The Doctor Who Treated Hitler's Hysterical Blindness

Hitler’s affliction after World War I and the doctor who treated him star in a 1939 novel by Ernst Weiss, a Jewish physician and writer whose works – praised by the likes of Kafka – only recently got their due in Israel

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An illustration depicting a doctor looking into Hitler's eye through a magnifying glass.
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski

“Ernst Weiss lived here,” states the memorial plaque on the outer wall of a building at 34 Luitpold Street in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood: “He was a master of the psychological novel and one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. He chose to commit suicide to escape the horrors of National Socialism.”

Weiss, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, published more than 20 novels and short-story collections between 1913 and 1938, most of them after moving to Berlin in the period of the Weimar Republic. His first novels passed under the discerning gaze of his close friend Franz Kafka, and while he was writing the later ones, which appeared after Hitler took power and Weiss fled Germany, he received financial support from Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, both of whom also apparently shared the sentiments appearing on the plaque.

If so, the Israeli reader may wonder: How is it that for us, Ernst Weiss, “one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century,” remains a black hole, and that it wasn’t until 2019 that one of his novels was translated into Hebrew?

Ernst Weiss was born in 1882 in Brno (today in the Czech Republic) and attended university in Prague, which was also his first place of exile after the Nazis rose to power, so one could have imagined the representatives of the culture of Prague in Israel, among them another friend of Kafka’s, Max Brod, filling the lacuna. That didn’t happen. Weiss died in 1940, a victim of Nazi persecution, and one might have thought that at least in the name of the Holocaust, which is of such supreme importance in Israel, he would acquire a place of honor on the Hebrew bookshelf. That didn’t happen, either. Literature departments in Israel’s universities also failed to put Thomas Mann’s opinion of Weiss’ literary merit to the test of the Hebrew reader. Even though Margarita Pazi, who taught at Tel Aviv University, wrote a biography, “Ernst Weiss: The Fate and Enterprise of a Central European Jewish Writer in the First Half of the Twentieth Century” (1993) – she wrote it in German, and it appeared under the imprint of an unprestigious publisher, far from the Hebrew eye.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the first, lone harbinger of Weiss surfaced in Hebrew, in the form of his short story “Franta Zlin,” in the final edition of the short-lived literary journal Mitaam, translated by Lea Mor, then a doctoral student at the University of Kassel. That 1919 work had been hailed by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth as Weiss’ best work, and 90 years it later entered the “Canon of German Literature,” a multi-volume series edited by the well-known literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

“Franta Zlin” takes place against the background of World War I, and murder and suicide feature prominently in it. But the harbinger did not lead to the spring.

Does the initiative of translator Morag Segal, who last year brought about the publication in Hebrew of Weiss’ novel “The Eyewitness,” attest to a breakthrough? We should note up front that were it not for the ultimate marketing tool – the name “Adolf Hitler” – this novel, too, would probably not have been translated. Would anyone have conceived of translating “The Struggle,” a 1916 novel by Weiss that was praised by Kafka? Or “Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer” (1931) which, like “The Eyewitness,” deals with a doctor who tells his story, which involves murder and atonement in a remote tropical colony? That’s the bitter irony: If you utter the words “Hitler” or “Nazi” in these parts, it’s hard to ignore you. And in “The Eyewitness,” A.H., aka Adolf Hitler, plays a major role.

Medically tinted fiction

Let’s begin with the author’s biography. Before becoming a writer, Ernst Weiss was a physician; he attended university in Prague and Vienna, specialized in surgery, worked in a Vienna hospital, then for about two years on a ship. Thereafter he worked as a medic in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eastern front during World War I, and at the end of the war in a hospital in Prague. By then he had taken up writing, and when he moved to Berlin, in the early 1920s, he became a full-time writer. He worked the medical profession into his fiction time and again, and from this perspective his last novel, written in Paris in 1939, which is our subject here, was no exception.

“The Eyewitness” (published in English translation in 1977) starts with the kick of a horse that the unnamed narrator suffered in his childhood in southern Germany. The continuation of the story, as is customary in a bildungsroman, deals with the narrator’s relations with his parents, his medical training and his interactions with the surrounding society in a Nazifying Germany, until the time he goes into exile. Such elements are generally not enough to motivate a translator to take it on herself to render a book into Hebrew, or a publisher to bring it out.

Ernst Weiss.

Enter A.H. “The Eyewitness” relates in the first person a story that Ernst Weiss learned about in a 1933 meeting in Paris: that of the physician who treated the soldier Hitler as he lay blind, in the wake of a gas-grenade attack, in a military hospital in Pasewalk, north of Berlin, at the end of World War I. The physician was an actual person and the meeting in Paris actually took place. The book’s translator, Segal, traced the backstory carefully, and elaborates on it in a detailed afterword.

The physician was Edmund Förster, who apparently was in possession of actual documents relating to the treatment of Hitler in 1918, including the diagnosis of hysterical blindness. Dr. Förster was dead, a suicide, by the time “The Eyewitness” was written. Weiss believed, along with many others, that the physician’s death was not a suicide but murder committed at the behest of A.H., who wanted to be sure no unpleasant information about him was revealed.

As material for a novel, this story was sufficient, certainly for Ernst Weiss, whose works are replete with tales of suicide and whose own inclinations in that direction were proved the day he decided to take his life, upon the Germans’ invasion of Paris, in 1940. But it’s doubtful that the story of the murder rests on solid, factual ground.

Segal cites a 2003 book by neuropsychologist David Lewis, “The Man Who Invented Hitler,” which supports the account of his hysterical blindness. From this she inferred that dissemination of that psychological explanation provided sufficient cause for Förster’s persecution by the Gestapo, on the one hand, and a good basis for the central plot device in “The Eyewitness,” on the other.

Sparring historians

Weiss believed, along with many others, that the physician’s death was not a suicide but murder committed at the behest of Hitler, who wanted to be sure no unpleasant information about him was revealed.

In the meantime, however, two contemporary historians, one German and the other Austrian, both of whose expertise lies in the history of Hitler’s early years, entered the picture. The former, Thomas Weber, wrote a book about Hitler in World War I and another, titled, in its English version, “Becoming Hitler” (2016). The latter, Othmar Plöckinger, published a book in German in 2013 called “Among Soldiers and Agitators: Hitler’s Formative Years in the German Military, 1918-1920”; three years earlier he had composed a detailed article about early biographical accounts of Hitler. The disagreement between the two historians also relates to the matter of the hysterical blindness, specifically to what followed Hitler’s recovery.

In “Mein Kampf” (1925), Hitler, a master of self-marketing, constructed scenes of how the news of Germany’s surrender and of the revolution that ousted the kaiser reached him in the hospital. His world was plunged into darkness, literally, until he experienced an epiphany: He must become a politician in order to return to the world of light. Weber maintains that Hitler in fact preferred to join the socialists at first, while Plöckinger thinks that is totally unfounded. A discussion of this substantive question did in fact stir Hitler’s wrath early in his political career.

Where Weber and Plöckinger do not disagree is on the “medical” issue of what caused the blindness and how vision was restored. Hitler “sold” the account of that development even before the putsch he organized in November 1923. Otherwise, a French newspaper would not have reported from Munich already early that year that it’s a “well-known phenomenon among the blind that they surrender to mystical ideas that help them overcome their blindness.” Nor would the narrative of the story in “Adolf Hitler: His Life and His Speeches,” published at the beginning of 1923, have included the paragraph that the translator of “The Eyewitness” quotes in her afterword: “This man, destined to eternal night, who during this hour endured crucifixion on pitiless Calvary, who suffered in body and soul… this man’s eyes shall be opened!”

The sparring historians have also addressed the issue of whether the person to whom that quote was attributed, Adolf Victor von Koerber, was really its author, or whether it was penned by another Hitler minion, or even by A.H. himself. Be that as it may, ascribing the blindness to hysteria and delivering an unflattering description of the treatment administered by Förster could not have been the explanation for the extreme lengths the Gestapo went to prevent the leaking of Hitler’s medical records. Indeed, the tendency to seize in retrospect upon “secrets” that the Third Reich ostensibly feared becoming public is a well-known fad. That’s the framework for the alleged attempt to conceal Hitler’s supposed Jewish origins, and to look for evidence of involvement by Josef Goebbels in the murder of Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff in the relationship between the latter and Goebbels’ wife.

When all is said and done, the circumstances of Hitler’s treatment, as per Förster’s account, do not provide an explanation for the rise of the Third Reich. But they served as a literary device to help propel the book with the statement, “I was his eye witness, his awakener.” From here springs the crux of the book: the description of the atmosphere in which the Third Reich operated, as created by Hitler.

Adolf Hitler is pictured in prison at Langeberg, 1924.

Lies and truths

Particularly impressive and frightening is the scene in which the narrator is among an audience that is listening to the Führer deliver a speech. It’s unlikely that the #MeToo faithful will take kindly the author’s attempt to convey in a nutshell the message of Weiss’ protagonist, who opposed Hitler: “For the first time I understood what it means to be a woman and to succumb to a man, who rapes the woman first against her will and then suddenly with her will, with her burning pains, with lust burning a thousand times more, to be absorbed in him, to grow together with him as if for eternity.”

Generally, the language Weiss uses to depict Hitler encourages our contemporary ears to pick up a warning about the present as much as it helps us to understand the past: “He lied and believed that he spoke the truth,” “So many words, so many lies,” and “The Führer never proved what he declared.”

Readers would do well to become acquainted with the history of the manuscript of “The Eyewitness.” After the Wehrmacht entered Paris, and Weiss committed suicide, the suitcase containing this and other texts disappeared. The book was only saved from oblivion because an earlier version of it had been sent to the United States as an entry in a literary competition. That apparently explains why the manuscript wasn’t discovered until after World War II and was only published 23 years after Weiss’ death in the original language, German.

This is a genuine phenomenon: In the past decade the Hebrew reader has been exposed to literature that was written from the depths of the Third Reich era and what antedated it. In 2013, for example, a Hebrew translation was published of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel “Transit,” about the ordeals of refugees from Nazi Germany at a waystation in France. One of its protagonists was modeled on Ernst Weiss, whom Seghers met in Paris.

In 2017, eight decades after its publication in Germany, the Hebrew translation appeared of “Youth Without God,” by Ödön von Horvath, a novel that deals with the challenges facing German youth when the Nazis rose to power. It’s worth noting that Von Horvath lived next to his friend Ernst Weiss at 34 Luitpold Street in Berlin, before they were both compelled to leave Germany.

Perhaps the incentive to translate books of this sort into Hebrew derives from the publication, in 2010, of Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone,” originally published in 1947, and given the attractive title here (and elsewhere) of “Alone in Berlin.” Nor was that the only novel by Fallada dealing with this period that has since appeared in Hebrew translation.

We can say, then, that in the past decade a critical mass of fiction has been created on the subject of the Third Reich that redirects the one-dimensional discussion of Nazism to the complexities that preceded the Final Solution and beyond the exclusive Jewish perspective, accompanied by a bitter wink to our own time.

It’s not surprising that in the past decade, the Hebrew bookshelf has also been augmented by works from a subgenre of novels that are seemingly written from the point of view of people within the Third Reich, whether Nir Baram’s “Good People,” written in Hebrew, or “In the Garden of Beasts,” Eric Larson’s work of narrative non-fiction, which was translated from the original English in 2015. This subgenre stems from the need to understand the story of the Third Reich from the side of the perpetrators and the bystanders, not only from the side of the victims. For awareness has increased about how easy it is for most human beings, no matter where they are, to become criminals or collaborators.

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