On April 21 1945, physician Ernst-Günther Schenck was summoned to Adolf Hitler’s bunker in Berlin to stock food. What he came across was not the vibrant, charismatic, strong Führer who had captivated a nation. Instead Schenk saw:
a living corpse, a dead soul… His spine was hunched, his shoulder blades protruded from his bent back, and he collapsed his shoulders like a turtle… I was looking into the eyes of death.
The man before Schenk had suffered the physical and mental deterioration of a man 30 years older than the 56-year-old Hitler. The icon of a nation at war had fallen.
Indeed Hitler was aware of his physical decline and so driving the war to a do-or-die climax. He would rather see Germany utterly destroyed than surrender.
Since 1945 various theories have been posited to explain the Führer’s dramatic decline. Was it tertiary syphilis? Parkinson’s disease? Simply the stress of leading a nation at war on multiple fronts?
All his life Hitler had suffered from digestive problems. He was regularly laid low by crippling stomach cramps and diarreoah, which would become acute in times of distress. These worsened as Hitler aged.
His condition was one of the reasons Hitler became a vegetarian in 1933. He eliminated meat, rich food and milk from his diet, relying instead on vegetables and whole grains.
However, his ailments persisted and even became worse as the stresses of leadership and war took their toll. His physical health had a clear correlation with his mental state, and the Führer went through patches of good health interspersed by bouts of agony.
Hitler, despite the wealth of resources at his disposal, selected Dr Thomas Morell as his personal physician. Morell was a fashionable doctor with a clientele of high-society types that responded well to his quick fixes and flattery. However, as a physician he was transparently deficient.
In one of his more extraordinary measures, Morell prescribed Hitler a drug call Mutaflor. Mutaflor claimed to cure digestive ailments by replacing the ‘bad’ bacteria in a troubled gut with ‘good’ bacteria derived from the faecal matter of a Bulgarian peasant. It’s hard to believe clients fell for this, but Morell also had a financial stake in Mutaflor, and so could prove to be very persuasive.
Hitler’s digestive problems had a clear psychological connection, and it so happened that Morell’s treatment coincided with a good patch in Hitler’s career, mental state and therefore his health. Morell took the credit Hitler ascribed him, and would stay by the Führer’s side almost to the end.
Over the years Morell would prescribe enzymes, liver extracts, hormones, tranquilisers, muscle relaxants, morphine derivatives (to induce constipation), laxatives (to relieve it), and a variety of other drugs. One estimate holds that by the early 1940s Hitler was on 92 different kinds of drugs.
In July 1944, visiting specialist Dr Erwin Geisling noticed that Hitler consumed six small black pills with his meals. On further investigation, Geisling discovered that these were ‘Doctor Koester’s Anti-Gas Pills’, a treatment for Hitler’s meteorism – or chronic flatulence.
These pills happened to contain two harmful ingredients – nux vomica and belladonna. Nux vomica contains strychnine, which is often used as the active ingredient in rat poison. Belladonna contains atropine, a hallucinogenic that can cause death in large enough quantities.
By this point Hitler seemed to have entered a terminal decline. He had developed a tremor, and his behaviour and moods were increasingly erratic.
Hitler’s reaction to the news that he was being fed two poisons was astoundingly calm:
I myself always thought they were just charcoal tablets for soaking up my intestinal gases, and I always felt rather pleasant after taking them.
He did limit his consumption, but his decline continued unabated. So what was the true cause of his failing health?
As it turned out, Hitler would have to have consumed 30 of Kustner’s pills in one sitting to jeopardise his health. A far more likely culprit was the various secretive injections that Morell had administered over several years.
Eyewitness accounts tell of Hitler taking injections that would immediately energise him. He would take them before big speeches or announcements, in order to sustain his typically vibrant, belligerent style.
In late 1943, as the war turned against Germany, Hitler began to take these injections increasingly frequently. As he took more, Hitler’s resistance to the narcotics increased, and so Morell had to up the dosage.
That Hitler was visibly pepped up by the injections, and the fact that he developed a resistance to them, suggest that these were not vitamins.
Far more likely, Hitler was regularly taking amphetamines. Short-term, amphetamine usage has a number of physical side effects including insomnia and loss of appetite. Long-term, it has much more troubling psychological consequences. Broadly speaking, it impairs the user’s ability to think and act rationally.
This matches Hitler’s symptoms perfectly. His mental ill-health was reflected in his leadership, when he took such irrational decisions as ordering his commanders to hold onto every inch of ground. This led most noticeably to the astonishing bloodbath at Stalingrad.
Indeed, Hitler seemed acutely aware of his decline and was therefore prepared to make sweeping, brash decisions that would expedite the end of the war one way or the other. In his time he would rather see Germany razed to the ground than tamely surrender.
His physical deterioration was also manifestly worse. He had several compulsive habits – biting the skin on his fingers and scratching the back of his neck until it became infected.
His trembling became so bad that he had trouble walking, and he also suffered dramatic cardiovascular deterioration.
Morell was finally and over-duly fired when Hitler – paranoid that his generals would drug him and take him into the mountains of Southern Germany rather than allow him to meet certain death in Berlin – accused him of trying to drug him on 21 April 1945.
Hitler eventually took his mortality into his own hands, and its hard to imagine that he would have allowed himself to have been taken alive by the Allies. However, if he had, it’s doubtful he would have lasted long.
One could never argue that Hitler was a ‘rational actor’, but his dramatic psychological decline poses a number of alarming counterfactuals. Hitler was certifiably insane, and had he possessed apocalyptic weaponry, it is highly likely he would have deployed it, even in a hopeless cause.
One should also note that the sense of impending death almost certainly pushed Hitler to expedite the Final Solution – a most chilling thought.