The mystery began with the discovery of a bullet-ridden body in a wooded area about 53 kilometres south of Berlin, Germany in May, 1933. It didn't take long for Berlin police to identify the body as 44-year-old Erik Jan Hanussen, a self-proclaimed mystic and the man often feted by the press as "Europe's most famous clairvoyant." That he was murdered nobody had any doubt, but the question of who had killed him, and why, would remain mysteries for years afterward. Still, given his close association with Adolf Hitler and his rising Nazi party, the possibility of a Nazi connection could hardly be ignored. For a little while, anyway.
Along with the mystery of his death and how Hitler might have been involved, there was also the central mystery surrounding who Hanussen really was. According to his official biography, he was born in Vienna in 1889, supposedly of Danish aristocratic parents though this, along with so much else about his early life was pretty much invented. In reality he was born Hermann (Herschel Chaim) Steinschneider, the son of a Jewish synagogue attendant living in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic).
For much of his life, he kept his Jewish roots carefully hidden to avoid the rising anti-semitism that was gripping much of Central Europe at the time. After "reinventing" himself, including adopting a less Jewish name, Hanussen carefully played up his pro-German sentiments, including fighting with the Axis forces during World War One. According to his biography, his "psychic powers" first developed during the war as a result of his experience with combat and soon established himself as an eerily accurate psychic who was regularly consulted by criminologists and medical doctors. He also made a public prediction that "hard times" lay ahead for Germany though, since this was shortly after the end of the war and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, nobody really questioned him on this.
Still, Hanussen's reputation as a psychic attracted thousands of desperate people, all panicking over post-war conditions in Germany, and he soon set himself up in Berlin as the official "mesmerist" for the courts. But he didn't stop there. When he wasn't presiding over his adoring fans in Berlin, Erik Jan Hanussen took his act on the road with shows across Europe and the United States. Part of his appeal stemmed from his piercing black eyes and shaggy eyebrows, a combination that had his female fans swooning. Dubbed the "human question mark" by the press, Hanussen often gave the impression that he could hypnotize anyone and probe their deepest thoughts, something that police in Berlin often relied on when they had him present while they questioned suspects. His knack for cold reading and his unnerving reputation for mind reading proved very handy during interrogations.
Not surprisingly, numerous legends sprang up (all likely encouraged by Hanussen and his publicists). Stories of his meeting wealthy and powerful patrons and dispensing personal advice were carefully planted in the press by Hanussen and he even launched his own occult journal, as well as a biweekly tabloid which featured his own predictions as well as a popular astrology column. Once, in 1930, Hanussen was charged with fortune-telling and dragged into court but he won an acquittal after a panel of experts failed to prove that he was a fraud. The 131-page court decision even described Hanussen as the "possessor of strange powers," something that only reinforced what his fans believed of him.
It was around this time that he first met Hitler and the other members of the Nazi inner circle. Whether they really believed in Hanussen's psychic powers or were simply impressed by his ability to draw crowds, the Nazis were sufficiently impressed to have him train Adolf Hitler in public speaking and mass psychology. In fact, early Nazi insider Otto Strasser said these lessons began in 1926 and continued for years afterward. There doesn't seem to be any actual evidence that Hanussen had any real interest in the movement but these lessons certainly helped launch Hitler as a rising political star.
Unfortunately for Hanussen, he didn't stop there. Recognizing that Hitler would be a major player in Germany's future, he made elaborate public predictions about the Nazi star's future, including a 1932 "prophecy" that he would be appointed Reichchancellor within a year. Since many of his other predictions came true, Hitler seemed impressed enough to recruit Hanussen as a psychic advisor as well as a media coach. Hanussen also likely introduced Hitler to many of his astrologer colleagues, helping to jumpstart Adolf's fascination with the occult.
Another Nazi supporter who developed a fascination with Hanussen was Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorff. A Prussian aristocrat who joined the Nazi movement in 1924, Helldorff was also a believer in the occult (not to mention a sadistic racist). According to some stories, Hanussen was drawn by Helldorff's political power and encouraged these occult beliefs, even going so far as to conduct bizarre rituals for Helldorff and some other Nazi insiders. It also helped that Helldorff had serious gambling debts which Hanussen helped pay off, something he also did for other prominent Nazis such as Hermann Goering.
But not everybody was taken in by Hanussen's charisma. Joseph Goebbels, the soon-to-be Propaganda Minister for the Nazi Party, was deeply suspicious of Hanussen and the way he monopolized Hitler's time. Carefully collecting a file on Hanussen and his Jewish roots, Goebbels had no difficulty convincing Hitler that he was a threat. Not only was Hanussen clearly sympathetic to Jewish concerns, but Goering and Helldorff, among others, were already deeply in debt to him. To make matters worse, Hanussen had also made a public prediction about the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933. By blaming the fire on communist agitators, the Nazis were able to assume absolute power in Germany but the fact that Hanussen had used his inside connections to bolster his own reputation as a psychic showed how much of a danger to the new regime he really was.
This was Hanussen's final mistake and what likely led to Hitler agreeing to have him eliminated (something which the psychic obviously failed to see coming). Erik Jan Hanussen was taken into custody on March 24, 1933. After being badly beaten, he tried to go into hiding but he was too much of a public figure for him, or his newly disfigured face, to escape notice. Soon afterward, his body was found in a field near Berlin though, given that the chief of police for that area happened to be Count Helldorff himself. It was Helldorff who officially closed the case despite the murder remaining unsolved and Germany soon moved on to other matters.
Aside from a brief mention whenever Hitler's fascination with the occult comes up, Erik Jan Hanussen remains as much of a mystery in death as he was in life. That didn't stop him from entering popular culture with a number of different films being based on his life and his strange career. The most recent of these was Invincible which came out in 2001 to mixed reviews. Directed by Werner Herzog, the film featured Tim Roth playing Hanussen as a somewhat deluded figure who fails to recognize the Nazi threat in time to save his life. Though largely fictionalized, this film represents a fitting memorial for a supposedly clairvoyant showman who failed to see the dangers of pandering to absolute power.