Briefly Noted: Was Hitler Ill?

Was Hitler ill? You bet he was, but not in any sense that would exonerate him or make him less responsible for his actions. In a recent edition of London Review of Books, Richard J. Evans reviews Was Hitler Ill? by Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle.[1] Neumann and Eberle survey the various explanations offered as the reason(s) for Hitler’s violent reign over the Third Reich (and extermination of over 6 million Jews and dissenters), but focus on the “mental illness” explanation which has been one of the most popular. They conclude that Hitler was sane “according to any reasonable definition of the term, and fully responsible for his actions.”

Evans recounts the possible explanations for Hitler’s actions. Explanations for his anti-Semitism include: that he had Jewish ancestry (and presumably was ashamed of this); he had a bad Jewish doctor who had overcharged his family; he once visited a Jewish prostitute; and he was a sadomasochist, and in Freudian manner, “projected his sexual perversions onto a world stage.” Numerous biographers have argued that Hitler was homosexual and the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 was a means to cover up (to that point), by murder, any with knowledge of his forays.

His heterosexual relationship with Eva Braun was for Hitler likely a public relations move to protect his public persona and health (per his doctor, Theo Morell). Evans provides a laundry list of health problems Hitler experienced: chronic hoarseness from speechmaking, dysentery, irritable bowel syndrome, a tremor in his left arm that many began to notice in 1941, and bad teeth. His health declined and never fully recovered after the injuries he suffered in the unsuccessful assassination attempt of 1944. During all this Hitler’s doctor, Morell, prescribed at least 82 drugs taken by Hitler, according to Neumann and Eberle.

Kudos if you already feel a sense of irony. For as Evans states, “the contrast with his regime’s obsessive drive to breed a race of healthy Aryans . . . was striking.” By cataloging Hitler’s health (or lack thereof) Neumann and Eberle, then, firmly answer the question of their book Was Hitler Ill? The answer is “a resounding no; or, to put it more accurately, he was no more so than everyone is at one time or other. He wasn’t mentally ill; whether his beliefs were rational is an entirely different matter.” Most would rightly argue his beliefs were not rational, rather they were the basis of his racist, perverse, and evil thoughts manifested in political control and violence.

In response to the authors’ fine point that Hitler was responsible for his actions, and cannot be exonerated on the basis of “mental illness,” I’ll make only one point, albeit an extended one: Hitler was indeed sick. He was sick unto death, and as such, was sick not only physically, but more important spiritually, and his spiritual sickness affected him in all of his capacities: moral, rational, creative, relational, affective, and so forth. For sin is a multi-faceted horror that affects the whole human being; it is a vandalism of the shalom God intended for his human imagers.

As Cornelius Plantinga outlines in Not the Way Its Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, sin vandalizes shalom in at least nine ways.[2] Those nine ways shed light on Hitler’s sickness unto death. Sin is a corruption, in that it both blurs distinctions and destroys unions. This can be seen in Hitler’s destruction of the union God intends for the human race (e.g. Jew and non-Jew).  Sin is a perversion, in that it twists God’s creation toward unworthy or wrong ends. This can be seen in the way Hitler turned his own loyalties, energies, and desires away from God and toward building his own kingdom with a jerry-rigged ideology that sought to justify the diversion. Sin is a pollution, in that it brings together what ought to remain apart. It is a disintegration, in that it divides that which ought to be together. It is a progressive corruption, in that one sin leads to another. Like a cancer, it not only kills but reproduces itself. One notes the progressive corruption taking place over the course of Hitler’s life.

Sin is both a privation and a parasite. It is not normal. It is an alien intruder, party-crashing God’s good creation. C. S. Lewis writes, ““Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.” Evil must draw upon God’s good creation in order to attack God’s good creation. “The smartest blows against shalom,” writes Plantinga, “are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence – that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.” And again, “…rebellion borrows boldness, imagination, and creativity from the very God it attacks.” Precisely because God had created Hitler in his image and gifted him greatly, Hitler was able to draw upon those gifts to attack his fellow imagers and vandalize God’s shalom.

Sin is a masquerade, in that it pretends to be what it is not. “To do its worst,” Plantinga writes, “evil needs to look its best. Evil has to spend a lot on makeup. . . . Vices have to masquerade as virtues – lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern.” Hitler’s Aryan philosophy did exactly this, making his Aryan agenda appear attractive to the German people. But sin is also a great folly, in that it goes against the grain of the universe. It flouts wisdom, and at no point moreso than its desire to worship something or somebody more than God.

Finally, sin is addictive. God created us to long for him, but sin is taps into this longing and siphons its energies into false gods who strangle life rather than giving life. Hitler, an addict like the rest of us, needed to face the truth about his addiction, tearing away the layers of denial and self-deception that have “protected his supply.” In fact, as Plantinga writes, “Addicts are…tragic figures whose fall is often owed to a combination of factors so numerous, so complex, and elusive that only a proud and foolish therapist would propose a neat taxonomy of them.”

Hitler’s evil life arose from numerous and complex factors which we cannot firmly or comprehensively discern, so it would be proud and foolish of us to propose a neat taxonomy of them. The one thing we can affirm, taking our cue from Paul in the book of Romans, is that Hitler was an idolater whose suppression of the truth led him on a downward and evil spiral in which his thoughts were futile and his foolish heart was darkened, in which he did evil deeds and approved of others who did them also (Rom 1:18-32).  Hitler was sick unto death.

[1] Richard J. Evans, “Thank you, Dr Morrell” in London Review of Books (Feb. 21, 2013): p. 37; Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle, Was Hitler Ill? (Polity Press: 2012).

[2] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).