Hitler's Hysteria: War Neurosis and Mass Psychology in Ernst Weiß's Der Augenzeuge

By Ächtler, Norman | German Quarterly, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Hitler's Hysteria: War Neurosis and Mass Psychology in Ernst Weiß's Der Augenzeuge


Ächtler, Norman, German Quarterly


Introduction

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler dates his decision to become a politician to his hospitalization in the Pomeranian military hospital of Pasewalk in November 1918, where he experienced the end of World War I.1 Unfortunately, Mein Kampf does not go into detail about this short but apparently crucial period, which remains one of the last opaque spots in Hitler's biography.2

In 1976 Rudolph Binion introduced an unusual source to fill this gap: Ernst Weiß's last novel Der Augenzeuge, written in 1938 in Parisian exile shortly before the author committed suicide.3 In his novel, Weiß does refer to Hitler's sojourn in Pasewalk. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, his unnamed main character serves as a doctor in the military hospital of "P." for mental and nervous diseases. He deals with soldiers suffering from various kinds of war trauma. Among these "emotionally crippled,"4 one patient, "A.H.," an eccentric corporal diagnosed as "hysterically blind" and suffering from insomnia, attracts his attention. Deploying a new psychotherapeutic technique the doctor succeeds in restoring the soldier's eyesight. This episode in Der Augenzeuge functions as the linchpin of the plot. The rest of the story interweaves the fate of the narrator with the political career of his former patient, which appears to be more or less explicitly based on Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

In the very first sentence of the story, Weiß's protagonist claims with regard to this allegedly successful experiment: "Das Schicksal hat mich dazu bestimmt, im Leben eines der seltenen Menschen, welche nach dem Weltkrieg gewaltige Veränderungen in Europa hervorrufen sollten, eine gewisse Rolle zu spielen." Therefore, this central sequence of the novel has been interpreted as an adaptation of the so-called "Fasewalk Records," i.e., the lost medical files of the real patient Hitler, which Ernst Weiß apparently obtained from the psychologist who treated the dictator-to-be in the military hospital: Edmund Forster. Most recently, the British neuropsychologist David Lewis based a large section of his biography of Edmund Forster on Weiß's novel, which he claims to be a historically reliable substitute for the missing medical files: "Purportedly a work of fiction, The Eyewitness is in fact an accurate account of the treatment Edmund Forster employed, based directly on the notes that the doctor made in Hitler's medical file."5 Lewis's book is another example of studies that, following Binion, unthinkingly read Weiß's novel as a historically reliable source.

I intend to show that Der Augenzeuge is anything but a transcription of the lost "Pasewalk records." Rather, as a literary text using a historical setting for a more or less fictional plot, the novel is an attempt to explain in terms of psychology how a character like Hitler could have developed. "The First World War made Hitler possible," writes Ian Kershaw.6 Weiß, as physician and novelist, tries to explain Hitler's development from an unknown soldier to the Führer from a contemporary psychological point of view. He draws a picture of the particular circumstances in postwar Germany that traumatized the people and enabled a disturbed character like Hitler-with his irrational ideas and eccentric behavior-to become so successful. While the hospital passage presents an exceptional example of "shell shock," or-as the Germans called it-Kriegsneurose,7 the further development of the story elaborates a way of psychoanalytically linking the neurosis of an extraordinary individual with the mass psychosis of a whole people after Germany's defeat in World War I.

A(dolf) H(itler)?

Warrior of the Western Front: Celebration

"So wie wohl für jeden Deutschen, begann nun auch für mich die unvergeßlichste und größte Zeit meines irdischen Lebens," writes Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (179). One can argue that the whole text is, in every detail, a most obvious piece of propaganda and therefore cannot be taken as a serious source. …

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