What was it that caused Adolf Hitler’s physical and mental health to collapse in the closing days of World War II? He was losing the war, of course- surely that had a great deal to do with it. But for more than 60 years, historians have wondered if there was more to it than that.
On April 21, 1945, an SS physician named Ernst-Günther Schenck was summoned to Adolf Hitler’s bunker in Berlin and ordered to stock it with food. By that time, Germany’s war was hopelessly lost -most of the country was already in Allied hands. Soviet troops had almost completely circled Berlin and were battling their way into the center of the city. Rather than flee, Hitler decided to make his final stand in his führerbunker in the heart of the Nazi capital. He would remain there until the end, which for him was just nine days away.
Like all Germans, Dr. Schenck had been fed a steady diet of photographs, films, and propaganda posters of Hitler since the dictator had come to power in 1933. But the man he saw in the bunker looked nothing like those images. The 56-year-old Hitler “was a living corpse, a dead soul,” Schenck remembered in a 1985 interview. “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.”
Even more shocking than the way Hitler looked was the way he moved about the bunker. He walked with the slow, halting shuffle of a man thirty years older, dragging his left leg behind him as he went. He couldn’t go more than a few steps without grabbing onto something for support.
Hitler’s head, arms, and entire left side trembled and jerked uncontrollably. No longer able to write his own name, he signed important documents with a rubber stamp. He had always insisted on shaving himself -the murderer of millions could not stand the thought of another man holding a razor to his throat- but his trembling hands made that impossible, too. He could not lift food to his mouth without spilling it down the front of his uniform and could not take a seat without help -after he shuffled up to a table, an aide pushed a chair behind him, and he plopped down into it.
Hitler’s mental state had deteriorated as well. His thinking was muddled, his memory was failing, and his emotions whipsawed back and forth between long bouts of irrational euphoria (especially irrational considering how close Germany was to defeat) and fits of screaming, uncontrollable rage that lasted for hours. Schenck remained in Berlin until the end. On April 29, Hitler married his longtime mistress, Eva Braun, and the following day the pair committed suicide in the Führerbunker. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7.
After the war, Schenck spent a decade in Soviet prison camps. He never forgot what he saw in the Führerbunker, and after his release he spent years poring over Hitler’s medical records in an attempt to discover just what had caused the dictator’s health to decline so rapidly in the final years and months of his life.
He was not alone in this effort- in the more than 60 years since the end of the war, many historians, physicians, and World War II buffs have done the same thing. What caused Hitler’s collapse -was it Parkinson’s disease? Tertiary syphilis? Giant cell arteritis? Countless theories have been advanced to explain Hitler’s physical and mental decline, and after all this time the experts are no closer to agreeing than they were on the day he died.
Ernst-Gunther Schenck himself survived the war and died in Aachen 21st December 1998, old age 98.