White House spokesman Sean Spicer was roundly censured this week for saying that Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons, when, in fact, from the end of 1941, the Nazis gassed nearly three-million Jews in occupied Poland and thousands of non-Jewish enemies at concentration camps in other parts of the Reich.
As far as misstatements about chemical warfare go, Spicer’s briefing debacle came nearly 100 years after Hitler made an unsubstantiated claim about gas warfare being perpetrated upon himself.
During the last part of his World War I service as a corporal, Hitler was a message runner in the trenches of Belgium. Following his 1918 evacuation from a key battlefield where German forces had previously deployed chlorine gas (in 1915) and later mustard gas, the 29-year old corporal told army doctors he had been blinded by British gas.
“In the night of October 13, the English gas attack on the southern front before Ypres burst loose,” wrote Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” his memoir published in 1925.
According to Hitler, “[the British] used yellow-cross gas, whose effects were still unknown to us as far as personal experience was concerned. In this same night I myself was to become acquainted with it,” wrote Hitler, who said he was “seized with pain which grew worse with every quarter hour, and at seven in the morning I stumbled and tottered back with burning eyes [to deliver] my last report of the war.”
Within hours of the attack, he wrote, Hitler’s eyes “turned into glowing coals,” and he no longer had his vision — a symptom of exposure to mustard gas.
During a month of recuperation and treatments, Hitler was further shaken by news of Germany’s surrender to the Allies. He claimed to have been slowly recovering his vision until the “disgraceful” news of his Fatherland’s capitulation triggered a relapse.
“I could stand it no longer,” wrote Hitler of his response to learning of the armistice on November 11, 1918. “It became impossible for me to sit still one minute more. Again everything went black before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow.”
Revealingly, Hitler attributed his loss of vision to emotions about Germany’s surrender, and not to the effects of gas. “English gas” was a potent enemy, but — Hitler realized — so were his own shaky nerves.
Sore from rubbing, not gas
For decades, Hitler’s account of being the victim of British mustard gas in Belgium was accepted at face value, and it is still widely believed. Throughout World War II, Hitler spoke to his paladins of an aversion to chemical weapons based on this personal experience.
Before the Nazis began gassing Germans with disabilities in the “T4” program, as well as before the construction of death camps to “resettle” Europe’s Jews, the medical records on Hitler’s wartime injury — including his alleged encounter with mustard gas — were destroyed. Key witnesses to Hitler’s behavior during the fall of 1918 had committed suicide or “disappeared,” leaving the Fuhrer’s own “Mein Kampf” as the primary source for what took place on that battlefield in Flanders.
In 2011, British historian Thomas Weber provided evidence — in the form of a physician’s note — that Hitler suffered from “hysterical amblyopia” also known as hysterical blindness.
Another British historian and Hitler expert, Peter Caddick-Adams, agrees that the dictator either faked being a victim of gas warfare, or convinced himself he was one.
“In Hitler’s case there was no lasting or serious damage to his eyes — they were sore from rubbing, not gas — which suggested that the cause was mental not physical,” wrote Caddick-Adams in his book on the Fuhrer’s use of “willpower” during the closing phase of World War II.
“[Hitler] could not see because he believed he had gone blind,” wrote Caddick-Adams of the future Fuhrer’s mental descent at the end of World War I.
Guiding Hitler’s recovery was a physician familiar with cases like his. Known for “bullying” his patients into recovery, the Munich-born Edmund Forster included a hefty dose of ego-boosting in his treatment of the eccentric corporal from Austria.
“Essentially lying to his patient, Forster told Hitler that while ‘any ordinary individual would be condemned to lifelong blindness by such injuries, there remained the possibility that someone extraordinary, a man of destiny chosen by a higher power for some divine purpose, might overcome an obstacle as great as this,’” wrote Caddick-Adams.
Playing into Hitler’s wounded pride, Forster — who has been called “the man who invented Hitler” — lit a match in front of his patient’s face. “Have absolute faith in yourself,” he demanded of Hitler, whose sight returned within days.
After recovering, Hitler was praised by Forster for “behaving like a man [who] managed to put light into your eyes because of your willpower.” For the rest of his life, the dictator referred to his weeks in the Pasework hospital as his most religious experience, a period during which he identified with and “became” a new “Jesus Christ” for Germany, as he later framed it.
The dictator referred to his weeks in the Pasework hospital as his most religious experience
Almost three decades after this epiphany, as Germany faced losing a second world war under his rule, Hitler recounted the old tale of redemption. Because he had “willed” his own vision to return and used his recuperation to plan for the resurrection of Germany, the leader was able to explain his recovery in biblical terms.
Hitler would transform himself — and later Germany — into an entity capable of perpetrating genocide.
“When I was confined to bed, the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany, that I would make it great,” the dictator wrote in his memoir. “I knew immediately that it would be realized.”