The Death of Adolf Hitler

On this day in 1945, as the Third Reich crumbled before the onslaught of the Allied forces, Adolf Hitler took his own life, either by a gunshot, or a gunshot combined with a cyanide pill.

His medical history has been a subject of controversy ever since. It seems clear that he was a monorchid, that is, he had only one testicle, and was predominantly asexual.

A further diagnosis has been suggested, one that potentially explains much about his political theory and ambitions, though the evidence is entirely circumstantial. It has been suggested that he had neurosyphilis; this could certainly explain his attacks of abdominal pain, his heart problems, his 13 pages in Mein Kampf about syphilis, and his desire to exterminate the Jews and other undesirables. And his personal physician was a dermatologist.

Hitler was a very struggling artist in Vienna in 1908. The theory suggests that he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute in this year; the circumstances are very suggestive, but there is no definite proof.

He then, it’s supposed, developed neurosyphilis, a manifestation of tertiary syphilis. Three stages in untreated syphilis are classically recognised. Firstly, a painless swelling or chancre develops soon after infection; this is followed some weeks later by a generalised rash which gradually fades. Much later, syphilis can be seen to have affected the brain and nervous system, as neurosyphilis; there can be cardiac lesions in the heart and disease in the great vessels, and there can be be progressive skin lesions (the ‘great pox’) . It can be difficult, without specific laboratory tests, to diagnose syphilis; not for nothing is it known as the ‘great imitator’.

Hitler’s physician during WW2 (Dr Theodore Morell) was a dermatologist, a specialist in skin diseases (and a charlatan). You might wonder what this has to do with syphilis. However, in German speaking areas, then as today, dermatologists were also specialists in venereal diseases (VD) or STIs, as we would now call them. This was because of the skin lesions in territory syphilis which could be very difficult to distinguish from other causes.

Hitler certainly associated syphilis with Jews and seems to have thought of it as a hereditary disease amongst them which they spread to Ayrians through Jewish prostitutes.

Before penicillin there was no effective treatment or cure for syphilis; mercury preparations, which were very toxic, were tried but weren’t effective, giving rise to the saying, ‘A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury’.

If this theory is correct, Hitler wasn’t alone. Winston Churchill’s father, Randolph, died of syphilis, as did the French impressionist Manet. James Joyce may have been a sufferer, though this is also strenuously denied; the pianist and composer Scott Joplin and Al Capone were also diseased; Mrs Isabella Beeton, and very, very many others. Indeed, it was once believed, entirely erroneously, that syphilis made people much more creative in early middle age, so syphilis in a young man was something to be welcomed.

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