In my previous Blog, I described how Hitler was blinded by a British gas attack, on October 1918, while fighting with the List Regiment outside the Belgium town of Wervicq.
Hitler with some of his fellow ‘Runners’ in 1917. Hitler is seated on the right of the photograph
Doctors,at the Front-Line Aid Station, diagnosed his loss of sight as being due, not to physical injury but mental breakdown. To what, in the First War, was termed ‘hysteria’.
Hitler is Sent to a Mental Hospital
As a result of this diagnosis, Hitler was sent, not to the German army’s well-equipped military hospital in nearby Brussels, but more than 600 miles to a small mental hospital at Pasewalk, not far from the Polish border.
Such remote and isolated locations for their ‘nerve clinics’ were favoured by German doctors. It was harder for relatives or friends to visit patients and learn of the often harsh, even barbaric, treatments being practiced on their loved ones.
Five Days in a Train
Two days after being injured, Hitler was driven to Ghent station and placed aboard an overcrowded hospital train bound for Germany.
Loading a hospital train with wounded
Loading the wounded, with stretchers manhandled through the open windows of congested carriages, was time-consuming so it was not until late evening that the train steamed slowly out of the station.
Unable to leave his seat, without a nurse or orderly to guide him, Hitler spent most of the journey slumped on a hard, narrow, wooden seat. Struggling to sleep, he was only aware of the burning pain in his eyes and the cacophony of cries and groans from the seriously injured soldiers surrounding him.
With lengthy delays, in Bonn, Frankfurt and Berlin, to discharge some of the wounded, a journey that would normally take about fourteen hours, took almost five days to reach the small Pomeranian town of Pasewalk.
On arrival, he was led through its arched and creeper-covered exit and helped onto one of the horse-drawn ambulances drawn up in the tree shaded station yard.
Pasewalk railway station in 1918
The Shooting House
In 1914, on the basis of its remoteness and excellent rail links with the rest of Germany, the military authorities had selected the 12th Century walled town of Pasewalk on the River Ücker as the location for constructing small clinics or Lazarettes. They requisitioned seven properties including a school, a hotel and some large private houses for conversion. The most unusual was the Schützenhaus or Shooting House.
This mainly single-storied, grey stone, building with a three-storey addition at one end and a timber-framed annex at the other, was situated on the south-east fringes of the town.
Surrounded by extensive grounds, the Schützenhaus had views across open fields to the Pasewalker forest in one direction and, perhaps less encouragingly for its patients, the New Friedhof cemetery in the other.
A Restaurant with a Shooting Range
A former brick factory, the Schützenhaus had been purchased in September 1859 by Christian Darling, a local businessman and entrepreneur.
He converted it into a restaurant and bar surrounded by what his advertising leaflets described as ‘attractively laid out gardens.’
A few years later, he added a stage for variety entertainment and an indoor rifle range, from which the building derived its name.
This unusual combination of a restaurant, bar, meeting rooms, rifle range and music hall theatre proved so popular that the Schützenhaus was among the first premises in Pasewalk to have a telephone, Pasewalk 363, on which to take bookings.
The Shooting House in 1917
In a 1913 advertisement, landlord Johannes Thom proclaimed: ‘I recommend my friendly hostelry with its garden, large room with a stage, shooting range etc. for Clubs and private hire. Good food and beverages with courteous service.’
A few months later, the hostelry was requisitioned by the military and converted into a Lazarette (clinic).
The restaurant, offices, shooting range and music hall were turned into wards with beds for around thirty patients, cared for by a staff of fifteen doctors, nurses and orderlies under the command of Dr Wilhelm Schroeder.
A group of doctors and patients at the Pasewalk clinic in 1918 with Dr Wilhelm Schroeder in the middle of the front row. Some have claimed that the man standing in the centre of the back row is Adolf Hitler, but I have been unable to confirm this.
Hitler Meets Dr Karl Kroner
On admittance, Hitler was bathed, issued with a clean hospital uniform and allocated an iron-framed bed in one of the five small wards.
The following morning, his eyes were examined by Dr Karl Kroner. This forty-year-old Jewish physician’s knowledge of gas poisoning was both professional and personal.
Dr Karl Kroner in 1917
While serving as a doctor, with the Third Husaren Cavalry Regiment, Kroner had seen action on the French front at Verdun and Sedan with the rank of Colonel General. In 1917, he had been temporarily blinded by gas, awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class, and invalided out of the army.
Kroner returned to Berlin and began working as a private clinician while also remaining a consultant to a number of military clinics, including the one at Pasewalk.
Kroner confirmed the original diagnosis that Hitler’s blindness was due not to physical damage caused by Mustard Gas by a result of what doctors termed ‘conversion hysteria’. In this, intense anxiety is ‘converted’ into signs and symptoms which, typically, involve the loss of a physical function.
He recommended the patient be handed over to the clinic’s consultant neurologist Dr Edmund Forster.
While Kroner’s examination had taken only a few minutes, the fact he knew the true cause of Hitler’s blindness was sufficient to place his life in jeopardy once the Nazis came to power. Arrested by the Gestapo, he was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
In my Blog ‘Brave Diplomat Who Saved Life of Hitler’s Doctor (12 September, 2018), I describe his remarkable escape and life of exile in Iceland.
While in that country, Kroner contacted US Intelligence. In a report, declassified in the ‘seventies, he described Hitler’s time in Pasewalk and the real reason for his loss of sight.
Dr Edmund Forster, hysteria specialist
Even before Forster met Hitler for the first time, it is likely his opinion had been unfavourably shaped by other members of staff.
The lance-corporal was, they told him, a restless and agitated troublemaker. Each evening, a group of other patients would cluster around his bed to listen as he expressed his disgust for Austria. He loudly condemned the Austrians as weak and corrupt, whilst extolling the virtues of strong and virile Germany.
He would demand, rhetorically, why Austria was so decadent and effete. Then snarl out the answer – der Jude had infected and poisoned the nation.
Repeatedly, he returned to his belief that, for the strong individual and the strong nation, everything is possible and anything is permissible.
That one should never show even the slightest respect for a weak opponent.
By what right, he demanded, were crashed French pilots afforded the honour of a military funeral as if they had been German flyers?
Far better, their corpses were left to rot where they had fallen.
While speaking to his superiors, however, Hitler’s tone was completely different and utterly subservient.
Edmund Decides on a Treatment
Edmund Forster, a man of democratic views with many Jewish friends, must have been in equal measure repelled by Hitler’s opinions and intrigued by the psychiatric challenge his case represented.
The lance-corporal, he concluded, refused to see because he could not bear to witness the defeat of Germany. Whichever treatment was finally devised would have to take this fact into account.
The problem was, how?
With its armies being routed in the West and the civilian population rioting at home, Forster knew there was no way he could persuade Hitler that German victory was still possible.
By the first week in November, Forster had come to the conclusions that, for Hitler, there was no absolute truth. Only the truth of his imagination, prejudices and emotions. His ‘desire to be like a God.’
To that end the doctor determined that his only course of action was to start by confirming the lance-corporal’s worst fears.
He would tell him the injuries to his eyes were so serious that, under normal circumstances, blindness would be incurable. Then he would point out miracles can and do happen. But only to a very few, exceptional, individuals who have been chosen by a higher power for some world changing purpose.
If Hitler was one of the ‘chosen’ his sight would be restored.
If not, he must remain blind for the rest of his life.
The success or failure of this approach, Edmund recognised, would depend on whose will was the stronger.
His own or Adolf Hitler’s.
If he failed, the lance-corporal would never see again. If he succeeded, the return of vision should be almost instantaneous.
In my next Blog – ‘Hypnotising Hitler’ – I will explain what happened next and his treatment’s terrible, unintended, consequences.
Footnote: During the Nazi period the Shooting House, which had fallen into disrepair, was purchased by the Nazi Party and transformed into an SS shrine. It became a place of pilgrimage for Nazis from all over Germany.
The ‘Shooting House’ transformed into an SS shrine brought hordes of Nazi tourists to Pasewalk, whose counsel used it to promote their town by means of postcards like this.
The ‘Shooting House’ transformed by the Nazis in the ‘thirties
After Soviet troops occupied Pasewalk, In 1945, they demolished the Shooting House entirely. When I visited the town, in 2002, an abandoned and derelict sports hut was the only building on the site. It’s extensive cellars, where local children played, were all that remained of the Shooting House. Not long after my visit this too was demolished and, not long afterwards, new homes built on the site.
By 2002, this abandon sports hut was all that remained on the site of the former clinic
Where the’ Shooting House’ once stood looking towards the New Friedhof cemetery
For the full story of Hitler’s encounters with hypnotists, see my book Triumph of the Will? available as an e-book, paper back and hardcover from this web site and Amazon.