In my previous Blog I described how, in October 1918, Hitler became hysterically blind and was sent for treatment to a small mental hospital in the remote Pomeranian town of Pasewalk. There he was seen by Dr Edmund Forster, one of Germany’s most eminent hysteria specialists.
Hysteria Specialist Dr Edmund Forster
Hysteria – A ‘Weakness of the Will’
Where German doctors, in common with the German public at large, were concerned, what they termed ‘hysteria’ was due to a ‘weakness of the will’.
A weakness caused by either an ‘inferior nervous system’ or a ‘degenerate brain’.
Like the majority of his profession, in that period, Forster believed that soldiers with disabilities that had no physical cause, including paralysis, tics, tremors, stutters, deafness and blindness, were suffering variously from Willenssperrung (‘inhibition of the will’); Willensversagung (‘failure of the will’) or Willenshemmung (‘an arrest of the will’).
The Power of the Will
‘Will’ was widely regarded as a sublimely masculine quality, one which Swiss psychiatrist Otto Binswanger believed ‘purified and fortified our minds’ exerted a baleful influence over the treatment of hysterical soldiers during the First War.
German doctors saw their duty as patriots, officers and physicians, to act in accordance with the official policy of the German Psychiatric Association. This stated they should ‘never forget that we physicians have now put all our work in the service of one mission: to serve our army and our Fatherland.’
In pursuit of this policy, they were given licence to devise and practice virtually any treatment, however extreme, they believed might remove the hysterical disorder and return the soldier, if not to the battlefield then to some other form of employment helpful to the war effort, as speedily as possible.
Doctors became, in the words of historian Paul Lerner, ‘Judge, teacher, and disciplinarian…[able] to exercise a decisive influence over the fates of thousands of soldiers…they supervised the creation of a set of institutions and facilities over which they had complete control.
Doctors used their newly achieved control and authority over the patient to promote medical views of German manhood, which were based on duty, obedience and, most of all, productivity.’
A Belief in Bullying
A Naval officer, Edmund Forster strongly believed a soldier’s ‘will’ could be restored and his disability ‘cured’ through a combination of strict military discipline, verbal bullying and the deliberate infliction of intense pain.
Dr Edmund Forster (Centre) in Naval Uniform with fellow medical staff
The general idea was to make their time on the ward so disagreeable they were only too glad to return to the Front.
While this approach had worked for him in the past, he realised it was unlikely to succeed in Hitler’s case.
Far from wanting to remain in hospital, the lance corporal was only too eager to return to the fight. He hourly cursed the fact that blindness prevented him from re-joining his comrades in the West.
After two weeks of careful reflection, Forster hit upon a form of treatment he believed might work. It evolved hypnotising Hitler and persuading him that his sight would only return, if he was one of a tiny number of individuals chosen by some higher power for a divine purpose.
On the evening of November 6th, the doctor ordered Hitler be brought to his consulting room. He seated him on an upright chair, before a table on which stood two unlighted candles.
‘Your eyes have been terribly damaged,’ Forster told him bluntly. ‘I should never have assumed that you, a pure Aryan, a good soldier, a knight of the Iron Cross, First Class, would lie or deceive… Everyone has to accept their lot. The individual is powerless where fate is concerned. Miracles do not happen anymore.’
He paused for a long moment, then added more optimistically. ‘But that goes only for the average person, miracles still happen frequently to chosen people. There have to be miracles and great people before whom nature bows, don’t you agree?’
‘As you say, Doctor,’ Hitler agreed plaintively.
‘I am no charlatan, no performer of miracles,’ Edmund went on. ‘I am a simple doctor, but maybe you yourself have the rare power that only occurs once every millennium to perform a miracle. Jesus did this, Mohammed, the saints…I could show you the method by which, despite the fact your eyes have been damaged by mustard gas, you can see again.
With your symptoms, an ordinary person would be blind for life. But for a person with exceptional strength of will power and spiritual energy there are no limits, scientific assumptions do not apply to that person, the spirit removes any such barrier – in your case the thick white layer in your cornea. But maybe you do not possess this power to perform miracles.’
‘How can I tell?’ Hitler demanded uncertainly.
‘Do you trust yourself to my willpower?’ Forster demanded. Then, before Hitler could reply, ordered him to open his eyes wide.
‘I will light the candles. Did you see the sparks from the match?’
After a moment, Hitler replied: ‘Not a light, but a kind of white, round shimmer’.
‘You must have absolute faith in yourself, then you will stop being blind.’ Forster told him. ‘You know that Germany now needs people who have energy and faith in themselves.’
‘I know that.’ Hitler stood up trembling and held on to the edge of the table.
‘Listen. I have two candles here, one on the left and one on the right. You must see! Do you see them?’
‘If only it was possible!’
‘For you anything is possible! God will help you, if you help yourself! In every human being is a part of God. That is the will, the energy! Gather all your strength. More, more, more! Good! What do you see now?’
After a lengthy pause Hitler replied:
‘I see your face… your hand and the signet ring, your white coat, the newspaper on the table and the notes about me’
‘Sit down,’ Forster told him, ‘and take a rest. You have been cured. You have made yourself see. You behaved like a man. You managed to put light into your eyes because of your willpower.’
Forster later recalled: ‘Everything happened as I wanted it to. I had played fate, played God and restored sight to a blind man.’
What Edmund Forster failed to appreciate was that, in restoring Hitler’s sight he had planted in his brain the conviction he had been chosen by destiny for some special mission. That, henceforth, he would firmly believe was dictated by some higher power.
Hitler was Not Religious
Hitler had been raised as a Catholic and, for a brief period in his ‘teens, had even considered becoming a priest. As an adult, he professed no Christianity and, indeed, persecuted the church and ordered the imprisonment and execution of priests.
He did, however, strongly believe his ‘prophetic’ abilities were transmitted to him by ‘voices’ from a non-physical being that dictated his decisions and determined his every action.
‘Unless I have incorruptible conviction… I do nothing,’ he told his associates years later. ‘Not even if the whole party tried to drive me to action. I will not act; I will wait, no matter what happens. But if the voice speaks, then I know the time has come to act’.
The dialogue above, is quoted from The Eyewitness (Der Augenzeuge) by Czech-born novelist Ernst Weiß.
Czech born novelist Ernst Weiß.
Although he claimed his book was a work of fiction, there are good reasons for believing that the treatment he described was taken, almost word-for-word, from Hitler’s patient records. Medical notes written up by Edmund Forster, immediately after he restored the lance-corporal’s sight, and passed to a group of anti-fascist German writers in Paris in 1933.
The Book That Mirrors Real Life
Those parts of the book which can be compared to historical events are a perfect match.
Weiß describes the soldier patient, who he calls A.H., as ‘a corporal of the Bavarian regiment. An Austrian, whose father was a custom official, he has a bitter hatred for the Jews.
Before the War, he had been ‘a poor student of art in Vienna’ who was rejected by the Academy because they regarded him as ‘an amateur who would be out of place in a painting class’.
After failing to gain admittance, A.H. wandered the streets of the Austrian capital as a vagrant: ‘Sometimes a good-hearted fellow vagabond gave him a few kreuzers or a fourth of a loaf of bread. There were many of these homeless vagrants who lived at night in deserted channels of the Vienna river under the earth.’
The reader is told A.H. had been gassed by an English grenade; causing his eyes to burn ‘like glowing coals’. He was sent for treatment, not in one of the field hospitals with others who had been gassed, whose eyes had been seriously damaged by poison gas, mustard gas and chlorine gas, but he was among the emotionally disturbed’.
Weiß names the clinic only as ‘P’ which, almost certainly, stood for Pasewalk. By 1938, when the book was written, the Nazis had turned it into an SS shrine.
The Pasewalk Nerve Clinic, transformed into an SS shrine in 1938
Weiß’s Nerve Doctor
The Eyewitness, is narrated by the doctor who treats A.H. He, like Edmund Forster, is described as having been born in Munich, practised medicine on the Western Front, earned the Iron Cross, First Class, worked in a military hospital and acted as consultant to several mental hospitals.
Although Weiß never named him, his doctor is, in the words of American historian, Rudolph Binion: ‘Pure Forster in everything germane to Forster’s encounter with Hitler’.
Is The Eyewitness True?
In my next blog, I will explain why some historians regard The Eyewitness as providing the only known, surviving, record of Hitler’s treatment at Pasewalk.
I will describe how Weiß wrote his book, in just a few weeks, as part of a desperate attempt to obtain a US visa and recount tragic ends of Ernst Weiß and Mona Wollheim, his secretary and mistress.
David Lewis pinpoints what he believes were the key events in his transformation. He documents the fact that Hitler emerged from the war with hysterical blindness, not blindness from mustard gas poisoning, as commonly believed. Hitler was treated by the controversial psychiatrist Edmund Forster, whose methods included telling patients that only the strength of their will and personality could bring them recovery. Once Hitler found that by sheer will he could cure his own blindness, the next step was obvious to him.
Thanks for your excellent summary. I am most grateful. My apologies for the delay in replying but I have been lecturing abroad.