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Hitler's Inner Enemy : Study Suggests the Dictator Suffered From Dementia Brought on by Parkinson's Disease

February 22, 1996|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler's tactics were brilliant, his foresight remarkable, according to many military historians. Working directly in opposition to the best advice of his generals, he conquered most of Europe militarily and his prospects seemed unlimited.

If he had retained his wits, some critics speculate, he might have continued his expansion--winning the war in Europe and dictating a peace with the United States.

But he didn't. Beginning in 1941, while still engaged in a bitter battle with Britain, he attacked the Soviet Union, opening a second front that eventually proved to be his downfall. His decision-making grew continually worse and, by 1945, he was a delusionary old man isolated in a Berlin bunker and moving imaginary troops around in final battles.

How Hitler came to be the tyrant he was and why he lost his decision-making abilities have been topics of great interest in the 50 years since the end of World War II. Was his brain affected by syphilis contracted while the young Hitler was a student in Bavaria? Perhaps it was the copious quantities of esoteric drugs--"uppers," "nerve tonics" and heart medications, among others--prescribed for him by his personal physician for symptoms real and imagined. Or was it the psychological aftereffects of an attempted assassination?

Now, a new study suggests it may have been a virus that caused him to develop Parkinson's disease, which crippled his arm, bent his body, sent him into hiding and impaired his ability to handle complex decisions. That is the conclusion of Dr. Abraham N. Lieberman, an eminent neurologist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix and the clinical director of the National Parkinson Foundation.

Lieberman has been studying Hitler for many years and, like a few other researchers, is firmly convinced that the German Fuhrer suffered from Parkinson's disease. Hitler's Parkinson's, he argues, may have been caused by a viral infection incurred around 1916, when a pandemic of Von Economo's encephalitis hit Europe. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain caused, in this case, by a still-unidentified virus. Researchers have found that almost half of those who contracted the disease in the 1916 outbreak later developed a form of Parkinson's.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive, debilitating disorder of the brain that currently affects at least 1 million Americans, most of them over 60. It is characterized by tremors, rigidity of the limbs and loss of muscle control. As many as a third of victims also suffer dementia, a loss of critical thought processes.

The first symptoms of Hitler's Parkinson's were apparent, Lieberman says, in Leni Reifenstahl's 1934 film "Triumph of the Will," made when Hitler was 45 years old. The decreased and slowed movement of his left arm, a symptom called bradykinesia, was visible when he arrived at a Nazi Party congress in the morning, Lieberman says, and became more apparent during the course of the day and the evening, as is typical with Parkinson's.

By 1940, according to eyewitness accounts, Hitler had developed a so-called resting tremor in his left hand. Such tremors occur when the muscles of the hand are relaxed, as opposed to when they are "activated," such as while grasping objects. Thereafter, Hitler tried to camouflage the tremor by keeping his left hand in his pocket, holding something in it or grasping it with his other hand.

In a 1945 Swedish newsreel that escaped German censors, his disorder is quite apparent, Lieberman says. The film shows him walking slowly, not moving his left arm at all. He has a rigid, mask-like expression on his face, a bent-forward, stooped posture and a resting tremor. Other symptoms that had become obvious by this time, Lieberman says, include speech problems, small, cramped handwriting and episodes of depression. Other signs Lieberman points to as suggestive of post-encephalitic Parkinson's include oculogyric crises, spasms that force the eyeballs to turn up for several seconds; sleep disturbances; palilalia, a repetitive speech pattern; and rage attacks.

Some physicians contemporary with Hitler also thought he had Parkinson's. According to a soon-to-be-published book by Brown University historian Robert G.L. Waite, at least three neurologists--none of whom actually examined Hitler--concluded in 1945 and 1946 that he suffered from Parkinson's.

But that interpretation fell out of favor in the 1950s, only to be resuscitated now by Lieberman. His is still a minority voice, however. "The standard interpretation now is that [Hitler's] health looks sort of shaky by the end of the war . . . because of ministrations by his quack personal doctor," Dr. Theodor Morrell, according to historian Sam Goodfellow of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. "He was [also] physically debilitated after the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt," in which he barely escaped from a bomb.

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