Thank you, Dr Morell

Richard J. Evans

In May 1941, after the sudden flight to England of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, who had deluded himself that he could persuade the British to make peace, a joke went round Berlin. ‘So you’re the madman,’ Churchill says to Hess. ‘No,’ Hess replies, ‘only his deputy!’ That Hitler was insane was something many Germans came to believe in the later stages of the war. If they had known in 1932 what they knew ten years later, they claimed, they would have voted differently; it wasn’t their fault that six million Jews had been murdered, countless soldiers and civilians on both sides killed, German cities devastated and Germany as they had known it destroyed. The fault was the Führer’s.

Insanity was only one of a wide range of possible explanations for Hitler’s actions. It was said that Hitler was anti-semitic because he had Jewish ancestry, ignoring the genealogical evidence to the contrary; or because a Jewish doctor had deliberately helped his mother on her way when she was dying, and overcharged the family (in fact, his treatments were conventional and he charged the family hardly anything); or because he had caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute in his youth (his medical records don’t record any symptoms of the disease). In the view of the psychoanalyst Walter Langer, who reported to the American secret service during the war on ‘the mind of Adolf Hitler’, he was a sadomasochist who projected his sexual perversions onto the world stage.

A later German attempt to analyse his personality concluded that Hitler suffered from ‘schizophrenic mania’; or, even less plausibly, that he never woke up from the hypnosis to which he was allegedly subjected following the temporary blindness he suffered after a gas attack on the Western Front at the end of the First World War. Most of these theories derived from rumours that circulated around bars in Europe and the US during the war, retold and no doubt embellished by barflies like Hitler’s friend Putzi Hanfstaengl, whose anecdotes provided the basis for many of Langer’s speculations.

As if to bear out the claim, made in the Second World War version of the old army song ‘Colonel Bogey’, that ‘Hitler has only got one ball,’ the notes of the Soviet forensic pathologist who examined the Führer’s remains in 1945 recorded that ‘the left testicle could not be found.’ The same could be said, however, of most of Hitler’s body, which was burned by his orderlies after his suicide. The doctors who examined him during his lifetime seem to have found everything in order, also giving the lie to the report, passed on through several intermediaries from a physician who had allegedly treated him during the First World War, that Hitler’s penis had been bitten off by a goat when he was a child.

Some, including the German historian Lothar Machtan, have suggested that Hitler was homosexual, thus purportedly explaining the murder in the course of the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 of known homosexuals like Ernst Röhm and, supposedly, anyone else who either knew about Hitler’s sexual inclinations or had had sex with him (Machtan’s list of possible partners includes Hitler’s chauffeurs Julius Schreck and Emil Maurice, Hanfstaengl, and even Goebbels and Hess, though strangely none of them was targeted in 1934). Precisely how homosexuality or the wish to deny it can explain the actions of a mass murderer Machtan did not say, and his prize witness, one of Hitler’s comrades at the front during the First World War, changed his story several times and was later convicted on several counts of forgery.

In fact, despite his desire to hide his relationships from the public in an effort to project an image of self-sacrifice and total devotion to the German people, Hitler is known to have had affairs with a number of women, and spent his last years in a conventional heterosexual partnership with Eva Braun, a woman considerably younger than himself. Fit and energetic, she posed a challenge that he attempted to overcome with the help of his doctor Theo Morell, who administered injections of testosterone and other hormonal preparations such as Prostakrin. Morell was kept busy: Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle, a historian and a physician, list 82 drugs taken by Hitler, including sedatives, analgesics, stimulants, laxatives, painkillers and much besides.

Hitler took these remedies mostly for commonplace ailments. More seriously, a shrapnel injury to his left thigh sustained during the First World War gave him trouble later on. And his constant speechifying, especially during the election campaigns before he came to power, caused a hoarseness that was cured in April 1932 after voice training from the celebrated tenor Paul Devrient. So, curiously, both Hitler and George VI benefited from the attentions of a speech therapist, though for opposite reasons: Hitler spoke too much; the king found public speaking too difficult to do it very often. The hoarseness returned in 1935, leading Hitler to fear that he had throat cancer and fuelling anxieties about his own mortality that led him to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy over the next four years. Reports of this reached Stalin through Martha Dodd, the daughter of the US ambassador to Germany and therefore privy to Berlin gossip, but also a Soviet spy. In fact, the cause was a polyp, which was surgically removed and proved benign; in November 1944 – perhaps he had been shouting too much at this late, desperate stage of the war – another polyp developed and was removed, with no ill-effects.

In August 1941, Hitler contracted dysentery, which knocked him out for a fortnight, but it didn’t affect the course of the war, since he soon resumed command of the armed forces and issued the fateful order to divert a significant portion from the attack on Moscow to the invasion of the Ukraine. He was a long-term sufferer from irritable bowel syndrome, which some have blamed on his strict adherence to a vegetarian diet from 1930 onwards: the authors reproduce his menu for Christmas Day in 1944, a miserable affair consisting of muesli and Vitamultin tea for breakfast, and noodle soup, breaded cauliflower, puff pastry and mashed potatoes for lunch. Bland though his diet was, it is unlikely to have caused serious digestive problems; irritable bowel syndrome is normally brought on by stress. His notorious flatulence was a consequence of his penchant for thick pea soup and his habit of talking continuously while he ate, causing him to swallow air (hence, too, his frequent belching).

Neumann and Eberle discuss at length the possibility that he suffered from high blood pressure and coronary sclerosis, and reproduce the results of a series of electrocardiagrams, but conclude that a number of biographers have exaggerated the seriousness of his condition, which was not life-threatening. More problematic was the tremor that people began noticing in his left arm and leg in 1941, along with a tendency to shuffle rather than walk; these symptoms fit a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, but they seem not to have worsened very much until the final stages of the war – neither his speech nor his thought processes were affected. He also had problems with his teeth, which were badly decayed; much of his food had to be puréed before he could eat it. His dentist, Hugo Blaschke, attended to him constantly, extracting two teeth as late as the autumn of 1944. By this time, Hitler’s mouth was full of crowns and bridges, some of them quite possibly made with gold taken from the mouths of Jewish concentration camp victims (Blaschke had a stash of 50 kilograms in his laboratory for use in dental work, and, given the quantity, very probably for other purposes too).

Hitler’s health also suffered as the result of the bomb set off by Colonel Stauffenberg in his unsuccessful assassination attempt of 20 July 1944. The blast burst Hitler’s eardrums, blew shrapnel into his body, singed his hair and burned him, but his injuries did not stop him reacting quickly and savagely towards the plotters, along with their supporters and relatives. Paradoxically, as he said afterwards, his trembling ‘vanished almost completely as a result of the attack – not that I would recommend this kind of remedy.’ Subsequently, however, his right hand began to tremble, and his general health never completely recovered. By early 1945, as Albert Speer later reported, ‘his limbs trembled, he walked stooped, with dragging footsteps. Even his voice became quavering and lost its old masterfulness. Its force had given way to a faltering, toneless manner of speaking.’

Was this because Dr Morell was pumping him full of drugs? Morell was known for his enthusiastic prescribing (Hitler was taking 28 pills a day by the last months of the war) and use of injections (Göring dubbed him the Reichsspritzenmeister, ‘Reich Master of Injections’). Hugh Trevor-Roper, interviewing the surviving members of Hitler’s entourage after the war, had no doubts about Morell’s malign influence: ‘He was a quack … a charlatan … totally indifferent to science or truth.’ Morell’s influence with Hitler, whom he had treated from 1936, derived not least from his reassuring bedside manner. His increasing power over the Führer aroused great jealousy, particularly in Hitler’s other personal physician, Karl Brandt; because of this, what Trevor-Roper was told cannot be relied on.

In fact, Morell’s remedies conformed to the medical and pharmaceutical standards of the day. This is true even of his favourite remedy, Vitamultin, a stimulant that may have included methamphetamine; certainly, reports of Hitler’s behaviour during a summit with Mussolini in July 1943, when he was ‘so euphoric and verbose that Mussolini was barely able to get a word in edgeways’, strongly suggest that he was on speed. But not all Vitamultin tablets, or the Vitamultin tea Hitler drank, contained amphetamines; they were mostly caffeine-based, and there is no indication that Hitler became addicted to them. In the end, Morell was trying to deal with a gradual deterioration in Hitler’s health: there is little convincing evidence to support Trevor-Roper’s claim that he made it worse.

Hitler was never particularly fit. He took little exercise, and when he did go for a walk in the Bavarian Alps he always went downhill, making sure that there was a car ready to pick him up when he reached the bottom. The contrast with his regime’s obsessive drive to breed a race of healthy Aryans through the daily gymnastics that workers, teachers, soldiers, even schoolchildren were forced to perform, was striking. The Nazi elite never bothered about conforming to the behaviour they demanded of other Germans – ‘the true Aryan’, a joke went, ‘is as blond as Hitler, as nimble as Goebbels and as slim as Göring.’ Yet – unlike Göring, who was addicted to drugs, or Goebbels, who had a club-foot – Hitler was no more unhealthy than many middle-aged Germans; indeed, since he didn’t drink or smoke, he was a good deal healthier than many.

Neumann and Eberle do a good job of clearing away redundant speculation about Hitler’s state of health. Their answer to the question posed in the title – ‘Was Hitler ill?’ – is a resounding no; or, to put it more accurately, he was no more so than everyone is at one time or other. He wasn’t mentally ill; whether his beliefs were rational is an entirely different matter. Like his ambitions, they were shared by millions of Germans, and the picture so many of them painted after the war of a nation of gullible dupes seduced by a raving madman has never been very convincing. Eberle and Neumann’s retrospective diagnoses are compact, clear, authoritative and persuasive; but they’re not particularly startling or original. In 1998 the late Fritz Redlich, an Austrian psychiatrist who emigrated to the US in 1938 and became dean of the School of Medicine at Yale, published Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet. He went over much of the same evidence, from Morell’s notebooks to Hitler’s ECGs, and came to much the same conclusions. Eberle and Neumann ungenerously dismiss his work as based on unreliable sources, but while they add detail on some points, they don’t seriously challenge his arguments. Both books come to the conclusion that Hitler was sane according to any reasonable definition of the term, and fully responsible for his actions.