Spanish translation here
The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor
Windsor: Focal Point Publications, 2009
First published in 1983, The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor is one of David Irving’s less celebrated but most impressive works of historical detective work, now back in print in a beautifully redesigned edition with a detailed index.
As Irving points out, diseases and doctors have shaped the course of history. Napoleon forfeited victory at Waterloo because of a painful attack of dysentery that forced him from the field for several hours at the height of the battle.
Hitler too may have forfeited victory because of illness.
In the Summer of 1941, at the height of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler was weakened by dysentery for weeks. Because of this illness, he was unable to resist the continual attempts of the military to undermine his strategy of encirclement in favor of a frontal drive toward Moscow. Hitler’s strategy was right, but it was fatally compromised. Of course, if Hitler were the great tyrant he is made out to be, he would not have had to argue with his generals and they would not have dared depart from or undermine his strategies. Imagine trying that with Stalin!
In 1944, Hitler was unable to fly to France to consult with Rommel because of inner ear problems caused by the attempted assassination of July 20. Later that year, Hitler was bedridden with hepatitis shortly before the Battle of the Bulge.
Since the most powerful men in history still get sick, doctors are always flies on the walls—and sometimes in the ointment—of history.
Doctors gain an extremely intimate but narrow and technical knowledge of their patients. Thus their diaries and records are indispensable to the historical researcher but also require a great deal of contextualization.
One would expect a collection of doctor’s diaries, notes, and lab reports to make for dry reading no matter who the patient was, but David Irving manages to breathe excitement into such unlikely material by placing it in the context of a titanic struggle over the destiny of the world.
Hitler, like many men of genius, possessed a powerful imagination, a heightened awareness of self and world, and immense willpower by which he made his visions real. Unfortunately, in suite with these positive traits, one often finds hypochondria (the propensity to imagine illnesses) and psychosomatic illnesses (physical maladies caused by the sufferer’s own psyche). This was certainly the case with Hitler.
From an early age, Hitler never traveled without a stash of medicine, and as his wealth and power grew, so did his use of doctors and medicines. In 1934, he began to travel with an escort doctor, which eventually grew to a team of doctors. And for the last 8 years of Hitler’s life, his chief doctor was Theodor Gilbert Morell (1886–1948).
Morell’s success was certainly not based on his looks or charm. He was fat, bald, nearsighted, swarthy, hairy, gluttonous, smelly, and ill-mannered. He was widely scorned and spurned by other members of Hitler’s entourage, particularly by Dr. Karl Brandt (1904–1947), Hitler’s first escort doctor, whose jealousy and distrust of Morell led to constant intrigues against him. Exasperated, Hitler finally dismissed Brandt in October 1944.
Morell was far from perfect, but he was certainly not the quack his enemies made him out to be. He set up his first practice in Berlin in 1919 and in the 1920s became a prominent, fashionable, and wealthy doctor. Aristocrats, industrialists, and famous artists sought his care. Hitler, moreover, was not the first head of state who offered Morell employment. He turned down offers to be the court doctor of the Shah of Persia and the King of Romania. Morell also went on to treat Mussolini.
Although Morell was a general practitioner, in the 1930s, he quietly began to specialize in treating venereal diseases, and given his high-profile patients, this bespoke a very high level of discretion and trustworthiness. Morell came to Hitler’s attention in 1936 when his friend photographer Heinrich Hoffmann visited Morell to be treated for gonorrhea. Morell cured him, which was an impressive feat before the invention of penicillin.
Later in 1936, Hoffmann invited Morell and his wife to visit in Munich, and at Hoffmann’s house they were introduced to Hitler. The Morells also spent Christmas of 1936 with the Hoffmanns, and on Christmas day Hitler invited them all to the Berghof. It proved a fateful day, for on it Hitler first consulted Morell about medical matters.
Hitler had been suffering from eczema on his legs, tinnitus, and painful stomach problems. He began to suffer these symptoms in 1936 during a period of personal loss and crushing stress. In May, Hitler was deeply pained by the illness and death of his personal chauffeur Julius Schenk. Then in the summer Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland over the strenuous objections of his terrified generals. Other doctors had failed to alleviate the symptoms and their treatments merely exacerbated Hitler’s problems. Throughout the fall of 1936, he became progressively more frail and emaciated.
Since Hitler’s health problems invariably accompanied periods of emotional upset, Morell suspected that they were largely psychosomatic. He told Hitler flatly that he would have him healthy in a year.
Morell also came to believe that Hitler’s intestinal bacteria had become unbalanced, perhaps as a consequence of his intestinal cramps, perhaps as a consequence of other doctors’ treatments. This hypothesis was confirmed by laboratory tests. Morell therefore prescribed capsules of friendly intestinal bacteria to recolonize Hitler’s digestive tract. In the 1930s, this was a radical new theory and treatment, but it is widely accepted today, particularly among naturopaths.
Morell kept his promise. After six months, the eczema and cramps were gone and Hitler could eat normally. After nine months, he had regained his old strength, and from that point on, Hitler trusted Morell completely. The Morells were rewarded with VIP tickets to the 1937 Nuremberg Rally. Far more princely rewards were to come. Morell also went on to rack up similar cures with Dr. Goebbels and other Nazi notables.
Morell’s detailed medical reports and diaries are useful for refuting lies about Hitler, e.g., that he had abnormal genitals or that he suffered from syphilis. Morell specialized in venereal diseases. Thus he would certainly be on the lookout for symptoms of syphilis. But he never claimed that Hitler suffered from syphilis in his diaries, reports, or subsequent interrogations in Allied captivity. Furthermore, the outcome of 1940 blood serology tests, including the Wasserman, Meinicke, and Kahn tests, indicate that Hitler had never contracted syphilis. (Further reason to think that Hitler did not have syphilis was the fundamental rationality of his worldview and actions.)
Near the end of his life, Hitler showed signs of Parkinson’s disease, which were widely observed by people in his circle. Morell’s records confirm these observations and indicate that he was inclined to diagnose Parkinson’s. But he also suspected a psychosomatic dimension. It is certainly odd that the tremors disappeared for a time after Hitler survived the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. Hitler attributed his unlikely escape to providence and his confidence in himself and his mission soared.
Morell’s documents also indicate that Hitler was beginning to suffer from heart problems, a finding that he initially kept from his patient.
Although Karl Brandt’s animosity toward Morell can be explained by professional jealousy and personal dislike, he was not the only one who worried about Morell’s treatments. Over the years, Hitler’s entourage became alarmed at the number of pills and injections administered by Morell. At times, it was hard to find a fresh vein.
The injections primarily contained glucose, vitamins, and hormone preparations, most of them produced by pharmaceutical firms owned by Morell. Although one can question the conflict of interest, Irving reveals that Morell injected Hitler with such tiny doses that there was little chance of any purely pharmacological effect, for good or ill. Hitler did, however, show visible improvements after these injections.
Thus it seems likely that Morell’s treatments were placebos. Hitler, of course, was an ideal patient for placebos, given his powerful imagination which fed his hypochondria, and his powerful will, which led to his psychosomatic ailments. Of course, conventional doctors (and pharmaceutical manufacturers) sneer at placebos. But if one can trick the mind into curing the body with a mere sugar pill (or glucose injection), isn’t that really the best medicine of all?
Some have questioned Morell’s constant use of injections. But Irving reveals that it was Hitler’s preference. He wanted fast results and had no time for swallowing pills. He wanted medicine introduced directly into his bloodstream, not by way of his stomach. Morell went along with Hitler’s preference, but perhaps he had other reasons. The book makes it clear that Hitler was unusually self-conscious of his mouth and throat—which went along with being an effective speaker—and also of his entire gastric tract. He was given to imagining things stuck in his throat. He was also morbidly fixated on the pills he swallowed, feeling them or imagining them in his stomach. So it is easy to see why Morell judged it best to replace pills with injections whenever possible.
Some in Hitler’s entourage may have been shocked or discomfited when, in 1941, Morell treated Hitler’s tinnitus with leeches. This does have an air of witch-doctory, but the curative powers of leeches are still recognized today, and one can order them from any apothecary. The leeches did help, although one of them died after drinking Hitler’s blood.
About the worst thing that can be said for Morell’s treatment is that he prescribed Ultraseptyl, a sulphonamide drug manufactured by one of his companies, for combating bacterial infections. (Sulphonamides were anti-bacterial drugs used before the development of antibiotics.) Compared to other sulphonamides, Ultraseptyl was ineffective and tended to harmful side effects. Hitler finally refused to take it in October of 1944, claiming that it gave him a “taut stomach” (which may be true, but it is also the kind of thing he was given to imagining). After that, Morell gave Hitler injections of Tibatin, a more effective sulphonamide.
In all fairness, Morell also took Ultraseptyl, but it seems a clear example of how having a financial interest in a drug can cause a doctor, consciously or unconsciously, to favor it over more effective rivals, to the detriment of his patients.
Another controversy blew up around a medicine called Dr. Koester’s anti-gas pills, which Hitler took with his meals. (His diet consisted largely of starches and fruit or fruit juices, a combination that guarantees gas. Combined with Hitler’s tendency to nervous or spastic constipation, the gas pains made him miserable.) Irving does not make clear if Dr. Koester’s pills were prescription or over the counter. (They sound like a patent medicine.) Nor is it clear that Morell was the one who prescribed or recommended them.
Dr. Erwin Giesing, who attended Hitler from July to October 1944, along with Hitler’s long-time escort doctors Karl Brandt and Hanskarl von Hasselbach, discovered that the pills contained strychnine and atropine and claimed they were harming Hitler’s health. But, as Paracelsus pointed out, the poison is in the dose. A small amount of strychnine might have therapeutic effects. A large amount is fatal. The pills did contain strychnine and atropine, but in far smaller doses than the doctors claimed. Hitler was in no danger.
Giesing, Brandt, and Hasselbach were obviously exaggerating the danger to dislodge Morell. Giesing even claimed that he dosed himself with the pills and came down with Hitler’s exact symptoms—an obvious lie. Doctor-patient confidentiality obviously went out the window. Soon Hitler’s headquarters were abuzz with rumors. Himmler looked into the matter personally. Apparently he was psychologist (or cynic) enough to see straight through the doctors’ motives. They were dismissed. Morell stayed.
Ultimately, the biggest reason why Morell was regarded as a dangerous crank is that Hitler’s health declined markedly under his care. But this is hardly fair. When Morell initially began treating Hitler, his health improved significantly. If Morell had bowed out in 1937 or 1938 or 1939, he would never have been tarred with the reputation of a quack. But he stuck with Hitler almost to the very end. And the long-term prognosis for every patient is decline and death. It is just that most doctors never stick around long enough to be blamed for it.
Surely the most significant cause of Hitler’s declining health was the crushing burden of the war, which was amplified by his propensity to psychosomatic illness caused by stress. No doctor could have preserved Hitler’s health under such circumstances, and a doctor who was less attuned to Hitler’s psyche and more inclined to depend entirely on chemicals might have had far worse results than did Morell.
Dr. Morell stayed with Hitler in his Berlin bunker until April 21, 1945, when Hitler sacked him. Morell told an American journalist that when he arrived to give Hitler a glucose injection, Hitler stopped him and said that he knew he was planning to inject him with morphine. Irving speculates that if Hitler really said that, he could have suspected Morell of conspiring with his generals to drug him and move him from Berlin against his will.
When Hitler finished his tirade, Morell collapsed pathetically at his feet. Hitler, of course, knew that the end was near. He no longer needed a doctor. Perhaps he was simply trying to save his faithful retainer and knew that Morell would leave only if there were a break between them.
Morell left Berlin for Bavaria on the April 23 in Hitler’s courier plane the Condor. Morell had severe heart and circulatory problems, and the stress of the war had taken a huge toll. He was hospitalized almost immediately.
On July 17 he was arrested in his hospital bed by Americans and tortured. His toenails were torn out, and he was told that a woman screaming in an adjacent room was his wife. When his wife finally visited him, he was a broken, emaciated wreck. He wept that he thought she was dead.
Morell’s mind was also going. He apparently suffered from advancing arteriosclerosis, and perhaps strokes as well, which caused memory loss and paralysis on his right side. There was never any question of charging him with any crimes. The Americans just wanted to squeeze him for information. But Morell was declared unfit to testify in court on October 12, 1946.
On June 20, 1947, Morell was simply dumped in a waiting room at the Munich station. After that, he was admitted to a clinic where he continued to decline, losing his memory and the ability to read and write. On May 26, 1948, Theodor Gilbert Morell died, in the words of his former assistant Richard Weber, “like a stray dog.”
The picture of Morell that emerges is of a doctor who was acutely sensitive to the psychological dimension of illness and healing and also willing to employ both traditional remedies (leeches) and innovations like intestinal colonization by friendly bacteria. His main flaw was that he allowed his interests in different pharmaceutical concerns to influence his prescriptions. But one mitigating factor is that many of the medicines he used were in such minute doses that they functioned as placebos.
As a social outsider, Hitler distrusted conventional experts. Instead, he made his decisions based on character and results. Morell cured Hoffmann. Then he cured Hitler. Beyond that, Hitler probably sensed that Morell’s mind, like Hitler’s own, was not rigidly fettered by convention, something borne out in his treatments. The mutual admiration and loyalty between the two men is touching.
I highly recommend The Secret Diary of Hitler’s Doctor. It is a beautiful example of David Irving’s prodigious talents as an interviewer and archive sleuth who has wrested priceless memories, facts, and documents from the devouring teeth of time. That’s what he means by “Real History.” It guarantees that his works will be read and used by other historians for all time to come.
Source: The Barnes Review, vol. 17, no. 6, November-December, 2011