Prof. Brigette Hamann – Salon.com August 28, 2011
SOME FOOTNOTES OF HISTORY are just that: random scraps of trivia that may well form part of the historical record but are of no real interest to anyone besides genuine buffs. Who was Napoleon’s podiatrist? Who cares? That is why it might at first sound like groping at the very bottom of the historical bag of tricks to write a book about Hitler’s family doctor. Unless, of course, that doctor happened to be a Jew whose remarkable life story has revealed a previously unknown side of the Austrian dictator’s character.
In fact, there has never been any mystery about Dr. Eduard Bloch. He was repeatedly interviewed by the Office of Strategic Services or OSS after his arrival in the US in 1940 and also published an autobiography in Collier’s Weekly in 1941. This information has been out there for generations, but so far no one has dared touch it.
Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann has finally gone ahead and tackled the good doctor’s tale head on. Hamann, who is best known outside her home country for her 1999 book Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, published her biography of Bloch in Germany in 2008. It has not yet appeared in the United States, but when it finally comes out we had all better be prepared to face what comes next.
Eduard Bloch was an assimilated Austrian-Jewish physician who first came into contact with the Hitler family in the town of Leonding on the outskirts of Linz when he treated Adolf’s father, Alois Hitler, shortly before his death in 1903. If the future Führer was innately “crazy,” there’s no evidence of it in the doctor’s memoirs. According to Bloch, young Adolf was
quiet, well mannered and neatly dressed. He had patiently waited in the waiting room until it was his turn, then like every fourteen or fifteen year old boy, made a bow, and always thanked the doctor politely. Like the other boys in Linz, he had worn short lederhosen and a green woolen hat with a feather. He had been tall and pale and looked older than he was. His eyes which were inherited from his mother were large, melancholy and thoughtful. To a very large extent, this boy lived within himself. What dreams he dreamed I do not know.
In 1907 Bloch diagnosed his mother Klara with breast cancer. Adolf was devastated. Bloch noted that the young man was utterly devoted to his mother, but not in any unwholesome way. “He slept in the tiny bedroom adjoining that of his mother so that he could be summoned at any time during the night. During the day he hovered about the large bed in which she lay.” Upon Klara’s death, Dr. Bloch asked for only a modest fee from the struggling family and refused to charge them for house calls and extra medications. A few days after the funeral, Adolf and his sisters came to visit the doctor at his office in Linz.
Adolf wore a dark suit and a loosely knotted cravat. Then, as now, a shock of hair tumbled over his forehead. His eyes were on the floor while his sisters were talking. Then came his turn. He stepped forward and took my hand. Looking into my eyes, he said: “I shall be grateful to you forever.” That was all. Then he bowed. I wonder if today he recalls this scene. I am quite sure that he does, for in a sparing sense Adolf Hitler has kept to his promise of gratitude. Favors were. granted me which I feel sure were accorded no other Jew in all Germany or Austria.
In his testimony to the OSS, Bloch stated that during Hitler’s Vienna days, when the frustrated artist was supposedly already a convinced anti-Semite, he mailed Bloch a postcard with the words: “From Vienna I send you my greetings. Yours, always faithfully, Adolf Hitler.” Hitler also once sent New Year’s wishes on one of his own self-painted post cards and even presented the doctor with one of his paintings. Many years later, Gestapo agents came to Bloch’s home and politely confiscated the two postcards. He had lost track of the painting long before.
Bloch went on to tell the OSS that
in 1937, a number of local Nazis attended the party conference at Nuremberg. After the conference Hitler invited several of these people to come with him to his mountain villa at Berchtesgaden. The Führer asked for news of Linz. How was the town ? Were people there supporting him? He asked for news of me. Was I still alive, still practicing? Then he made a statement irritating to local Nazis. “Dr. Bloch,” said Hitler, “is an Edeljude - a noble Jew. If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question.”
Then in 1938, when Hitler entered Austria in triumph, he visited his hometown of Linz.
It was a moment of tense excitement. For years Hitler had been denied the right to visit the country of his birth. Now that country belonged to him. The elation that he felt was written on his features. He smiled, waved, gave the Nazi salute to the people that crowded the street. Then for a moment he glanced up at my window. I doubt that he saw me but he must have had a moment of reflection. Here was the home of the Edeljude who had diagnosed his mother’s fatal cancer; here was the consulting room of the man who had treated his sisters; here was the place he had gone as a boy to have his minor ailments attended…. It was a brief moment, then the procession was gone.
During his visit, Hitler met up with his boyhood friends and made a point of asking former neighbors about Bloch’s personal well-being.
In 1938, Bloch – like all other Jews in Austria – was forced to close his doctor’s office. He then addressed a personal letter to Hitler recalling their earlier friendship and asking for help. Hitler immediately obliged and placed Bloch and his family under Gestapo protection. They were the only Jews in Linz to enjoy such a privilege and were soon practically the only Jews left in town. The authorities then allowed the Bloch and his wife Lilli to remain in their home without disturbance for nearly three years and even allowed Bloch to put up displaced Jews. In a time when nearly all Jews had their passports confiscated, Bloch was able to renew his repeatedly. In fact, throughout this period the Linz police department regularly informed Bloch that he had nothing whatsoever to fear. The doctor was certain that the local Gestapo office received regular instructions from the Reich Chancellery. But Bloch nevertheless feared for his safety and eventually arranged to emigrate to the United States.
Hamann’s new book chronicles how Bloch was permitted to sell his house at a normal market price and keep the money. Later, Bloch sent a personal letter to the Führer via his own daughter and Hitler’s sister asking to be allowed to take his life savings with him when he emigrated to America. This was a time when most Jews were robbed of all they possessed upon emigration. But this time Bloch received no preferential treatment. However, he did receive a letter of protection from the Reich Chancellery, which allowed him to cross the Reich border without any of the chicanery most Jews had to endure. He and Lilli then sailed for New York City a few days before Christmas, 1940, and settled in the Bronx. Bloch could not practise medicine in the United States with an Austrian license and lived in obscurity until his own death from cancer in June, 1945.
What are we to make of this account? It certainly topples one popular interpretation of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. In the 1970s, noted psycho-historian Rudolph Binion constructed an entire career for himself out of arguing that “Hitler’s mother cannot have escaped fatal poisoning from a given treatment applied to her by a Jewish doctor in her last weeks of life and … Hitler’s experience of her agony was the unconscious source of his deadly hate for the Jews.” What’s more, “The basic libidinal thrust behind Hitler’s doctrine of ‘feeding ground’ [referring to Lebensraum] was entirely oral as far as I can see,” even though, Binion admits, “the fact that Hitler was stuck on his mother’s breast did not yield his designs on Soviet Russia.” Since the publication of Hamann’s book at the latest, this theory can safely be tossed onto the mounting dung heap of history.
But if such a scenario as that described by Dr. Bloch is possible, then just why did Hitler hate “the Jews” anyway? Entire libraries have been written about this question. The short explanation is that Hitler was not a classic racial anti-Semite, like Himmler or Heydrich, and actually regarded the whole notion of a genuine biological “Jewish race” as an expediency. Instead, Hitler viewed the cosmopolitanism and intellectualism he associated with Europe’s Jewish community as an immediate threat to the worldview he had hammered together for himself out of four years of unrelenting wartime propaganda during his formative soldier days. The Führer saw militarism and conquest as being threatened by Jewish-organized pacifism and revolution, authoritarianism by Jewish democracy, male dominance by Jewish feminism and contraception, fanatical faith in “final victory” by the spirit of criticism and Freudian psychoanalysis, racial purity by Jewish tolerance and sexual freedom, traditional values and culture by Jewish modernism and atheism, and an organic and hierarchical social order by both Jewish capitalism and socialism – the one-two sucker punch of the international Jewish conspiracy. As the carriers of this intellectual “infection,” “the Jews” had to be physically liquidated before they contaminated the entire planet with what he called “Bolshevism” and what we today call “liberalism” and “globalization.”
Well, at least Eduard and Lilli Bloch made it. Does the doctor’s story affirm Hitler’s underlying humanity or merely underscore his utter depravity? I would argue that Dr. Bloch’s fate was the exception that proved the rule. There is nothing in the least bit uplifting about saving one couple’s life and the lives of a handful of other “noble Jews” while ordering the murder of millions more. As a matter of fact, it was precisely this sort of arbitrariness that made the Third Reich so terrifying.
Nobody wanted to hear Bloch’s recollections during the war, and a conspiracy of silence still surrounds him today. His potentially heart-warming story turned his contemporary readers’ hearts to cold hard stone. But people back then were made of tougher stuff. Can we still resist the siren song of kitsch? What keeps me awake at night is the thought that once Hamann’s nuanced book appears in English, some producer somewhere – say, the makers of the Hallmark Hall of Fame or even Steven Spielberg himself – will discover it and transmogrify its alarming contents into an uplifting Christmas movie for everyone’s edification. I foresee a tearful secret reunion in Linz and an annual exchange of Christmas cards. The film’s moral will be something like “Even Hitler was a good person deep down.” [I have posted elsewhere about the hazards of "feel-good movies" about appalling subjects, particularly Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others.] Such a film would truly mean the end of an entire era of anti-Fascist education. But somehow I sense that our sentimental and brain-addled culture is just about ripe for such a project. Call it It’s a Wonderful Reich.
This time you can’t say nobody warned you.
Brigitte Hamann: Hitlers Edeljude – Das Leben des Armenarztes Eduard Bloch. Piper, Munich, 2008.
Office of Strategic Services, Hitler Source Book, Interview With Dr. Eduard Bloch (March 5, 1943).
Eduard Bloch: “My Patient Hitler,” in Collier’s Weekly, 15-22 March 1941.
Rudolph Binion: “Springtime for Hitler,” in The New York Review of Books, Volume 22, Number 10, June 12, 1975.