The image of Adolf Hitler as a half-crazed, drug-addicted psychopath suffering the effects of violent early childhood traumas and perhaps even sexual disorders is not an uncommon one. Yet this image of the world’s most pernicious dictator is highly emotive. If he were indeed proved to have been suffering from a mental illness, this could, in the eyes of some, reduce his moral culpability. The man who killed millions of people would simply have been ill.
In an insightful book, the historian Henrik Eberle and the medical scholar Hans-Joachim Neumann take on this issue. They track down historical material comprising Hitler’s complete medical file, drawing on records from his personal physician, numerous other medical statements, pharmacological analysis and eyewitness reports. In scrutinising these amassed data from the perspective of modern science, their goal is to diagnose Hitler and compare legend with reality.
In a tour de force of seven illuminating chapters, they thoroughly investigate every aspect of Hitler’s health, from rumoured symptoms and illnesses to his actual medical history. They analyse the staff who attended him, take stock of the contents of his medicine cabinet and outline his health during the Second World War. Beginning with an assessment of hereditary factors, they describe his exposure to poison gas in the First World War. Temporary blindness - the possible result of this gassing or of hysteria - is the next question they address, before outlining alleged compulsion disorders such as hand washing, said to stem from Hitler’s fear of bacteria, particularly syphilis. The book then turns its focus to Hitler’s rumoured loss of a testicle (something dwelled upon in graphic anatomical detail). Importantly, they raise the issue of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and consider whether it was the result of a psychiatric disorder.
The spotlight then turns to Hitler’s doctors, with a lengthy treatment of Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician, and some other extremely disturbing individuals: Hitler’s dentist, Hugo Blaschke, who managed the dental gold taken from Jewish victims; Ludwig Stumpfegger, who was involved in human experiments and received the results from the research conducted at Auschwitz; and Karl Brandt, responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of mentally ill patients.
Neumann and Eberle also explain how Hitler, who had a pedantic interest in a healthy lifestyle, was nevertheless prescribed a considerable number of drugs: some 90 over five years. His medicine chest therefore provides focus for further analysis. The authors deal methodically with each drug, its use and possible side-effects, and address the question of whether Hitler’s ideology, anti-Semitism and genocidal politics could have been associated with any drug-induced behaviour. They look for evidence of narcotic addiction. Then, via a tour through his childhood and early adolescent health issues up to his war years, they chronicle his troubles with hoarseness, a bout of jaundice, tonsillitis, an ongoing tremor, irritable bowel syndrome, and teeth and eye problems. They finally compile all their evidence and address the question that forms the title of their book: was Hitler ill?
Neumann and Eberle’s treatment is sane, thorough and meticulous. It is anatomical in its detail, as befits the subject matter. It is clearly authoritative, without a trace of sensationalism. While its extensive use of medical terminology means it might be rather hard going for the general reader, for those with a particular interest in military medicine, Hitler or the Second World War, the book will undoubtedly prove rewarding. The authors’ conclusion is an important one, dispelling the myths and excuses: Hitler was healthy and fully responsible for his criminal actions.
Was Hitler Ill? A Final Diagnosis
By Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle
Polity Press, 300pp, £20.00
Published 10 December 2012