Both Hanussen and the Nazis were struggling against time and history, edging toward parts of ourselves that we thought we had discarded, the parts allied with the irrational and nonsensical. But Hanussen was merely a showman. The Nazis were champions of chaos. For all their barbarity, there was a genius to them. They understood the power of faith. (“Only faith creates a state,” said Hitler. “What motivates people to battle for religious ideas? Not cognition, but blind faith.”) As the Depression tightened its grip on Germany, the Nazis also understood that their frustrated and angry countrymen who were hungering for a messiah who would redeem and resurrect them: rescue them from the chasm that lurked just ahead.
Just one month after the Nazis took power in 1933, Walter Grundmann, a pastor in the town of Oberlichtenau, rhapsodized that Hitler was “a completely pure man! . . . Such a clear and truthful man does not derive from the earth, but rather out of that higher world that . . . Christ called the kingdom of heaven. . . . This oneness of man with his God is a symbol of what the old church teachers intended to say with the trinity.” For children, Hitler would soon supplant parents—and God. In school plays, students would declare: “My fuehrer! I know you well and love you like my father and mother. I will always obey you, like my father and mother. And when I grow up, I will help you like father and mother. And you should be proud of me, like my father and mother.” Every night children in Nazi-run orphanages would praise Hitler as the source of everything good. He was their savior, their salvation, and their hope:
Leader, my Leader, given to me by God, protect me and sustain my life for a long time,
You have rescued Germany out of deepest misery, to you I owe my daily bread.
Leader, my Leader, my belief, my light,
Leader, my Leader, do not abandon me.12
Hanussen could not compete with men who nursed such ambition, these masters of the universe who dreamed of usurping God and heaven and Jesus, of planting their own paradise here on Earth—small, gray, and dismal, an Eden with watchtowers and barbed wire: fascist golems along the Danube, Rhine, and Seine. Hanussen read minds. He told fortunes. This was a clever scheme for rough times. But when men are playing God, the stakes are high, and the game extends beyond the reach of mere mortals. Hanussen was mortal. The Nazis thought they were eternal—and with one thousand years at their disposal, they pretended they were as close to eternity as mere men would get.