On Friday April 7th, 1933, a farm worker named Mathias Hummel stumbled across a shoe attached to an ankle sticking from the ground in a small wood some twenty miles outside Berlin.
Several days of heavy rain had washed away the covering of top-soil partially uncovering a shallow grave. From it the police disinterred the corpse of a well-built male in his forties. He had been shot three times at close range. While his vermin ravaged face was hard to recognise, a label in his expensive jacket identified him as Eric Jan Hanussen.
Hanussen’s SA killers buried his body in a shallow grave in the Staakower woods.
In previous blogs I have described the precarious life of this celebrity clairvoyant, and Moravian Jew, who found fame and fortune in 1930’s Berlin where he masqueraded as a Danish aristocrat.
Eric Jan Hanussen, clairvoyant, astrologer, magician, hypnotist, medi tycoon and Hitler’s friend
In an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, Hanussen, a multimillionaire show business star and media tycoon, loaned large sums to senior SA members, befriended Hitler and promoted the National Socialist cause in his newspapers.
If, by these means he had hoped his life would be spared once the Nazis came to power, he was sadly and fatally mistaken.
A raincoat clad Hanussen stands behind Hitler and to his right
The Case is Opened and Immediately Closed
Kriminalrat Mölders, the officer in charge of the murder enquiry, had on his desk a missing person’s report, filed on March 26th by Elizabeth Heine, the clairvoyant’s personal assistant. Mölders summonsed Heine to identify the body which, with difficulty due to its condition, she managed to do. More than thirty years later she still vividly recalled that her former employer’s face: ‘bore an expression of absolute horror’.
No sooner had the body had been identified than, on orders from Goebbels, the police investigation was closed. No suspects were questioned and no forensics examinations carried out.
Why was Hanussen Murdered?
The most obvious answer is that he was a Jew. In Nazi Germany, no other reason was necessary and Hanussen had a high profile. Although he had initially been able to persuade many of his SA friends he was a Danish aristocrat, by 1933 the truth was widely known.
Several newspapers had published articles attacking the ‘Rasputin of the Reich’ and providing details of his ancestry. A few months earlier, the SS newspaper, Der Angriff (The Attack), had run a story about the ‘Czech Jew Hanussen’.
In a further attempt to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, Hanussen had not only become a Party member but, according to what his daughter told me, been baptised into the Catholic church.
At the same time, he was making secret arrangements to transfer his business and his wealth to Vienna. According to his daughter, Erika Steinschneider-Fuchs, known through marriage, as Baroness Winspeare, told me that her father well knew he was living on borrowed time.
I interview Erika Steinschneider-Fuchs, Baroness Winspeare, about her father’s life and death
If Hanussen was not killed for being Jewish, there are several this of other reasons why prominent National Socialists might want him dead.
As I explained in my previous blog, following the lessons he had learned in the ‘twenties whilst working for Der Blitz, he used compromising photographs and recordings made using his hidden cameras and microphones to blackmail people in power, for either financial enrichment or political favours. Perhaps one of the men he had threatened with exposure had decided to remove him and the reputational risk he posed.
Another strong possibility is that the high-ranking Nazis who were deeply in debt to the wealthy clairvoyant, were seeking a brutal way to write off his loans to them. Locked away in Hanussen’s safe were promissory notes, amounting to many thousands of marks, not only from Count von Helldorf but other senior Nazis including Karl Ernst, Sturmbannführer Wilhelm Ohst and even SA boss Ernst Röhm.
SA boss Ernst Röhm with Adolf Hitler. Hanussen had loaned him money and wanted the debt repaid
Shortly before 8pm on the evening of 24th March 1933, Eric left his apartment enroute to La Scala. His act, which took up the whole of the second half, did not start for an hour. This gave him time for a quick drink at the Grüner Zweig (Green Branch), a favourite show business meeting place.
While sipping a brandy he was approached by Toni Ott, the bar’s owner and an old acquaintance from his Vienna days. Ott warned him that two SA men had been asking questions about his routine. This was not the first warning he had received within the past twenty-four hours. Only that morning he had bumped into one of his former mistresses, Baroness Prawitz, who begged him to leave Berlin immediately. A few hours later another female friend telephoned him with the same urgent advice.
Having finished his drink, Hanussen continued on to the theatre. He had only gone a few yards down the street when he was stopped by a man who asked if he was Eric Hanussen. Thinking it was another autograph hunter, the clairvoyant was about to move away when a car carrying two men pulled up beside him. Informed he was under arrest, Hanussen initially refused to take the matter seriously. Just how serious it was the clairvoyant was not long in finding out.
After a drive of some four miles, the car arrived at a former military barracks recently requisitioned by the S.A. for use as a temporary prison. Once there, Hanussen was taken, not to one of the thirteen squalid cells in the dank cellar, but to a brightly lit office on the first-floor. Having made a rapid but fruitless search of his apartment before taking him to prison, his interrogators were interested in only one thing – the whereabouts of the IOUs. Despite threats and beatings, he remained stubbornly silent, probably reasoning these notes were the only leverage he had. The longer he could keep them out of the Nazis’ grasp the less likely they were to kill him.
By midnight, realising his bluff had been called, an exhausted Hanussen agreed to hand them over. Bruised and battered he was driven back to his apartment for what, he knew, would only a brief reprieve. Once home, Hanussen wasted no time in retrieving the IOUs and surrendering them. As soon as the SA men left the clairvoyant telephoned Fritzi, an ex-wife with whom he was still on good terms, and begged her to contact a lawyer. Before he could explain matters further the line went dead.
Hanussen Writes a Letter
An illusionist to the last, he sat down and penned a letter, in invisible ink, to Erich Juhn his manager with whom he had fallen out asking that they be ‘friends again.’
After admitting: ‘I wasn’t as shrewd as I thought, nor as stupid as you believed. But stupid enough…’ he went on to describe how the SA had beaten him half to death. ‘But half isn’t enough for them. I know that without going into a trance. I always thought that business about Jews was just an election trick for the Nazis (It wasn’t). Read carefully what the prophet Daniel has to say on the subject in chapters 11 and 12. Count the days, but only after they have destroyed a hundred temples in a single day – that’s the time to start counting. The first date you get will mark the fall of the man who wants to become the ruler of the world by brute force. And the second date will mark the day on which will occur the triumphal entry of the victors. This is my farewell to you.’
On the same sheet, he wrote the recipient’s name in ordinary ink. Because, apart from this, the paper appeared blank it was ignored by the SA men when they returned a few of hours later.
Death of a Clairvoyant
The Nazis ransacked his apartment and ripped out the telephone before dragging him back to Pape-Strasse. This time he was taken not to an office but one of the filthy underground cells where three SA officers, Rudolf Steinle, Kurt Egger and Ohst were waiting. Before Hanussen could beg for mercy, each took it in turns to shoot him at close range. Two bullets entered his brain and he fell dead instantly. His corpse was driven out of the city and buried in a shallow grave in the Staakower woods. Ohst then telephoned his superior, Karl Ernst, to announce that the clairvoyant was no more.
How News of Hanussen’s Death Was Received
In her diary for April 3rd, 1933, the Jewish journalist Bella Fromm noted sourly: ‘Jan Hanussen, the stargazer and astrologer, fell into the hands of the self-styled ‘sizzling souls of the people’. He has been slain. Goering’s order. He has paid for his treachery in lending his hand to bring about the destruction of innocent people. When they had no more use for him, he was ruthlessly liquidated. It’s strange that his familiar stars did not tell him that.’
Hanussen’s murder received little coverage in the German media. The National Socialist Völkischer Beobachter reported a dead body had been found under mysterious circumstances and went on: ‘The unidentified man was discovered by workmen in forest plantation between Neuhof and Baruth. The corpse, savagely mauled by game, thus unidentifiable, appears to have laid there for days and no personal papers were found on the man. The Berlin police crime squad assigned a commission to investigate the discovery. An unconfirmed rumour claims the dead body is that of clairvoyant Hanussen.’ Der Angriff, the Nazi paper published by Joseph Goebbels, reported that: ‘The body of a Jew was found in an evergreen grove on the road from Bayreuth to Neuhof. He had been shot to death. His face was unrecognisable. At the morgue, he was identified as Hermann Steinschneider who, under the name of Hanussen had a certain Vogue in Berlin as a clairvoyant.’
Foreign Press Pay More Attention
Outside Germany, press coverage was more extensive with most European newspapers blaming the killing on the Nazis. The New York Times described the dead man as ‘an adviser to royalty’ while a headline in the Syracuse Herald proclaimed: ‘Bullets End Amazing Career of Hanussen Germany’s Rasputin.’
When no one claimed Hanussen’s body it was initially buried, by the State, in a cheap pine coffin and a pauper’s grave. Only later were his remains reburied in the far more elegant Stahnsdorf cemetery outside Berlin.
Today, his grave is marked by a roughly hewn lump of rock bearing his name but no other information, no dates of birth and death and no mention of his stella show business career.
While the cemetery appears somewhat rundown, with undergrowth obstructing the myriad pathways criss-crossing between tomb stones, the grave itself is carefully maintained and regularly visited by sightseers.
Hanussen’s simple, granite, gravestone in Stahnsdorf cemetry
For full details of Hanussen’s extraordinary life and savage death see my new book Triumph of the Will? How Two Men Hypnotised Hitler and Changed the World.
In my next blog I will be examining the role of airpower in World War 1, describing how the British Air Force selected their fighting machines, discussing the extraordinary career of Baron Manfred von Richthoven, the famous “Red Baron’ and showing a unique film of the German air ace in action.