The Jewish Psychic Who Tricked Hitler

Erik Jan Hanussen looked out at the sea of bewildered, startled faces and knew he had them. It was the mid-1920s, and Hanussen was playing to sold-out audiences in Berlin, where curious crowds would assemble to see if his reputation as one of the world’s foremost mentalists was warranted.

Hanussen pointed to a woman in the crowd and told her she had a broken mirror in her pocketbook. Then he recited her home address. The lady gasped and nodded. He was undeniably accurate on both counts.

It helped that a co-conspirator collecting tickets for the show had peered into the woman’s purse, and seen the mirror; it was also useful to compare the number on her ticket to a logbook that a local hotel had used for the addresses of attendees. The methods were practical, but Hanussen's theatrical flair transformed them into something sensational. He was a showman, a onetime carnival boy who learned hypnosis and psychic parlor games that would eventually make him the toast of Berlin.

But Hanussen wasn’t content with wealth and fame. Sensing the rising influence of the Nazi party, the mentalist ingratiated himself into the Reich by befriending storm troopers and eventually finding a seat as a confidant of Adolf Hitler himself. In a divided Berlin, Hanussen's powerful friends could assure his safety. His ego told him he could manipulate them as easily as he did the civilians who marveled at his stage presence.

But Hanussen’s plan had one fatal flaw: He was not of Danish ancestry, as he claimed, but Jewish. Once that was uncovered, no sleight of hand would be able to keep him from the wrath of the dangerous men he foolishly thought he could control. 

Hanussen hosting a seance. GruselTour-Leipzig

The son of poverty-stricken parents, Hanussen was born Hermann Steinschneider in Vienna, Austria, in 1889. His youth was chronicled in an autobiography he would publish in 1930, a point where his legend had long overtaken any objective history. To hear Hanussen tell it, he displayed early signs of clairvoyance during his childhood, with a restless nature pushing him into the circus as a teenager. At 14, he supposedly captured the heart of a 45-year-old woman and ran off with her before heading for Turkey and convincing sailors he was an opera singer.

Hanussen decided to change his name during World War I, when he began entertaining small theaters in Vienna and wanted to avoid being labeled a deserter. Throughout the war, he had impressed his fellow soldiers by steaming open letters, reading confidential information, then re-sealing the envelopes and announcing his mental powers had brought news from home. 

By the 1920s, Hanussen had migrated to Berlin, a then-bustling metropolis that embraced psychic performances. Hanussen’s shows combined mentalism, mind-reading, and feats like finding objects hidden in theaters while blindfolded. Though some observers criticized Hanussen for being a fraud, they were usually drowned out by spectators, who came in droves to see his tricks.

Because Hanussen insisted he was the genuine article, he left himself open to the occasional legal challenge. When he visited the Czech Republic in 1928, he was arrested for defrauding the public out of funds. It took nearly two years for courts to decide Hanussen was something approaching a legitimate seer, a ruling that came after he performed for the presiding—and gullible—judge.

Back in Berlin, Hanussen’s Danish cover and great wealth were looked upon favorably by the Reich, who had been involved in a struggle for political power that was reaching a boiling point. Hanussen entertained Nazi officers on his private boat, in limousines, and at his palatial apartment. Through a weekly newsletter he published, Hanussen had flattered the regime with predictions of Hitler’s rise to power and extolled the virtues of a Nazi-led higher office. “The stars tell us Hitler’s days are coming up,” read one headline.

The Nazis had other reasons to favor Hanussen: They liked gambling, and they were often in debt. One officer, Count Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, was named on several IOUs held by Hanussen, who had loaned the head of the storm troopers a considerable sum to cover his gambling losses. In doing so, Hanussen felt he could grease the wheels with Helldorf in the event Berlin was consumed by either the Jewish-loathing Nazi party or the communist opposition that incited violence.

Hanussen’s sympathies found favor at the very top of the Reich. At the height of his fame in the 1920s, he met Hitler in the restaurant at the Hotel Kaiserhof, where the Führer had taken up residence. With his Jewish name abandoned and his officer friends endorsing him, Hanussen had no reason to arouse any suspicions. By some accounts, he conferred with Hitler a dozen times between 1932 and 1933, evaluating the bumps on his head, reading his palms, and reassuring the dictator that his rise to power was inevitable. When in-person meetings were difficult, the two spoke on the phone.

In his mind, Hanussen may have believed his charm could eventually get Hitler to see another side of the Jewish faith—one that could aid him in his pursuits. It would prove to be a poor prediction.

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As Hanussen continued to perform both publicly and privately, he found himself under fire from local newspaper commentators who shared the Czech concern that he was defrauding the public. One paper published the accusation that he was not Danish, but Jewish. A rattled Hanussen tried to reframe the narrative and insisted he had merely been adopted by Jewish parents.

It was too late. The charge was discovered by Nazi officials, who now had every reason to doubt Hanussen’s blood. It was ambiguous enough that he wasn’t ostracized immediately, but the small talk among officers was grave: They were in debt to a Jewish man.

Hanussen dug himself in deeper following the fire at Reichstag in February 1933. The blaze, which consumed Nazi territory, was said to be the work of Communists. The day before, Hanussen had hinted of “a great blaze” that would dramatically impact the area. It was theorized that he had gotten word of the arson—which was never solved—from Helldorf, who might have known of plans for the Germans to set the fire and frame Nazi opposition in order to obtain complete control over civil liberties. It also meant Hanussen couldn’t be trusted with any confidential information.

On March 24, 1933, Hanussen was late for a performance. As stagehands scrambled to find him, he was hustled from his apartment by storm troopers and shaken down for his IOUs. Once they had been retrieved, officers shot him three times and left his body in a forest, where it was discovered by lumberjacks. He was 43.

Hanussen had tried to co-opt the rising Nazi power for his own purposes. It was a fool’s errand, and one he tried to insure by believing the Nazis could overlook his heritage because he offered financial favors. Before his death, Hanussen had written to a friend that he considered their Jewish persecution to be an “election trick.” For his critics, it was one final bit of proof that he certainly couldn’t read minds.

Additional Sources: The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

iStock.com/westernphotographs
iStock.com/westernphotographs

Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

13 Facts About Charlemagne

A representation of Charlemagne from the Cathedral of Moulins, France
A representation of Charlemagne from the Cathedral of Moulins, France
Vassil, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Between 768 and 814 CE, Charlemagne—also known as Karl or Charles the Great—ruled an empire that spanned most of Western Europe. After years of relentless warfare, he presided over present-day France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other territories. The Carolingian Renaissance (a revival named for the dynasty founded by Charlemagne's grandfather) rose out of the bloodshed, with an accelerated artistic and literary output that both celebrated antiquity and pushed for a newly standardized Christian culture. Nevertheless, the might of this empire rested on Charlemagne alone, and after his death it quickly fell apart. Here are 13 facts about the first Holy Roman Emperor.

1. HIS FATHER WASN'T BORN A KING.

Charlemagne's father, Pepin III—often called Pepin the Short—was mayor of the palace (administrator of the royal court) before he was named the first King of the Franks. After a concerted campaign to become ruler, Pepin finally became king in 751, and three years later was officially anointed by the pope, who at the same time anointed Pepin's sons Carloman and Charles (the future Charlemagne) with the holy oil that demonstrated their special status. Pepin III served until 768.

2. HIS BROTHER DIED SOON AFTER BECOMING CO-KING.

After Pepin III died, Charlemagne shared power with his younger brother Carloman, with the two acting as joint kings. It wasn't a smoothly shared reign, however, as evidenced by a 769 episode in which Carloman seemed to undermine Charlemagne's authority by refusing to assist in quashing a revolt in Aquitane. Then, Carloman suddenly died in 771.

Exactly how Carloman perished so conveniently is mysterious. The most common account is that he died of a nosebleed, though what caused it is a matter of debate, with one historian proposing a peptic ulcer as the underlying issue. Whatever the cause, after his death Charlemagne concentrated all of Carloman’s land and power and became the sole King of the Franks.

3. HE IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF EUROPE.

As the King of the Franks, Charlemagne set out on an ambitious and bloody campaign to expand his territory. By the time of his death in 814, this kingdom included the majority of what is now considered Western, and some of Central, Europe. Not since the Roman Empire had this much of the continent been controlled by one ruler. Because of this (albeit fragile) unification, Charlemagne is sometimes called the father of Europe.

Over the centuries, the name Charlemagne became associated with European unification, whether through peaceful initiatives such as the European Union or war. For instance, Napoléon Bonaparte, who had his own dreams of empire, declared in 1806: "Je suis Charlemagne"—"I am Charlemagne."

4. BEING CROWNED EMPEROR MAY HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE.

Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor at Christmas mass in 800. Charlemagne had arrived in Rome a few weeks earlier at the request of the pope, but by many accounts, including that of his court scholar Einhard, he was not expecting his new role, and only realized what was happening when the pope put the imperial crown upon his head.

Since the crowning was advantageous to both parties, it's likely there was some partnership behind the event (it's also possible Einhard may have wanted his friend Charlemagne to appear more humble in his biography). Importantly, the coronation recognized Charlemagne as ruler of a Holy Roman Empire, which carried an associated ambition of outdoing the military and cultural achievements of the pagan Roman Empire. It also served to notify Charlemagne's enemies that his domination of Western Europe was sanctioned by the Church.

5. CHURCH MUSIC FLOURISHED DURING HIS REIGN.

Charlemagne loved church music, particularly the liturgical music of Rome. At his request, Pope Hadrian I sent monks from Rome to the court of Aachen to instruct his chapel's choir in 774. This event helped spark the spread of traditional Gregorian chant through the Frankish churches. In 789, Charlemagne also issued a decree to his empire's clergy, instructing them to learn (and sing properly) the Cantus Romanus, or Roman chant. Music schools were also founded under Charlemagne's reign, and monks transcribing music helped preserve the Gregorian chant into the present day.

6. MUCH OF WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT ANTIQUITY IS BECAUSE OF CHARLEMAGNE.

Charlemagne was a fierce proponent of Christianity, yet he had great respect for the culture of pagan antiquity. He also saw his empire as a direct successor to the glory of the Roman world. The scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance discovered and preserved as much of antiquity as possible, and its survival into the modern day is largely thanks to their efforts. On Frankish campaigns, soldiers would bring back ancient Latin literature alongside other loot. Carolingian monks meticulously copied these old texts into new volumes, helping preserve Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Ovid, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Even after Charlemagne’s reign, these European monasteries remained devoted to the preservation of Latin literature and knowledge.

7. CURRENCY WAS STANDARDIZED IN HIS EMPIRE.

As Charlemagne conquered Western Europe, he recognized the need for a standard currency. Instead of a variety of different gold coins, his government produced and disseminated silver coinage that could be traded across the empire—the first common currency on the continent since the Roman era. The currency’s system of dividing a Carolingian pound of pure silver into 240 pieces was so successful that France kept a basic version of it until the French Revolution.

8. HE DRESSED IN COMMON CLOTHES.

Charlemagne was an imposing figure, with a height estimated between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches, which was quite a bit taller than the average male height at the time. Yet he wasn't showy in his style. According to Einhard, he dressed in the ordinary clothes of the Frankish people, with a blue cloak over his tunic, linen shirt, and long hose. The one bit of flash he always had was a sword, worn on a belt of gold or silver. To dress up for special occasions, he'd sport a jeweled sword.

He also was not fond of flamboyant dress in the people around him. An anecdotal tale from the 9th-century De Carolo Magno relates how he spent a whole day tormenting some courtiers who returned from a festival decked out in silk and ribbons. He made them go hunting with him without a chance to change their clothes, and immediately upon returning had them attending him into the night. The next morning he ordered them to return, dressed in their wrecked finery, and ridiculed them for demeaning themselves by wearing such impractical clothes.

9. HE HAD MANY WIVES AND CHILDREN.

Amidst all those years riding around Europe waging war, Charlemagne somehow found time to get married to five different women and have relationships with several concubines. He fathered around 18 children. If there was one soft spot in the emperor's heart, it was for his kids, as he supported the education of both his sons and daughters. He didn't allow any of his daughters to get married during his lifetime—not necessarily to protect them from rakes like him, but probably because these marriages would have raised the status of their husband’s families too much for his comfort.

10. HIS ONE MAJOR DEFEAT WAS IMMORTALIZED IN POETRY.

Charlemagne's first campaign to conquer Spain was a disaster, culminating in his only major military defeat. After his army entered the Iberian Peninsula in 778, having been promised an alliance by Sulaiman Ibn al-Arabi in Barcelona that could spread Christendom into the Muslim territory, they made quick progress into the south towards Zaragoza. There, things went wrong. The governor, Hussain Ibn al-Ansari, resisted the Franks, and after some negotiation, offered gold in exchange for a Frankish retreat. Charlemagne accepted and left, destroying the defensive walls of Pamplona on the way back so they could not be used as a base for attack against his men.

As they moved through the wooded Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees, Charlemagne's forces were ambushed, mostly by Basques who may have been angered by the wreckage of Pamplona or their ill treatment by Charlemagne’s soldiers. Unfamiliar with the mountainous landscape, the Frankish rear guard was overwhelmed, losing many lives, including the prefect of Breton, Roland. The bold Roland was immortalized and mythologized in the medieval epic poem The Song of Roland, one of the oldest surviving examples of French literature.

11. HIS NAME NOW MEANS "KING."

Charlemagne's given name (Karl in German) was bestowed by his parents in honor of his grandfather, Charles Martel, and derives from the German for "free man." While in German kerl is understood to mean "guy," elsewhere variants of the name karl have come to mean "king." From the Czech král to the Polish król to the Lithuanian karalius to the Latvian karalis, languages all over Europe have traces of his influence in their word for king. Charlemagne's notoriety also popularized the name Charles throughout much of Europe, where it remains common today.

12. HE ORDERED A MASSACRE THAT BECAME NAZI PROPAGANDA.

Over three decades, Charlemagne warred against the Saxons in today’s northwest Germany. Most notoriously, in 782 he is said to have ordered the execution of around 4500 Saxons. Under his rule, any members of the pagan Germanic tribe who didn't convert to Christianity were also put to death.

The massacre gained new historical prominence in the 20th century, after the Nazis built a stone monument in 1935—the Sachsenhain memorial—remembering its victims. Charlemagne was reframed as an enemy of traditional Germanic culture and an example of the evils of the Catholic Church. Some 4500 stones were erected at the site where the Saxons were believed to have been killed. This demonization of Charlemagne was brief, however, and by 1942 the Nazis were celebrating the 1200th anniversary of his birth as a symbol of German superiority. The units of French volunteers who served in the German Schutzstaffel (SS) during World War II were named the Charlemagne Regiment.

13. THE EMPIRE FELL AFTER HIM.

Charlemagne died in 814, and his empire didn’t live on much longer. All of the strength of his government radiated from his reputation and the threat of war if he was not obeyed. The Frankish tradition was to divide power equally among male heirs, and although Charlemagne's only surviving legitimate son was Louis the Pious, he died in 840. The empire was soon separated between Louis's three sons. These three kingdoms continued to break down until the deposition of Charles III in 887, at which point most of the Carolingian power was gone. Not a century after his death, Charlemagne’s empire was no more.

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