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The day on which Hitler cried

The terrible consequences of the dictator's hysterical blindness during the First World War

ReproductionThe 20th century had dictators for all tastes: Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Franco, Pinochet. But, in hell, all of them must be afflicted with envy over a colleague who, more and more, “conquers” the hearts of the public: Adolph Hitler. The more that time goes by, the greater grows the fascination for Nazi Germany, which has transformed itself into a millionaire business. Go to any bookshop, newspaper stand, or film rental store and, for your pleasure, and on book, magazine and DVD covers there is the Fuhrer, troops marching and, a best seller, the swastika. They have even just discovered Adolph hiding behind Ringo Starr on the celebrated cover of the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Though fascinating and repulsive, they can go together, which will help to understand the macabre admiration for the esthetics of power and of absolute evil. This is a phenomenon fit for psychiatrists. How, as a matter of fact, was the icon of this strange obsession, Hitler himself.

“Just like Joan of Arc, he was a product of his own fantasies and was led by them into the multitude, thirsty for revenge. If angel or demon, it’s the judgment of history that decides”, explains the biochemist and psychiatrist from UFRJ, Fernando Portela Câmara, in his article entitled, The Fuhrer’s psychiatry, in which he tells the pathway of the then soldier Adolph in a military hospital, attacked by hysterical blindness. Attended to by Dr. Edmund Forster, who stimulated his fanatical nationalism in order to make him recover his self confidence, “the timid man, with apprehension about speaking in public, who nurtured a hatred for those defeated, Jesuits, and communists, had left this hospital entirely changed: with a penetrating look, firm gestures, a liking for public speaking, charismatic, indeed, with personality traits that were going to characterize the future Fuhrer.”

The case, little known, placed in question if the cure had not created the illness. “Just like hashish or alcohol nothing provokes which is not already in the very character and disposition of the individual, no hypnosis or suggestion changes anyone. Psychotherapy can restructure behavior, clarify motivations, update tendencies, but can’t create a new human being”, evaluates Portela. Interested in better understanding Hitler’s therapy, Wagner Gattaz, a full professor at the Psychiatry Department of the Medical Faculty of the University of São Paulo (USP), ordered for the Clinical Psychiatry Magazine (of USP’s Psychiatry Department and Institute) articles from the British psychiatrist David Lewis, author of the book, The man who invented Hitler, and the German psychoanalyst Gerhard Kopf, concerning the theme. The result is a story filled with suspense, which will be told next, taking the two articles as its base.

In October of 1918 corporal Hitler, then 29 years of age, and a group of soldiers were hit, by surprise, with a cloud of mustard gas. Blinded, they returned to camp and, with the exception of Adolph, all of them were sent to a nearby military hospital for eye treatment. Hitler, however, was taken to Pasewalk, some 800 kilometers from the occurrence, since the doctors had believed that his blindness was less of a physical trauma than of a psychological collapse. “It wasn’t the case that the corporal couldn’t see, but more that he didn’t want to see. He’d been suffering from what at that time the doctors called hysterical disorder and, since 1917, it’d been established that such cases had to be treated not in a general hospital, but in distant clinics in order to avoid ‘psychic contagion'”, observes Lewis. The dictator who would so much admire rigor saw himself in front of doctors who had treated this war disorder as “lack of desire of inferior nervous systems, with degenerate brains”. Among the psychiatric staff one of them stood out for clinging to this belief: Edmund Forster. “I always made it clear to the patients that one was dealing with a bad habit, unpatriotic and degrading behavior, unworthy of the German soldier”, he wrote. His method can be summarized as strengthening the combat desire to return to the battlefield.

After being cured, but on learning about the German surrender in November, corporal Adolph went back to being blind. Psychiatrist Forster was even more incisive, and the soldier in the end saw himself recovered. “In Mein Kampf  [My Struggle], Hitler omitted this doctor’s name and much less that he had been treated by a psychiatrist, he stated that he had been helped by a nurse of motherly spirit, who transmitted words of incentive that cured him. We cannot but note that this concealing of the psychiatrist figure with that of a motherly figure is herein very significant. We can also note that he’s referring specifically to a cure through words”, notes Portela. There were 24 days of treatment, which, the psychoanalysts believe, would have transmuted the wayward artist into the future dictator of Germany. How these sessions were conducted is a total mystery, since, after assuming power in 1933, all of the case’s clinical archives disappeared. In that year  Forster, an anti-Nazi, with the help of his brother, found himself in Paris with a group of exiled intellectuals, among whom were Alfred Doblin (the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz) and Ernst Weiss, a Czech friend of Kafka, both medical doctors. The psychiatrist handed over to Weiss all of the dossier about the Fuhrer’s blindness.

Spied upon by the French government, only in 1938 did the writer put the case into words, even at that in a romance à clef called The Dark Testimony, which spoke of soldier A.H. treated by a Jewish doctor at the military hospital of P., attacked by hysteria. In the book, the patient would later become the supreme leader of Germany. Through the lack of the original case record, Lewis believes that various passages of the work describe  the therapy applied by Forster to Hitler. “I was destined to perform a significant role in the life of a strange man, who, after the First World War, would bring about immense suffering and radical changes in Europe. Very often I asked myself what had led me, at that time, in the Autumn of 1918, to interfere in that manner: if it were curiosity – the principal quality of a scientist working in the medical area – or the desire of being like a God and changing a person’s destiny”, says Weiss’ story narrator, the Jewish doctor. “He didn’t manage to liberate the patient of his political ideologies and of his hatred, but was highly successful in re-establishing and inflating his self-confidence, which – from the medical point of view – made him co-responsible for the terrible career and ascension of A.H.; this is the interpretation of the doctor and the motive for his profound despair”, observed author Gerhard Kopf.

ReproductionAs well, in the words of author Weiss, during a session in the evening, there being only one candle lit, the psychiatrist, after examining the patient’s eyes, affirms to him that his blindness has no cure within medicine and then to A.H. that he can even cure himself, awakening in his interior powerful curative spiritual forces. He then asks the patient to concentrate on the candle light whilst the psychiatrist whispers: “Germany need men like you… Austria is finished… but Germany still persists… for you all is possible! God will help you in your mission if you help yourself now”, and concluded with the suggestion: “If you were to have blind confidence in this mission, your blindness would disappear!” When the Germans entered Paris the writer committed suicide, not before having advised his friends that this was going to happen, leaving in the air the suspicion of a possible homicide.

In Germany, psychiatrist Forster was expelled from the University of Greifswald, because of denouncements of  “immorality and the love of Jews” made by a Nazi ex-student. A few days afterwards the Fuhrer’s psychiatrist also killed himself with a revolver that his family did not know he owned. More mystery. Another doctor, Karl Kroner, who had endorsed the diagnosis of hysteria in the case of corporal Hitler, was sent to a concentration camp, but thanks to an ambassador friend of his wife he escaped to Iceland. There, during 1943, he gave lengthy testimony to the American secret service about Hitler, which has just been liberated to the public through the CIA archives.

Accusing Adolph of simulating blindness, Kroner made prophetic phrases about the times: “In troublesome times psychopaths govern us; in tranquil times we investigate them. Hitler’s cure was achieved but Germany became blind. I only hope that this goes away soon and we dissect the psychopath and, with the return of justice, make the Germans return to seeing.” Another German psychiatrist, who was not regretful about having cured psychopaths, stopped in Brazil and, without wanting to, brought with him the “serpent’s egg”. An admirer of the eugenic laws of Nazi Germany Werner Kemper, the director of the Goring Institute, made an exception in the treatment of psychosis in cases of  “an exceptionally genial personality that was worthwhile being cured if there were to be the expectation that with this his extraordinary talent could be repaid with the benefit of the whole”, he wrote in 1942. What would psychiatrist Forster have said if he could have read this? No matter what, after the war director Kemper came to  Brazil indicated by none other less than Ernest Jones, the biographer and friend of Freud. Here he founded the Brazilian Psychoanalysis Society. “The analysis that you carry out in Rio de Janeiro was set up by a man from the Gestapo”, affirmed the president of the International Psychoanalysis Association (IPA) to a Brazilian psychiatrist during a congress in the decade of the 1980’s.

As a confirmation that the “beast’s womb continues fertile”, the words of Brecht, in 1973 he discovered that the psychoanalyst Amílcar Lobo Moreira da Silva was a torturer. Before he had been a student of Leão Cabernite, an analyst and disciple of Kemper. “Kemper on arriving in Rio brought with him the stamp of the Nazi regime and the characteristics of ‘the unique man of power’, like Hitler, and had marked like a Fuhrer Carioca psychoanalysis. As he never spoke about his Nazi past, the unspoken was passed unconsciously to the ones he analyzed and from these to later analyzed patients. In this third generation, the blame would have resurged in the form of action and revealed itself in torture”, wrote the deceased psychiatrist Helena Besserman Vianna in her book, Não conte [Don’t tell]. Curiously enough, Kemper had participated, in Germany, by way of his institute, as a consultant on the directives of the Wehrmacht about how to treat war neuroses. “The objective of these directives was to avoid abnormal psychiatric reactions, such as those verified during the First World War, because of its contaminating effect that would’ve affected the combat power of the troops”, observed the Brazil loving German from the University of Kassel, Hans Füchtener in his article entitled, The Kemper Case.

According to the Füchtener report, for the institute’s doctors, states of fear generate loss of speech, of hearing, blindness,  paralysis, among others, which could affect healthy and capable soldiers under given circumstances, which had turned unviable a “moral devaluation and the defamation of sick people from abnormal reactions.” There was, observed Füchtener, a “split” between the members of the Kemper institute and the other neuro-psychiatrists who defended the old brutal methods of the First World War, like those that Hitler had been submitted to. In consonance with instructions from the Reich Chancellery (bitter reminders of the Fuhrer?), the institute asked for blander methods for treating the sick. Later the heavy brigade won the battle and many sick people ended up in concentration camps, seen as weak traitors.

Kemper and his colleagues maintained themselves faithful to more humanitarian work and, although a defender of the Nuremberg Laws, which promoted the creation of a “master race”, wrote Füchtener, the psychiatrist never showed himself to be in favor of euthanasia and always proclaimed that there had been possibilities of a cure at various stages of psychosis. The Hitler regime preferred other currents, even if, assuming they had been applied to the then corporal Hitler, they would have led the future Fuhrer to the gas chamber or the lethal injection. “The doctor must limit his choice to people whose personalities merit the effort. It’s exactly here that serious human decisions spring up for the doctor conscious of his responsibility. If for the biologist, a specialist in genetics, it’s easy to decide in the majority of cases of genetic illnesses, for us the limits fluctuate”, wrote Kemper in 1942.