The Medical Doctor in modern society occupies such a pedestal of awesome respect that, when one tumbles off, he has a long, long way to fall. Doctors are mysterious demi-gods; their white coats and stethoscopes the visible signs that we are perfectly safe in the presence of an ancient, compassionate art. Doctors are there when we pop out of the womb and once again as we float above the death bed, signing us in and out of this world. If a plumber robs a bank, it doesn’t matter that he’s a plumber. But if a Doctor goes bad, that’s really strange and sensational; but there are many physicians who have helped seriously to undermine the notion that the march of medicine has been a civilising influence on human behaviour. Nazi Germany provides us with a frightening number of tales of doctors turned mad, bad or dangerous to know.
As the 20th century progressed, the numbers of unhinged medics seemed to rise dramatically, and by World War II we appeared to be in the mad house. Dr Marcel Petiot managed to despatch at least 27 people at his house in Paris, between 1939-45. He admitted killing a further 36 ‘Gestapo collaborators’ (a strange claim, as almost all his victims were Jews) when the police arrived to discover the remains in his clogged-up basement furnace. But Nazi Europe was the medical madman’s paradise.
Dr Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz, is too big a horror to contain in this article. Like his crazed colleague, Dr Sigmund Rascher, who froze people to death and liquidised their brains in his altitude chambers at Dachau, Mengele had the blessing of the State in the enthusiasm of his boss, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler.
Himmler, a failed chicken farmer and would-be homeopathic herbalist (every concentration camp had to have a herb garden), was in awe of medics. He used them to serve all of his wild theories about race. Noses were measured, the statistics of Jewish skulls catalogued, and new strains of drugs and plants were sought with which to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the empire for his beloved Führer. Like Hitler, Himmler was a non-smoking teetotaller with an avid interest in vegetarianism and medical science. A sufferer throughout his life from stomach cramps and other psychosomatic illnesses, he would daily confide in his own physician and masseur, Felix Kersten. He would tell the increasingly worried physiotherapist of his wild medical theories and plans for mass-sterilization, of returning the people of the Reich to the old morals and folk medicine of some mythic past, a past which existed only in Himmler’s close-cropped skull.
Cigarettes were frowned upon by the Nazis – and even forbidden in the Luftwaffe – but that versatile vegetarian standby, the Soya bean, (commonly regarded in the SS as ‘Nazi beans’), along with wholemeal bread, was extolled. And long before the fitness-crazy Yuppies of the 1980s discovered Perrier water, the Death’s Head legions of the Third Reich drank gallons of sparkling aqua vita. Almost all the production of mineral water in occupied Europe from the mid-1930s to the end of the war was directly controlled by the SS. However, anyone gullible enough to revise their opinion of Nazi Germany’s contribution to the history of public health should consider how the architect of the Final Solution dealt with his own well-being – and in particular the way this steered the careers of the Führer’s personal physicians.
Theodor Morell’s medical career had been a colourful one. One of his dubious claims was that he had studied the control of bacterial infection with the great Russian Nobel Prize winner, the biologist Ilya Mechnikov (1845-1916). From such lofty beginnings, however, he went on to be a humble ship’s doctor before he opened a surgery on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm. Here he dealt with the problems of the city’s show-business stars, specialising in venereal diseases and skin complaints. His greater fame was established in 1935, when Hitler’s court photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, became critically ill. On hand close to Hoffman’s home in Munich-Bogenhausen at the time was Dr Morell.
Morell had obtained sulphanilamide from Hungary, and felt confident that an injection could restore the Nazi lensman’s health. To Hoffman’s undying gratitude, the jab had a totally recuperative effect. Hitler had a lot of time for his photographer; his opinions on art were well regarded and he put the Führer in touch with Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Frau Winifred Wagner, and introduced him to the love of his life, Eva Braun.
On their innumerable journeys to art galleries in Hoffman’s car, the photographer took every opportunity to extol Dr Morell’s medical prowess. Adolf Hitler, non-smoker, vegetarian and tee-totaller, never considered himself to be the healthiest of men. Eventually he invited Morell to the Berghof at Obersalzberg to give him a full medical examination.
Morell immediately knew he had the best meal-ticket in the Reich. His diagnosis was that Hitler’s nervous and digestive system was exhausted, and he recommended a 12 month course of phosphorous, dextrose, hormones and vitamins. Most of these treatments would be given via Morell’s favourite method – injection. Hitler was impressed: “I shall follow his prescriptions to the letter,” he said. Within weeks of the first injections, Hitler developed a nasty rash, but as this subsided he claimed that his health was unmistakably improving. Morell could do no wrong.
The Reich Commissioner was genuinely worried about the effect of the frequent cocktails of up to 28 different drugs being pumped into his Führer. He had a point. Morell was to treat Hitler for nine years with some bizarre concoctions including bull’s testicles, materials derived from animal intestines and high-dosage amphetamines. Brandt could see Hitler’s health beginning to fail, but all criticism of Morell was banned. Meanwhile, Morell, using his kudos as Adolf Hitler’s doctor, developed his own brand of vitamin capsules with the trade-name ‘Multiflor’, including a hugely successful chocolate variety. All manner of ‘wonder’ remedies were manufactured in Morell’s factories throughout the Reich. The Wehrmacht had no choice when it came to the supply of lice powder – there was only one brand on the requisition forms: Morell’s Russian Lice Powder.
Within less than a decade the crafty quack had become a millionaire. But his star was on the wane. Göring couldn’t stand him. Eva Braun was shocked and disgusted both by his filthy habits and his unhygienic office. Hitler’s skin, due to the constant assault of Morell’s needles, had taken on a distinctively unhealthy pallor. Karl Brandt took every opportunity to express the opinion that Morell’s ‘treatments’ were killing the Führer. By 1944, Hitler’s health was indeed a cause for concern; he showed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, with shaking hands and feet along with vile outbursts of temper.
William L Shirer, in his epic Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, tells of Hitler’s behaviour on the afternoon of 20 July 1944, only hours after Stauffenberg’s bomb had failed to blow him to Kingdom Come. Someone had mentioned the earlier Röhm plot of 30 June 1934. “Mention of this aroused Hitler – who had been sitting morosely sucking brightly coloured medicinal pills supplied by his quack physician, Dr Theodor Morell – to a fine fury. Eyewitnesses say he leaped from his chair, foam on his lips, and screamed and raged... ”
In those bizarre final days of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’, Hitler’s relationship with his doctors remained as close and as volatile as ever. Whilst Dr Morell was counting his Reichsmarks and pondering over what would become of his ‘medical’ empire, Dr Karl Brandt’s fortunes took a nasty dive. Two weeks before Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, the news was received at the bunker that Brandt had sent his wife and child to Thuringia so that they could surrender to the Allies. Hitler interpreted this as treason, and called for the doctor to be court-martialled. Held prisoner in Berlin, Brandt was sentenced to death. He was saved, however, by Himmler, who stalled by calling for new witnesses. By 30 April, Hitler was dead and Brandt thought he was off the hook.
Shortly after the Führer’s suicide, Ludwig Stumpfegger, Martin Bormann and others attempted to flee the bunker. Artur Axmann, leader of the Hitler Youth, later claimed that on 1 May 1945, he had seen the corpse of Stumpfegger alongside that of Bormann – both shot by the Russians – near the aptly-named Invalidenstrasse railway bridge in Berlin – “outstretched on their backs with the moonlight on their faces.”
Brandt’s lofty SS position and complicity in evil medical experimentation ensured the full wrath of the Allies at Nuremberg. On 2 June 1948 the one-time Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation climbed the gallows with Stumpfegger’s old boss, Professor Gebhardt. The month before, the old quack himself, Dr Morrell, had died, relatively peacefully, at the age of 58 at Tegernsee. In a last bold move to establish his niche in medical history, Morell claimed that it was he who had invented penicillin and his secret had been stolen by the British Secret Service and given to Alexander Fleming. How on earth our brave agents had come to leave chocolate vitamins, Russian Lice Powder or even bull’s testicles in the dangerous hands of the enemy will remain a mystery. He concluded that at least one hundred drugs were administered to Hitler each day. Morell ultimately found it convenient and expeditious to deliver injections (tissue extracts, exotic suspensions and morphine) through the sleeve of Hitler's jacket. The inquiry was terminated abruptly, without explanation. His report and notes, if they exist at all, remain in an unknown archive. His own papers contain only a letter from one of his interviewees who, in daring flights into and out of Berlin, visited the bunker in the last week of Hitler's life. It was from the test-pilot Hanna Reitsch in a script as flamboyant as her life, writing of her disappointment that their interviews had suddenly ended.
He concluded that at least one hundred drugs were administered to Hitler each day. Morell ultimately found it convenient and expeditious to deliver injections (tissue extracts, exotic suspensions and morphine) through the sleeve of Hitler's jacket.
The inquiry was terminated abruptly, without explanation. His report and notes, if they exist at all, remain in an unknown archive. His own papers contain only a letter from one of his interviewees who, in daring flights into and out of Berlin, visited the bunker in the last week of Hitler's life. It was from the test-pilot Hanna Reitsch in a script as flamboyant as her life, writing of her disappointment that their interviews had suddenly ended.