He was a charming and charismatic clairvoyant. A celebrity showman in 1930’s Berlin, a millionaire media tycoon, friend of high-ranking Nazis, financier of the brown-shirted S.A. storm troopers and mentor to Adolf Hitler.
Calling himself Eric Jan Hanussen he professed to be a Danish citizen and aristocrat.
He was, in fact, Erik Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider, an Austrian born Moravian Jew whose association with Hitler and subsequent brutal death ranks as one of the most bizarre and least known stories from the Nazi era.
Who Was Hanussen?
Erik Jan Hanussen was the illegitimate son of Julie Cohen the only daughter of Sami Cohen, a wealthy orthodox Jewish fur importer, and Siegfried Steinschneider a bit player at the Theater am Wien.
He first saw the light of day on June 2, 1889, in the holding cell of a jail in Vienna’s notoriously rough Ottakring district.
Furious that his daughter having conceived a child out of wedlock and run off with a ‘Schmierekomödiant’ (a grease paint artist and flim-flam merchant) Julie’s father had had her arrested on trumped-up charges just as she was about to give birth.
When he learned of the child, a penitent Sami had Julie and her son released from jail and chauffeured back to the luxurious family home.
But Siegfried Steinschneider’s attractions proved too strong a lure for the girl and after just a few nights she returned to her lover’s arms.
This time the break with her family proved permanent. Sami refused to speak to her ever again or even allow any mention her name.
Vienna’s notoriously rough Ottakring district where Erik grew up
Erik’s Poverty-Stricken Childhood
As a result, the boy was condemned to a childhood of penury in one of Vienna’s roughest districts. At 14, he ran away from home. Once story has it, with a forty-five-year old soubrette from the local music hall!
This may or may not be true. Where the Hanussen story is concerned it’s hard to separate the facts from the fictions he told about his early life.
For the next eleven years, Erik wandered the country earning a meagre living from a wide variety of show business jobs. He was an actor, singer, comedian and the magician. He even worked in a circus, so he claimed, as a lion tamer.
Erik Goes to War
A reluctant conscript in the First War, Erik avoided front line duties by performing for his fellow soldiers a baffling series of tricks, illusions and clairvoyance.
In one trick, he would bring volunteers onto the stage and tell them things which only they could know about their personal life and family circumstances.
The secret was simple.
He bribed the postal clerk to hold back their letters, read them and extracted information. Then fed this back to them as a demonstration of his clairvoyant abilities.
A Lifetime of Psychic Ability
In his dubious biography, Erik described how, while still a small child, he had awoken from a deep sleep and been compelled by some ‘inner force’ to race across the street to the house of their landlord with whose daughter, Erna, he often played.
Dragging the little girl from her bed he ran with her to a nearby cemetery where he pulled her down behind the cover of a tombstone. A few moments later the landlord’s house exploded in flames.
On stage, Hanussen demonstrated his impressive ‘clairvoyant’ abilities by means of illusions, suggestion and the judicious use of coded messages exchanged with stooges planted in the audiences.
Erik Becomes a Celebrity & Media Mogul
Eric Hanussen – clairvoyant, magician, hypnotist and millionaire media tycoon
After an uncertain start, his show business career blossomed and by the late ‘twenties he had become not only a wealthy and celebrated stage performer, but a successful businessman and newspaper owner with a talent for providing the reading public with a compelling mixture of gossip and superstitious nonsense.
Hanussen knew that the typical reader of one his newspapers was far more interested in learning magic formulas for magnetic healing or how to achieve luck with women through hypnotic suggestion.
His tabloids would run stories about child prostitutes, conspiracy stories about the kidnapping of Charles Lindenberg’s child, Tog, the ‘telepathic’ dog and astrological predictions.
One of Hanussen’s best selling tabloids
Hanussen – ‘The Man Who is Never Wrong.’
Dubbed the ‘man who is never wrong,’ by the Berlin press, he specialised in making dramatic and headline grabbing predictions in order to gain personal publicity.
On May 15, 1932, for example, he held a dinner party to which he invited Princess Lobkowicz, the mother of a rising young racing driver Prince Leo Lobkowicz and an old friend. At the last moment the Princess telephoned to say she would be unable to attend since her son, who was to take part in a forthcoming Avus Automobile Tournament, had been taken ill with stomach cramps and she wanted to remain at home with the young man.
Hanussen called a press conference at which he predicted that the Prince, who was the hot favourite to win the race, would be involved in a serious accident. The journalists, who then regarded Hanussen as a charlatan, treated this prediction as a joke. But when, on May 22, the Prince was killed after his Buggatti spun out of control and rolled down a steep bank, they were forced to revise their opinion.
From then on, a significant proportion of both press and public started to take his predictions seriously and his seemingly inexplicable powers became the talk of the city.
A Life of Luxury
As his wealth and fame grew, Hanussen lived a life of increasing luxury and debauchery. Actresses, singers, dancers, wealthy Berlin business tycoons and high-ranking Nazis attended the extravagant and sexually explicit parties that he hosted on his private yacht, the Ursel.
Among the latter was Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf. The black sheep of a wealthy and aristocratic Prussian family, Helldorf was a former Free Corps officer and extreme nationalist who had joined the National socialists in 1925. By 1931, he had been promoted to a senior officer in the SA. Later he would become Police President of Berlin.
A sadistic libertine, Helldorf met Hanussen – who had by this time obtained forged papers stating he was a Danish citizen – after seeing him perform at La Scala, Berlin’s top theatre. Helldorf quickly became not only one of Hanussen’s most fervent admirers but also a close friend.
Hanussen’s daughter, who last saw her father when aged 12. In her Italian care home she told me about her father’s flamboyant lifestyle
Sex, Drugs and Sadism on Hanussen’s Luxury Yacht
Among the Ursel’s crew was a 14-year-old Indian boy named Kabir whose job it was to hand out towels to the nude bathers as they swam back to the yacht. After a female guest complained that the boy had stared at her breasts while handing her the towel, Helldorf ordered Kabir to be taken below, stripped naked and tied to a table. The SA man then flogged him with a hunting crop, beating the screaming lad so strenuously that the youngster fainted from pain.
The brutality of this assault horrified many of the other guests who implored him to stop. Finally flinging down his hunting crop Helldorf yelled at them: “I’m a sadist! I admit it. We’re all sadists! In the SA, my friends, one must learn to be desensitized to petty human compassion.”
Hanussen Funds the Nazis
To keep in with the National Socialists, Hanussen started lending increasingly large sums of money to what was, at that time, an impoverished political party.
By 1932, faced with bills from the April election, the NSDAP was virtually bankrupt. Wages in the SA had been slashed to such penurious levels that Röhm’s troops were often obliged to attend Communist run soup kitchens in order to avoid starvation. Even the previously wealthy Count Helldorf was in deep financial trouble having run up more than 300,000 Marks in gambling debts.
Hanussen not only paid off all these debts but also loaned him his brand new Buggatti so that he could drive to the bank and settle his overdraft in style.
Predicting Hitler’s Rise to Power
On March 23 1932, Hanussen’s Berliner Wochenschau, gave front page prominence to his prophecy that Adolf Hitler, who was still an Austrian citizen, would be appointed Reich Chancellor in exactly one year’s time.
Following publication of this prediction Hitler, who like his followers believed Hanussen to be Danish, sent him a note expressing his gratitude.
It was the start of a relationship in which the clairvoyant coached Hitler in the arts of showmanship, hypnosis and theatrical oratory.
Hanussen standing behind Hitler and to his right
According to Nazi Otto Strasser: “Hitler took regular lessons in speaking and in mass psychology from a man named Hanussen, who was also a practicing astrologer and fortune teller. He was an extremely clever individual who taught Hitler a great deal concerning the importance of staging meetings to obtain the greatest dramatic effect. As far as can be learned, he never had any particular interest in the movement or any say on what course it should follow”.
Hitler Was Not a Born Orator
When, in October 1920, Adolf Hitler addressed his first large crowd in the Hofbräuhaus Keller he had experienced humiliating failure. Anxiety and his lack of public speaking experience left him floundering at the mercy of an increasingly hostile and restive audience. For one observer at least, the future dictator’s floundering attempts it revealed a complete lack of talent for public speaking.
Hitler needed a Svengali and, in Eric Hanussen he found one.
Under his tutelage Hitler learned to ‘read’ an audience, to manipulate their emotions and fire them with his own unshakeable passion and resolve. Before long he was able, in the words of one observer, to: ‘play like a virtuoso on the well-tempered piano of lower-middle class hearts.’
Hitler practicing the gestures and expressions Hanussen taught him
Hanussen’s Supported Hitler to Survive
In making these loans to NSDAP funds and senior Nazis, Hanussen was motivated by a mixture of greed and fear rather than any sympathy with Nazi ideology. When asked by one for his impression of the Führer, for example, he sneered: “Adolf looks more like an unemployed hair-dresser than a Caesar!”
Inside the House of Glass
A few months before his life came to an abrupt and brutal end, Hanussen spent a fortune on the design and construction of his elaborate ‘Palace of Clairvoyance’ known to Berliners’, because of its vast windows, as ‘The House of Glass’ on one of Berlin’s plushest boulevards.
On Monday 27 February, Hanussen held a séance at the House of Glass, during which he predicted that a ‘great building’ would shortly go up in flames. Two days later, one did.
Hanussen holds a seance in the House of Glass
In the short film clip I discuss Hanussen’s role in mentoring Hitler. The psychic is played by an actor.
At 9.15 on the night of Monday 27 February, Detective Inspector Helmut Heisig of the Berlin Police Department received a phone call reporting the Reichstag parliament building was ablaze.
The day following the fire, Hitler enacted an emergency decree ‘for the Protection of the People and the State.’
This swept away all the constitutional protection afforded to political, personal, and property rights. A few weeks later, on March 23, they used the ‘outrage’ to pressure President Hindenburg and the Nationalists Party to pass, by a vote of 444 to 94, an Enabling Act whereby all of parliament’s legislative powers were transferred to the Reich Cabinet, so by the stroke of a pen creating Hitler’s dictatorship.
Freed from parliamentary control and scrutiny, Göring’s police could now arrest and imprison anyone they perceived as an enemy of their regime.
Hanussen’s Violent Death
On the evening of Friday, 24 March, Hanussen was arrested enroute for his 9 o’clock performance at La Scala. Accused of being a Communist supporter he was driven, in his own red Buggatti, to Gestapo headquarters on General Pape Strasse.
When, after two hours of brutal interrogation, the performer was allowed back to his ransacked apartment, he knew it was only a respite.
An illusionist to the last, he sat down and wrote to a friend using invisible ink. ‘Yesterday they beat me till I was half dead,’ he noted. ‘But half isn’t enough for them. I know that without going into a trance…’ concluding sadly. ‘his is my farewell to you.’
Because, except for an address, the paper appeared blank it was ignored by the brown-shirts who arrived to drag him back to Gestapo headquarters. There he was shot at point blank range and died instantly. His body was stripped and dumped in a field north of Berlin.
A fortnight later, on March 23, a farmer stumbled across his partly buried corpse. The body had been so ravaged by vermin that Elizabeth Heine, a friend and business partner, was barely able to recognise her former employer. Decades Heine, who died in 1960, said she was still haunted by the expression on his face. It was, she recalled: ‘Fixed in a look of absolute horror.’