BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

"Don't be schtupid, be a schmarty ..."

Here's another book from the “Early Reviewer” program. I was pretty sure that when I put in my requests for the February batch, that I'd end up getting this, having read extensively in both things Occult and things Third Reich. I figured that Arthur J. Magida's The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle was going to be a home-run, after all Nazis! and Séances! and Psychics!, how could it go wrong?

Unfortunately, Magida's book lacks all the drama and luridness that one might expect of its subject … and veers fairly close to being something of a bait-and-switch. From the title/subtitle one might think that Erik Jan Hanussen was doing spiritualist parties for Hitler, and that the book was going to have a whole bunch of juicy details about these … but the closest that it's suggested that Hanussen was in on-going touch with “Hitler's Circle” (note the omission of “Inner” in that) was that it appeared that he had knowledge about the notorious Reichstag fire in advance of its happening.

Is it the author's fault that the “fun read” that I'd anticipated the book being did not materialize? I'm sure that this sells better being marketed like a pulp novel than as a biography of a minor figure from Germany between the world wars … but it's much more the latter than the former, and reading through it I kept waiting for it “to get good”.

As a biography of Hanussen, it's quite good, and really remarkably well researched, given both the ephemeral nature of the psychic stage show, and the grinding obliteration of WW2 on the places he lived and worked. This is, on that level, a very interesting look into the work of psychic/spiritualist performance at the time, with many others aside from Hanussen discussed. Many of the details are impressive in that they were able to be retrieved (such as the deal that he got for a series of shows in Paris).

Hanussen himself is presented somewhat as an enigma, both a self-confessed “carny” playing his audiences, and a possible psychic, with a long string of otherwise-hard-to-explain revelations … including the one that won him a major court case and ended up being a huge boost to his career. He also appears to have been a bit of a fool … or certainly deeply naive … in believing that Hitler and the Nazis were just “posturing” and would prove to be reasonable people. He was a strong supporter of the Fascist movement, publishing issue after issue of his magazine promoting Hitler as a savior of Germany, with glowing predictions for the future. Did he believe this, or figure he was being “useful” to the biggest, nastiest dog on the block? Needless to say, as a Jew, this seems to be an insane course to have taken, but somehow he dodged that reality for years.

In the book he has one significant Nazi contact, Count Wolfgang Heinrich von Helldorf, a high-ranking officer in Berlin, and a “fallen aristocrat” whose own estates had been frittered away. Hanussen provided Helldorf with the opportunity to enjoy the “rock star” wealth that he commanded on and off (along with some other “rock star” perks), and also ended up lending large sums to both Helldorf and other Nazi officers. Evidently Hanussen thought these connections would keep him above the dangers in the street, but they actually ended up being the very things that led to his murder. Certainly his other brushes with the Nazi leadership (such as a chilling encounter with Goebbels) makes one wonder how he was able to not see the danger of his situation.

Due to these connections, the book also manages to paint an picture of the “descent into madness” that accompanied the rise of the Nazi party. While not breaking any new ground on the subject, it provides a perspective not as well covered in other sources I've read (frankly, there are parts of The Nazi Séance that resemble nothing quite so much as the tenser parts of The Sound of Music!).

Again, I was hoping for another look at the Occult underpinnings of the Nazi regime, as told from the perspective of the activities of Hanussen's career … and there is very little of that in this book. As a biography of a performer who was delusional in regards to the evil he was sidling up to, it's a very well done study, but it's not what I (and I'm guessing most people would be) expecting. This has only been out a few months, so it should be available in your local brick & mortar book store (if you still have any near you), but it's rather telling that the new/used channel at the on-line big boys already have copies of this kicking around for under two bucks.

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Tags: book review
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