CCLaP Fridays: The Nazi Seance, by Arthur J. Magida


During the Twenties and Thirties, Erik Jan Hanussen amazed crowds with his mind reading abilities. Hanussen, the stage name for Hermann Steinschneider, was born in 1889 when Vienna was the capital of the multiethnic empire of Austria-Hungary. After a life of poverty, Steinschneider took to the stage, eventually changed his name to Erik Jan Hanussen and sought fame and fortune in Weimer-era Berlin. Hanussen claimed he was a Danish aristocrat and amassed vast wealth. Arthur J. Magida, the award-winning journalism professor at Georgetown University and writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore, writes a highly readable and highly entertaining book chronicling the life and death of Erik Jan Hanussen.

The Nazi Seance: the strange story of the Jewish psychic in Hitler’s circle seems like a sensational title worthy of History Channel bottom-feeders. This could have been something high on speculative hysterics and low on facts. Magida does a brilliant job separating fact from fiction. Not an easy task with someone like Hanussen, who baffled his audiences with acts of deception and manufactured a personal mythology that reads like a mashup of Horatio Alger and The Prestige.

As the Weimer Republic suffered the economic devastation of the Great Depression and hyperinflation, its political situation, always tenuous at best, began to devolve into anarchy. Communists and Nazis fought in the streets. Each tried to exploit the atrocities of the other, most notably in the Reichstag fire. In a brilliant passage, Magida ably parses the half-baked conspiracy theories of both the Nazis and the Communists. He debunks The Brown Book, a piece of Communist literature meant to indict the Nazis, as pure fabrication. (An indictment all the more damning since the great novelist Arthur Koestler was one of the authors.) Magida explains, “History is messy. The Reichstag fire is messy. And politics is always messy, particularly its cavalier attitude towards truth. With the fire, each side – the left and the right – devised a narrative that suited its purpose. Both narratives, to some extent, were preposterous.” Every citizen concerned with their civil liberties should remember this. With the Internet making it easy for the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements to declare they know the solution to all the world’s problems, it becomes easy to forget how messy history is and how it can be hijacked by extremist sideshow clowns.

At the height of his fame and wealth, Erik Jan Hanussen befriended Count Wolfgang Heinrich von Helldorf. Count Helldorf came to head the SA in Berlin. (The Sturmabteilung were the elite bodyguard units of the Nazi Party.) Unlike his other working class counterparts in the SA, Count Helldorf came from the Prussian military aristocracy. As a bankrupt aristocrat prone to gambling, Helldorf came to Hanussen to bail him out of his debts. Magida follows the money to stranger places. It turns out that Hanussen bankrolled the SA, the very same paramilitary thugs who harassed Jews, Communists, and anyone else unfit in the eyes of the Nazis. As Helldorf’s stormtroopers marched down the Berlin streets, chanting for the death of “banker Jews,” their boots were paid for by Hanussen. In the end, Hanussen was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives, the bloody Nazi purge by the SS to defang the SA.

For anyone looking for a sober account of Nazism and the occult should read The Nazi Seance. I’m giving this book a high score, not only because it is a page-turner and well-researched history, but also because Magida achieves the impossible. He writes about a sensational topic and shows that historical truth trumps irresponsible speculation and tabloid hysteria.

Out of 10/9.5

Bonus video:

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