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Gervasio Posadas: El mentalista de Hitler The Clairvoyant: The Man Who Predicted Hitler’s Rise to Power

The year is 1932. Our narrator is José Ortega, known as Pepe, a Spanish journalist, working in Berlin. He only got the job as the man who was meant to have it was killed in an accident and Pepe speaks German. By his own admission, he is not very good, in that he does not appear to the have a journalist’s nose for news and his editor is constantly berating him. Though short of funds, he believes in the good life which 1932 Berlin offers, both in terms of drinking/partying and attractive young ladies. Berlin in 1932 was not a place for boring people. It was the city of high intellect and base instincts.

One day he and his latest girlfriend, Nildi, go to see a clairvoyant. He is Erik Jan Hanussen, very much a historical figure. He claimed to be descended from Danish aristocrats but was, in fact, an Austrian Jew. The show was impressive, with both clairvoyance and hypnosis. Nildi is really impressed. Pepe is more sceptical and more interested in Nildi than clairvoyance.

After the show they go to a restaurant where here is a hunger artist called Jolly. Hunger artists were on display in public places and ate nothing for long periods of time, even as food is being consumed all around them. Pepe comments I couldn’t help being surprised at how easy it was for eccentric, outlandish people or outright impostors, card-sharps, astrologers, hypnotists, fakirs, yogis and palmists to make it in Berlin.

However, this is Berlin in 1932. There were six million unemployed, a financial crisis which dragged on and on, politicians with no answers, who just fought among themselves, hunger, desperation, families that even had to prostitute their own daughters in order to put food on the table. It was also a presidential election year, with the two main candidates being Hindenburg and Hitler. Hindenburg was the sitting president, admired for his military record but struggling with a major economic crisis. As it turned out, Hindenburg won comfortably.

Meanwhile we learn about Erik Jan Hanussen. He had worked around cabarets in Central Europe but had been prosecuted in Czechoslovakia for fraud against some people who had used his psychic services. Atfer a long trial, he was given the opportunity to show his skills and managed to successfully prove his skills/hoodwink the judge (depending on your point of view). He had since gone on to fame and fortune. He owned two newspapers, an enormous yacht, a collection of luxury cars in his garage and charged more than two hundred marks for an hour’s private consultation. However there were questions about his skills. He was asked to assist in solving a series of murders in Düsseldorf and produced a profile which turned out to be quite wrong but bluffed his way out of it. The murders were the basis for a famous film. Nildi introduces Pepe to various people and they in turn introduce him to various celebrities, including Peter Lorre, star of the film, but also Thomas Mann, the actress La Jana and even Heinrich Brüning, the German Chancellor.

He also gets to meet Hanussen. After the presidential elections, it was assumed that the Nazis were finished. They had no money and there was talk of replacing Hitler as leader. However, in one of his newspapers Hanussen predicts that Hindenburg and his right-wing allies would hand Hitler the Chancellery of the Reich on a silver platter. This seemed totally unlikely and was laughed off as a joke. Meanwhile Pepe is getting closer to Hanussen, who wants to use Pepe to promote his act in the Spanish-speaking world. Pepe is reluctant to help but when he finds that it comes with a generous salary, he readily accepts, as he is permanently broke.

Both Hanussen and Pepe become closer to the Nazis. Pepe has a friend who wants Pepe to introduce her friend to Hanussen, as he wants to get in touch with his dead wife. The friend is called Hermann Goering. Hanussen is eager to get closer to the Nazis, not least because he can see that they are going to be in power, though he annoys Goering somewhat when he makes more predictions, some of which Goering likes, though he is not too keen on Hanussen’s theories on the thousand year Reich.

Pepe, though concerned with what is going on, is more concerned with his love life and his financial situation and often focusses on those, not least his relationship with a woman called the Baroness, who probably is not a baroness but is well connected.

Hanussen is still making predictions, some, we know, to be accurate and some less so while Pepe is more and more sucked into Hanussen’s entourage. In the background, we learn that the Nazis are making progress though not as fast as they would like.

Hanussen’s hubris increases: for some time he’d started to be convinced that he was not just a fairground attraction or a mere exploiter of intuition; he felt he was more like a modern thinker, a far cry from an academic philosopher, but someone with a profound knowledge of the human soul. However , he is getting closer to the Nazis – Hitler, Goebbels and Goering and justifies this by saying that they are the ones who will have the power. His view is that their anti-Semitic rhetoric is just that – rhetoric. They might seem like a bunch of madmen and extremists, but they are just as pragmatic as anyone else.

He is also well aware that it might it not work out and even runs off to Paris for a while. I’ve got a strange feeling, a dark intuition that my time is coming to an end. I’ve felt it for a few months and it’s become much clearer during this trip to Paris. The Communists, in particular, sees him as a mortal enemy because of his close alliance with the Nazis and they try to out him as Jew, which, we know he is, though the Communists we see in this book see the Social Democrats as more of an enemy than the Nazis.

However, despite various setbacks, the Nazis, as we know, are moving closer to power and it all culminates in the Reichstag fire. Hanussen predicts it and there is some suggestion he may have been somewhat involved in setting it off. The reality is that we still have no real idea who actually did start it.

Hanussen himself is clearly charming and can charm both men and women (with different motives in each case, of course). He is an inveterate womaniser and has numerous affairs. He is also something of a party animal. He is totally self-centred and narcissistic. He loves money and what it can buy and the associated power it brings. He is also a perpetual liar, all too often lying and, indeed, making a living out of it. He is a fraud, a cheat, a conman. Remind you of anyone? As I read this book I could not help thinking of the two main frauds of our era – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Had Hanussen been in their situation or if they had been in his, the stories would not have changed much. As this book was first published well before either of the two had any signifiant power or were much known outside their own country, I assume that this is coincidence or, rather, reflective of a type.

Most of us have been brought up to consider the Nazis as totally evil, with considerable justification. However, the Nazis in this book do not seem so evil. Of course, it is early days – the book ends in 1933. There are as yet no concentration camps, round-ups and imprisonment and murder of Jews, communists, gays, the handicapped, Roma and others deemed enemies of the people. While they do spout a lot of anti-Seimitic nonsense, as mentioned, Hanussen for one thinks it is just politics, to win over the ordinary voter, not unlike the anti-migrant rhetoric we get in the United States and various European countries nowadays, and they will change once in power. The individual Nazis we meet show certain human feelings. Goering, for example, very much misses his late wife. Goebbels is very much concerned about the health of his wife, Magda, and Hitler even accompanies him when he visits her in hospital. Yes, there are the storm-troopers but Hitler will deal with them in the Night of the Long Knives. We also know the horrors that are to come but if you read this book without knowing the history, you might think that the Nazis were unpleasant and devious but not much more.

Finally there is Pepe. He is a weak character, concerned, with his sex life and financial well-being more than anything and while he does have qualms about both the Nazis and Hanussen, where sex and money are concerned, he is prepared to dump any principles he has. Will he be a future Francoist? Interestingly, at the end of the book, Posadas gives us a rundown of what happened next both to the real and fictitious characters. There is no mention of Pepe.

This is certainly an interesting and enjoyable book to read, not least as it showed a side of the Nazis of which I was completely unaware. Posadas tells his tale well and gives us a detailed portrait of both Hanussen and Pepe Ortega, while also giving us the full story of how the Nazis seized power.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Editorial Suma de Letras
First published in English in 2023 by Clapton Press
Translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts