he was disposed of. After the Reichstag fire, everything changed."

The burning of the Reichstag on Feb. 27, 1933, for which German communists took the fall, paved the way for the consolidation of power in Hitler's hands and the suspension of all civil liberties. Eerily, the day before, Hanussen had predicted the event through a medium during the opening soiree of his newly minted pagan temple, the Palace of the Occult, a marble and gold-decked Taj Mahal of the black arts in Berlin decorated with astrological signs and religious statues. There, in the presence of Nazi officials and assorted VIPs, the seer claimed to see a "great house" in flames during a siance in his sanctum sanctorum, the Room of Glass. Hours later, the Reichstag was engulfed in a mysterious conflagration. "The Reichstag fire is such a big story -- the first mystery of WWII. It's still not resolved to this day," says Gordon, "sort of like a European Kennedy assassination question. Did Goebbels somehow have a communist patsy, Marinus van der Lubbe, ignite the Reichstag? Did the communists do it, or is there some other story? Something that started leaking out from the Nazi side from the very beginning was that Hanussen was responsible for it or had something to do with it."

Despite his Semitic origins, Hanussen had extremely close ties to the Nazi party, especially since his fateful augury that Hitler would somehow become Reichschancellor. He had lent hundreds of thousands of marks to high-ranking leaders of the Nazis, like Hermann Goering, and held IOUs from them. He had befriended Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, the sadistic, depraved commander of Berlin's SA, and referred to Hitler as "my pal Adolf." Certainly, Hanussen could have had inside information of a Reichstag plot. Or perhaps he was even more directly involved.

Gordon relates that some conspiracy theorists believe Hanussen may have hypnotized the fall guy van der Lubbe to do his bidding, either with or without the help of Nazi conspirators. As far-fetched as the possibility sounds, one suddenly sees how the presence of Hanussen in this story becomes an uncomfortable dilemma for historians. To dwell too much on Hanussen's involvement smacks of indirectly tainting the primary victims of the Holocaust with assisting in Hitler's takeover of Germany and, subsequently, their own destruction.

Perhaps this was the reason Istvan Szabo's cinematic treatment of the Hanussen tale conveniently omits Hanussen's Jewishness. And it could account for the dearth of information on Hanussen in English-language texts. However, Gordon, who is himself Jewish, asserts his belief that Hanussen somehow participated in a plot to set fire to the Reichstag.

"My personal feeling is that all the evidence points to the fact that at the very least Hanussen was involved or he couldn't have known about it. Unless you believe in clairvoyance, which I don't. The other story is why he was killed. That is, he had to be eliminated because he knew too much," says Gordon.

There were other reasons why the Nazis wanted Hanussen dead. Goebbels and Goering both saw him as an interloper and a potential rival for the Führer's attentions, and there was the little matter of all those IOUs Hanussen had collected. Hanussen also, supposedly, had film footage of SA members involved in homosexual orgies. But perhaps more than anything, it was his Jewishness that made him a liability. The communist press had long published reports that Hanussen was Jewish, but it wasn't until the Reichstag fire bequeathed totalitarian powers to the Nazis and allowed them to eliminate the communists as a threat that they had the time to focus on Hanussen's bloodline.

Hanussen's time was up, and he knew it. In a missive written in invisible ink, he informed a colleague, "I always thought that business about the Jews was just an election trick of theirs. It wasn't." On the morning of March 25, 1933, Hanussen was arrested by the SA and summarily executed. His lifeless body was left in a field on the outskirts of Berlin.

So ended Europe's greatest oracle since Nostradamus. But questions endure. For instance, why would any Jew, even an assimilated Jew, collaborate with a pack of power-mad racists filled with hatred for his people? Moreover, is there some possibility that Hanussen possessed a sixth sense that allowed him to correctly predict Hitler's rise and the Reichstag blaze while blinding him to the inevitable consequences of his own dalliance with the fascists?

"One fellow Jewish clairvoyant Fred Marion asked Hanussen if he was afraid that if the Nazis came to power they would kill him if they found out he was a Jew," says Gordon. "Hanussen told him it was a problem, but that he wanted to convince Hitler that there are good Jews like us who aren't communists or capitalists. A vain thought, but he believed Hitler just needed his friendship to learn that there were good people everywhere."

As for Hanussen's purported extrasensory perception, Gordon ascribes Hanussen's psychic home runs to an amazing perspicacity on the part of "the Prophet of the Third Reich," which evidently failed him when it came to foreseeing his own demise. For Gordon, Hanussen also represents the mania for the occult that swept Germany at this time, as well as the dilemma of assimilated Jews when faced with the virulent anti-Semitism of Nazism.

"It's such a bizarre story that people wonder why they haven't heard of it before. They think it's either a Hitler diaries forgery or some great exaggeration of some tiny little thing of no consequence," says Gordon. "That's why I include so many pictures and inserts from Hanussen publications in the book. In Germany certainly, it's not a lost story, there's all kinds of stuff all the time on it. But in America, the typical person who watches the History Channel is unaware of it. That's why I wrote the book."

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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