Edmund Forster & Adolf Hitler
The scene is Nürnberg’s Palace of Justice on Tuesday, September 7 1948, a warm but overcast day that allows only a glimmer of early autumn sunshine to pierce the courtroom’s grime smeared windows. Although the major Nazi war criminals have long since been convicted and hanged, the trial of their willing helpers continues. Standing in the well of the darkly panelled courtroom, German born Dr Robert M. Kempner, a US War Crimes Prosecutor is interrogating a witness named Fritz Wiedemann. Wiedemann was Adolf Hitler’s commanding officer in World War One and, after he came to power, worked as his adjutant.
Referring to the dictator’s service during the First World War Kempner demands: “Können Sie uns sagen, warum er nicht zum Unteroffizier befördert wurde? [“Can you tell us why he (Hitler) never received promotion?”].
Wiedemann shrugs and responds, to laughter in court, that the future despot lacked the personality (Führerpersönlichkeit) to ever be made a leader! Later he recalled: “They found it amusing when I told them that. But it was true. When I first knew Hitler he lacked any leadership qualities at all.”
This brief exchange encapsulates one of the most curious and, until now, unexplained mysteries surrounding Hitler’s rise to power. By what strange alchemy was a failed art student and purposeless pre-First World War drifter who for months eked out a precarious existence among Vienna’s down-and-outs, and whose total absence of leadership abilities during the First World War was so obvious to his superiors, transmuted into a man whose unshakeable conviction in his own divinely inspired destiny transforms the course of world history.
For me a desire to solve that conundrum started in the summer of 1973, with the declassification by US Naval Intelligence of a war time document that shed a new light on Hitler’s rise to power. It also proved the start of a personal, thirty year long, quest to uncover the remarkable true story of Dr Edmund Robert Forster, an eminent German neuropsychologist, highly decorated First World War medical officer and fervent patriot, who, unintentionally and from the best of motives became the ‘man who invented Hitler.’ He was also, through his attempt to put right this tragic error, one of the Nazis early victims.
The newly released US Naval Intelligence document described an interview, conducted in Iceland during March 1943, with a German Jewish refugee and former concentration-camp inmate named Dr Karl Kroner. In a discussion with an unnamed OSS Intelligence Officer, Dr Kroner, before the Nazis came to power a leading Berlin neurologist, described how in October 1918 he had diagnosed a sightless lance-corporal invalided from the Western Front as suffering from hysterical blindness. Despite the patient’s insistence that his eyes had been permanently destroyed through exposure to Mustard Gas (Yellow Cross or Gelbkreuz in German terminology) Kroner – himself a former gas attack victim – had not the slightest doubts that the soldier’s blindness was psychological rather than physical in origin. Accordingly he passed the case on for treatment to Dr Edmund Forster, a consultant at the small military hospital to which the soldier had been transferred.
That blinded lance-corporal was Adolf Hitler and by his choice of psychiatric treatment Edmund Forster inadvertently transformed a drifter into a despot, a man totally convinced that he had been chosen by God to lead a defeated and humiliated Germany to glory and world dominance.
This is of course a highly controversial and, indeed, sensational claim to make and one which, for many years, I found in equal measures highly intriguing and highly implausible. Yet the more I discovered about the methods by which so called “hysterical” soldiers were treated – on all sides – during the First World War and the more I uncovered about Edmund Forster’s life, work and violent death the more convinced I became. Increasingly certain that not only was Kroner’s statement factually correct but that in the events that took place at Pasewalk sometime between October 21 and November 19, 1918 lay the answer to Hitler’s absolute belief in himself as a man with a divinely ordained mission. As a Munich journalist wrote in 1923:“The whole will of this man is determined by the belief in his Messianic mission.”
At the time I read Kroner’s account of events it was impossible for me to visit either Pasewalk, some eighty miles outside Berlin, or Greifswald, the small Prussian town where Professor Forster had headed the University’s Nerve Hospital.
Both lay deep within Communist East Germany and, since I had previously written extensively on the workings of the KGB and Stasi, I was warned it would be inadvisable to venture so far into the lion’s mouth.
So it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall that I was able to complete the researches begun more than twenty years before.
In November this year I published a full account of my researches in The Man Who Invented Hitler. Here – in summary – is what I have discovered.
Since early in 1915 psychiatrists from all the warring nations had been struggling to deal with the ever rising flood of soldiers who had been totally incapacitated without a drop of their blood being shed. For while these men exhibited a wide range of, sometimes bizarre, disorders – including paralysis, deafness, muteness, blindness, tremors, tics and stammers – no underlying organic cause could be discovered. Such soldiers were therefore given the highly stigmatizing diagnosis of “hysterical”, indicating that their disabilities were the result of mental breakdown rather than physical injury.
Professionally and personally Forster had little time or patience with such patients whom he regarded as either conscious or unconscious malingerers or ‘simulators’ seeking to escape the dangers of the trenches. “War hysterics,” he noted in 1922, “would produce every imaginable symptom from fear of the front.” As a result he considered his hysterical patients, no matter how seemingly desperate their condition, as scoundrels deserving to be treated by “Draconian methods.” For some of his colleagues this meant applying painful electric shocks, total isolation or even attempted suffocation. Forster, however, usually confined himself to a brusque, almost bullying approach, in which he treated them like “whiney children” who deserved to be punished for their bad behaviour. Surprisingly, these “tough love” tactics frequently led to spectacular cures which gained him the gratitude of his patients. A colleague later recalled: “I still remember our annoyance that he should score success with such methods and that those he “cured” should even remain devoted to him!”
In the early hours of October 15 Adolf Hitler, a Regimental runner with the List Regiment, together with a number of others came under a British gas attack on the Western Front. But while his comrades were sent for treatment to a well equipped military hospital on the outskirts of Brussels, Hitler alone was dispatched on a 600 mile rail journey to Pasewalk, near the Polish border.
The reason for this seemingly curious decision, made at a time when the German front was crumbling rapidly under the allied assault, was that the doctors had no other option.
Since 1917, they had been forbidden from treating hysterical soldiers on the wards of ordinary hospitals due to a fear by the authorities that ‘psychological contagion’ would weaken army morale. All such patients, the War Office had decreed, must be sent for treatment to small clinics in isolated locations, such as the one at Pasewalk.
On meeting Hitler for the first time, Forster found himself at a loss to know how to proceed. Far from being a cowardly malingerer the lance-corporal was obviously sincere in his eagerness to rejoin his comrades at the front and driven to sleepless despair by his inability to do so.
In the light of this almost fanatical desire to fight Forster could hardly adopt his usual tactics of attempting to bully the man back to a sense of patriotic duty!
For a couple of weeks, therefore, he bided his time while attempting to devise a form of therapy that would restore his sight. Towards the end of October, Forster finally came up with a plan which involved using his patient’s fervent nationalism. One evening he ordered Hitler to be escorted to his consulting room at the Lazarett.
After examining Hitler’s eyes closely, Forster lied by claiming they had indeed been irreparably damaged by the gas and that with such injuries most men would never be able to see again. Then, turning off the consulting room light and leaving them both in darkness he added that, perhaps after all, there remained a faint hope.
“Maybe you yourself have the rare power, that occurs only once every millennium, to perform a miracle. Jesus did this, Mohammed and the saints…With your symptoms a normal person would be blind for life. But for a person with exceptional will power and mental energy there are no limits, scientific knowledge does not apply to that person…You need to believe in yourself totally, then you will stop being blind…You know that Germany now needs people who have energy and blind faith in themselves…For you anything is possible!”
Forster then lit a candle and assured Hitler that if he could see the flame it would be absolute proof both of his unique qualities as a human being and his God given destiny to lead Germany to victory. After further exhortations from Forster, Hitler muttered than he could see a dim and flickering candle flame. Gradually he made out more and more details in the room. His sight had been restored.
“Everything happened as I wanted it to,” Forster later recalled, I had played God and given back sight…to a blind insomniac.”
On November 19, with the war a week over, Hitler was discharged and sent back to rejoin his Regiment in Munich. But the longer he dwelt on the meaning of the “miracle” he believed had taken place, the clearer it became to Hitler that his miraculous escapes during the war – he had only been wounded once in four years of intense fighting – must have been ordained by the same providence which now commanded him to lead Germany to glory. To unite her into an invincible Reich whose racially superior people could assume their ordained leadership over Europe.
Edmund Forster had cured Hitler’s blindness but, in doing so, given birth to a monster.
In 1933 Hitler attained absolute power over Germany and by the summer of that same year Edmund Forster, by now a respected Professor and head of the Nerve Hospital at Greifswald University, was forced to confront an agonising personal and professional dilemma.
An outspoken anti-Nazi who openly despised Hitler, Forster felt a deep sense of guilt over his unwitting role in the former patient’s rise to political triumph. He also believed that if the truth about Hitler’s hysterical blindness in 1918 were revealed, the dictator’s days in power might well be numbered. Yet the only way he could make known the facts of the case would be by betraying his oath of patient confidentiality and so dishonouring himself both as a doctor and former officer.
Early in July that year Forster finally made up his mind to act. With the assistance of his younger brother Dirk, who worked at the German embassy in Paris, he made contact with a group of German émigré journalists and writers, among whom was a well known German Czech novelist named Ernst Weiss.
At the Café Royal in Paris he met up with these men and handed over his clinical notes on Hitler’s treatment. He also discussed his treatment of Hermann Göring for morphine addiction and described how he had once diagnosed Bernhard Rust the newly appointed Minister for Art, Science and Public Education as a psychopath.
When he left to return to Germany these émigrés found themselves in possession of sensational but extraordinarily dangerous knowledge. They were only too well aware that to publish such material would bring down the wrath of Hitler’s powerful secret police on their heads.
The French government, wary of provoking the Germans, kept a very close watch on the émigrés and would have been quite prepared to deport back to Germany any refugees who had caused them such political embarrassment.
As a result of these legitimate fears, they locked away the clinical notes and kept silence. The enormous personal risk which Edmund had taken in betraying the confidential Krankenblatt was in vain. The public exposure and disgrace he had hoped would follow his revelations never materialised. It was not until 1938 that Ernst Weiss, impoverished and desperate to obtain a visa to the United States, decided to publish details from the Führer’s medical file. But he then did so in a novel, intended for publication only in the United States, written under an assumed name. Entitled Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) it provided a first person account of the treatment, in 1918, by a Jewish doctor of a hysterically blind patient, known only as “A.H.” at a military hospital identified as “P”. Later this patient went on to become Germany’s supreme leader.
Weiss wrote his book in two months so as to enter it into a competition for German émigré writers organised by a committee based in New York. By doing so Weiss hoped not only to win the substantial cash prize offered but to increase his chances of gaining a US visa. Der Augenzeuge failed to win and languished in a filing cabinet until the 1960s when it was finally published, purely as a novel with no hint of its extraordinary historical background. But in sending his manuscript abroad, Weiss undoubtedly saved it from destruction. When the German troops marched into Paris in 1940, the desperate novelist killed himself by slashing his wrists. Not long afterwards the apartment of Mona Wollheim, his part-time secretary and one time lover, was raided by the Gestapo and all his papers seized.
By this time, however, Edmund Forster was long dead.
His parting remark to the German writers was they should not be surprised to learn, over the coming weeks, he had committed suicide. Nor should they believe it! This grim prophecy of impending death was fulfilled less than ten weeks after their Café Royal meeting. Within a few weeks of returning to Greifswald Forster was denounced as an “amoral, Jew loving parasite” in a letter to Bernhard Rust by a Berlin student named Eugen Oklitz. The authorities immediately suspended him from his University post and launched a major investigation into his conduct.
When this failed to produce the required outcome, many of Forster’s colleagues courageously refusing to testify against him, Greifswald’s Curator tried to bribe him into resigning by holding out the prospect of a generous pension should he leave quietly. But, after some hesitation, Edmund refused to take what he regarded as a dishonourable course of action.
Shortly before 8am on Monday, September 11 – the day before his wedding anniversary – his wife Mila found him shot dead in the bathroom of their home. At his feet lay a pistol which none of the family ever knew he possessed.
Was it murder, as Forster had predicted, or the suicide of an honourable man driven to despair by the Nazi inspired campaign of vilification?
The official verdict was that Edmund Forster had taken his own life while depressed. However this is refuted by his surviving relatives and had the Nazis wanted him murdered there would have been no shortage of willing assassins.
Edmund Forster’s funeral took place on September 14 and he was interred in Greifswald’s Neuer Friedhof cemetery. A simple granite headstone marks the final resting place of a man described by one of his colleagues as: “an excellent scholar, an outstanding teacher, and the saviour of the sick.” His grave, during my last visit, was barely visible behind a tangled screen of undergrowth. It appears as neglected and forgotten as the strange story of Edmund Forster himself.