Although Hanussen claimed to be a Danish aristocrat, he was in fact a Moravian Jew, born as Hermann (Herschel Chaim) Steinschneider. Hanussen's father, Siegfried Steinschneider (1858-1910), was an actor and caretaker of a synagogue who married Antonie Julie Kohn, a singer, in Vienna, Austria.
Hanussen's parents traveled constantly through Austria and Italy with acting and musical troupes, taking Hanussen with them."
After World War I, Hanussen performed a mind reading, muscle reading, and hypnosis act at La Scala in Berlin that catapulted him to stardom. At his height, he enjoyed the company of Germany's military and business elite, also becoming close with members of the SA. It is claimed he was a supporter of the Nazis despite his Jewish ancestry, which was an open secret.
Stories abound of meetings between Hanussen and Hitler, including an encounter shortly before the election of November 1932, during which Hanussen taught Hitler his crowd control techniques of using gestures and dramatic pauses. Hanussen was also quite close to other important Nazi officials, to whom he had often lent money, including Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, Karl Ernst and Friedrich Wilhelm Ohst.
Dr. Walter C. Langer, a psychoanalyst, prepared a psychological profile of Hitler for the Office of Strategic Services in 1943. The profile included a reference to Hanussen: "... during the early 1920s 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."
In 1931 Hanussen purchased a Breslau printing firm and began publishing an occult journal, Hanussen Magazin and Bunte Wochenschau, a popular biweekly Berlin tabloid which included astrological columns. He used the proceeds from his publishing ventures and stage shows to purchase a mansion which became known as "The Palace of the Occult", which he renovated and turned into a luxurious interactive theatre for fortune telling games. Guests would sit around a large circular table and place their palms on glass with symbols lit from beneath; the room lights would be lowered in a séance-like fashion; and various gimmicks would highlight Hanussen's dramatic verbal presentation of prophecies to the guests. He predicted events in the lives of the individuals present, but controversy arose when he predicted the future of Germany. He became successful, was always in demand in various venues, and had a full-time valet.
Alfred Neubauer, a famous motor racing team manager, refers to Hanussen in his autobiography, Speed Was My Life (first published in English in 1960). In the chapter 'A Prophecy Comes True', he describes a prediction made by Hanussen before the race at AVUS in Germany in May 1932. While at the Roxy Bar with other drivers, Neubauer challenged Hanussen to predict the winner of the following day's race. After some 'leg pulling', Hanussen wrote two names on a piece of paper, which he folded, and put in an envelope. This was placed in the custody of the barman. He had strict instructions that it be left unopened until after the race. Hanussen announced, 'One of us at this table will win tomorrow, another will die. The two names are in this envelope.' During the race, driver Prince Lobkowicz was killed, and Brauchitsch won. After the race, Neubauer states he opened the envelope and found those names inside. Several days later, a Berlin newspaper reported that Hanussen had urged the German Automobile Club to persuade Prince Lobkowicz not to take part in the race, but Club officials had taken no action.
Predicting the Reichstag fire, a decisive event that allowed recently appointed Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler to seize absolute power in 1933, was Hanussen's most famous feat of clairvoyance. It also was possibly a miscalculated use of inside information that led to his death shortly thereafter.
Hanussen was assassinated on March 25, 1933, probably by a group of SA men, and was hastily buried in a field on the outskirts of Berlin, near Stahnsdorf. He was potential competition to Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels for the attention of their Führer, which may also have led to his murder. Hanussen's body was discovered over a month later. There are unsubstantiated claims that he may have been involved in the Reichstag fire, hypnotizing and directing Marinus van der Lubbe, the convicted arsonist, to commit the act.
Erik Jan Hanussen is buried in the Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf, near Berlin.
Hanussen's daughter, Erika Fuchs Steinschneider, was born to his first wife Theresia Luksch in 1920. After their separation, Theresia resettled with her young daughter in Merano, Italy where Theresia eventually met, married, and later divorced a Mr. Fuchs, heir to a brewing company.
Hanussen was possibly survived by a son born in 1922 to a mistress. The son, Gerhard Belgardt, was placed in an orphanage and survived the war. He later gained some fame by performing as a clairvoyant, calling himself Hanussen II.