I interviewed Arthur J. Magida, author of the Nazi Seance, about a Jewish clairvoyant active in Nazi Germany. We discuss serendipity, critical reading, and sensationalism in the media.
How did the idea for a book on Erik Jan Hanussen come about?
I love the concept of serendipity. It always leads to my next book. That was how I learned about Hanussen. While wandering in a book store in Baltimore that specialized in remainders (I use the past tense because the store is now lamentably closed), I came across a book on the famous Indian rope trick. I bought it — magic has always fascinated me though I lack all skill at it — and while reading it late at night, came across a few paragraphs about a guy who thought he’d solved the trick. His name was new to me — a clairvoyant named Erik Jan Hanussen; the author’s description of him was even newer: a Jew, Hanussen reportedly joined the Nazi Party, conducted seances for Goering & was a psychic consultant for Hitler. I was hooked. The next morning, I began researching the book. The real story was even better than the capsule summary in the book about the Indian rope trick. Better, and more tragic.
What were some of the challenges in writing the book, especially in regards to Hanussen’s self-mythologizing?
This book presented a multitude of challenges. One was the sources I could trust. Hanussen’s autobiography, for example, claimed he ran away from home in his early teens, bounced around from circus to circus, sometimes performing as a clown, a gymnast, a tightrope walker, a lion tamer. Once he even played Judas in a Passion Play. And when he was 13 and living at home, he lowered most of his family’s furniture out the window so he could pawn it and fund his romance with a singer three times his age. Since none of this can be verified, I bring the narrative to a complete stop not too far into The Nazi Seance, and say, “Let us pause for a moment. We’ve heard a lot of bizarre stories from Hanussen. We’ll hear more soon. … All these stories come from Hanussen… A rascal and a scoundrel, he is always the hero of his stories: falling flat on his face, again and again, then redeeming himself… He knew the world was not coming to him for truth. Illusionists and mentalists don’t dabble in truth. As Chekhov said, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” The world was coming to Hanussen for hope–the hope that life is more than what it seems. By granting this gift to Hanussen, his fictions are more than fabrications. They are parables of what might be.” That’s also why I call Hanussen “one of the finest liars in Europe.”
Another challenge was more personal — a confrontation with self and history and a place I always wanted to stay away from. I never wanted to be in the land of the Holocaust, to step foot on the same soil that supported Hitler and Goebbels and Goering and all the other crazed architects of a new world. Three trips to Germany for research changed entirely my fear of Germans and of Germany. And how Germany remembers the Holocaust — its everywhere and its inescapable — convinced me more than ever that we Americans are damaged by severe amnesia about our own sometimes questionable history.
The Nazi Seance is replete with individuals having delusions and self-delusions, along with connivers in the political and entertainment spheres. Can you clarify the differences between delusion and self-delusion? How does this play into the narrative of the German citizens being “conned” by the Nazis and national culpability?
There were few innocents in Germany from 1933-45. Hitler was a genius of delusion; the Germans became savants of self-delusion, submitting themselves, too often willingly and consciously, to this genocidal thug with a bizarre and ungodly talent for mesmerizing the entire continent evil paranoia. Any narrative that claims Hitler “conned” the Germans is a bizarre misreading of history. Hitler could not have reached the apex he did without the compliance of ordinary citizens, savvy generals, sophisticated admirals. To return to magic and “clairvoyance”:Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller, told me, “A magician puts a frame of truth around his lies that prevents them from doing harm.” One of Hanussen’s great failings is that he forgot about constructing that frame: he didn’t warn his audience that what he was doing was an act. The same applies — to a vastly sickening degree more — to Hitler. Both men were great at deceiving. Both presented themselves as the real thing: Hanussen as a mind reader; Hitler as a national messiah and redeemer. Berlin audiences lapped up Hanussen, and no great harm was done. The German “audience” lapped up Hitler, and more than 50 million people died on the battlefield and six million in the ovens.
Another fascinating aspect of the book was its side-discussion in Jewish nationalist groups that were pro-Nazi. Are there any pop history or academic history books available that can shed a light on this strange, to modern eyes, political phenomenon? What’s your opinion on the behavior of these groups?
I don’t know of any books — popular or academic — devoted to this phenomenon. Whatever I know I culled from stray references in thick tomes devoted to other topics. I can say that a number of people in Germany and beyond and of many political stripes thought Hitler would be a passing phase: a necessary, if tough, measure to strengthen the decrepit German economy. I also know — to get back to the “skill” Hanussen trafficked in — that its easy for us to be historically clairvoyant backwards – to know in hindsight what was about to happen. But to claim that the people of the time were struthian – an admittedly obscure word that means ostrich-like, which then implies that these people had their head in the sand – is really hubris of a high degree. Most of us are lucky if we get through the day fully aware of what we’re doing; most of us make moral compromises all the time. Living in the shadow of the looming Third Reich, few people knew exactly what to anticipate. And few you can be sure, knew the proper way, the right way, the best way to respond.
In an era of cheap sensationalism and shoddy research – I’m thinking specifically of the History Channel’s glut of anti-Freemason hysteria masquerading as historical documentaries following the Da Vinci Code – how can readers be smarter consumers?
You’ve hit the nail on the head! In a culture when facts and fiction merge, when “politicians” invent data on the spot, when “scientists” reject proof because it doesn’t jibe with their ideology, when “reporters” and “pundits” revert to fantasy and make-believe, we may have two choices: treat everything as entertainment and never as gospel. But then we risk being dumb because, surely, there’s a kernel of truth in something. We’re just not sure what it is. Or we can do the extra legwork and brainwork that we expect of the “experts” though that, I admit, requires more energy, time, thought and knowledge that most of us can commit. Its a conundrum, I admit.
What are important things to keep in mind when critically reading a book, TV show, movie, or museum exhibit that asserts it is historically truthful?
Consider the source, and its agenda — everyone has one. Attempt to draw the distinction between entertainment, infotainment and knowledge that’s reasonably balanced. Everyone has a bias. (I have mine as I’m writing this.) Just because someone’s bias is closer to yours, though, doesn’t mean he or she is credible. Could just mean they’re terrific liars.
Any words of advice to aspiring historians and investigative journalists wanting to tackle aspects of history that are either disreputable and/or susceptible to sensationalism?
Keep your bearings and your moral compass. Question every source, very motive, every assertion, every claim, every comma, even every semi-colon, which I ordinarily like. Everything, when you think about it, is susceptible to sensationalism. I’m sure we could find some perceived shred of scandal in, say, Emily Dickinson’s closeted life or Clara Barton’s saintly deeds on the frontlines at Antietam. Scandal, backstabbing and mud-slinging lurk everywhere. Our duty isn’t to ignore it — or to zealously peddle it. Our job is to gauge the evidence, to know when it, indeed, holds truth. And then to decide the benefit or risk of embracing that truth since truth — hallowed and venerated — isn’t the sole arbiter of value. Truth has a moral fallout. I’m not promoting whitewashing. I’m asking for sensitivity to the manner in which we disseminate truth, and to the pieces of truth we decide to champion.