Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Eyewitness by Ernst Weiss: what, then, wrought that change?

Several quotes regarding the pivotal moment in Ernst Weiss' The Eyewitness:

The aftermath of the First World War found Adolf Hitler a charismatic political orator spewing rage and hate. The war itself had seen that same Adolph Hitler an innocuous underling in a front-line Bavarian regiment. The turning point came at the close of the war, when Hitler was hospitalized in Pasewalk for mustard gas poisoning. But mustard gas in and of itself does not work such black magic. What, then, wrought that change in Hitler?

Enclosed were Toland’s notes on a still-classified 1943 United States naval Intelligence report on a refugee in Iceland: an Austrian psychiatrist named Karl Kroner. Kroner identified Hitler’s Pasewalk doctor as the German psychiatrist Edmund Forster. By Kroner’s account, Forster had diagnosed Hitler’s complaint of October-November 1918 as psychopathic hysteria and had paid the penalty for this diagnosis by a dubious suicide in September 1933. I promptly scoured Forster’s publications for mentions of psychopathic hysteria and spotted one dated 1922: it contained a transparent reference to Hitler in Pasewalk couched in the very language of Weiss’s later chapter on “A.H.” in “P.” Some months later Mona Wollheim, who had typed up the manuscript of Der Augenzeuge [The Eyewitness] for Weiss in Paris in 1939 and whom I contacted in New York, drew my attention to a passage in the second edition of Walter Mehring’s autobiographical Die verlorene Bibliothek. There Mehring related that in the summer of 1933 Hitler’s Pasewalk psychiatrist had brought his case records on Hitler to Paris and divulged them to the collaborators on the German emigrant weekly Das Neue Tage-Buch, among them Ernst Weiss, before returning to Germany to meet his fate. … The “more” that I learned made it clear that the hero of Der Augenzeuge was modeled on Forster point for point in the novelistic sequence, running from the “miracle cure” to the thirteen days of interrogation.

- from the Foreword by Rudolph Binion

Fate decreed that I should play a special role in the life of one of those people who after World War I created such massive changes and immeasurable suffering in Europe. I have often asked myself what drove me in the fall of 1918 to such an intervention—was it lust for knowledge, the chief characteristic of a researcher in medical science, or was it a desire to act as fate, to be omnipotent, like God himself?

- the opening of The Eyewitness

Weiss's last novel, The Eyewitness, written in 1938, describes a young German veteran of World War I, identified as "A.H.," who has been sent to a military hospital because he is suffering from hysterical blindness (now termed conversion disorder). The character is evidently modeled on Adolf Hitler, who was indeed treated for conversion disorder at a military hospital in Pasewalk, but scholars dispute to what extent the account is fictional. The writer Walter Mehring claimed in his autobiography that Weiss had access in Paris to Hitler's Pasewalk medical file, which had been sent out of the country for safekeeping by Edmund Forster, the psychiatrist who treated Hitler. The whereabouts of the file today are unknown, however, and the real Edmund Forster disapproved of hypnosis, the treatment used to cure "A.H." in Weiss's novel.

- from the entry on Ernst Weiss at Wikipedia

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. Weiss, as physician and novelist, tries to explain Hitler's development from an unknown soldier to the Fuhrer 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, 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.

- from “Hitler's hysteria: war neurosis and mass psychology in Ernst Weiss's Der Augenzeuge" by Norman Achtler

I found The Eyewitness an engaging novel regardless of Weiss' access to or use of the Pasewalk records. I tend to lean toward Norman Achtler’s analysis, although in the end it doesn’t really matter to me beyond the obvious historical interest. The treatment takes up only two pages at the midpoint of the novel. Of more importance is Weiss’ exploration of his countrymen's mindset and why they were willing to be led by such hatred. This is the essential part of the book--Weiss had a firm grasp of what was going on and why it was happening as it unfolded.

The next post will look at the parts of the novel other than patient A.H.’s treatment.


obooki said...

I have this book somewhere. I shall get around to reading it once I've finished The Aristocrat, which I've been reading for over a year now. - I do like the sub-genre of Adolf Hitler novels.

Dwight said...

It's a good introduction to Weiss, although Georg Letham is a much better novel. The interesting part (to me, anyway) was his analysis of the German mindset between the wars that facilitated Hitler's rise.