Did Parkinson’s Disease Influence Hitler?

By Neuroskeptic | June 30, 2015 4:14 am

A new paper from a group of American neurologists makes the case that Hitler suffered from Parkinson’s disease for much of his life, and that some of his most fateful decisions were influenced by the neurological disorder.

The article is by Raghav Gupta and colleagues and it appears in World Neurosurgery – a journal with an interesting political history of its own.

Gupta et al. note that

The possibility of Hitler suffering from Parkinson’s has long been the subject of debate… [a researcher] Lieberman suggested that Hitler suffered from Parkinson’s as early as 1933: video evidence depicts that Hitler exhibited progressive motor function deterioration from 1933 to 1945.

That Hitler suffered from Parkinson’s at the end of his life is not a new idea but Gupta et al. say that Hitler’s disease may have impacted large parts of his career, making him impulsive and reckless, and ultimately making him lose WW2:

We propose that Hitler’s condition may have led him to attack Russia prematurely [in 1941]… Lieberman has suggested that the decision to invade Russia without and before defeating Britain on the western front and waiting for reinforcements from Japan, was not only reckless but also was influenced by Hitler’s failing health.

The authors cite other bad decisions of Hitler’s such as the failure to defend Normandy in 1944, and his refusal to allow his forces to withdraw from Stalingrad in 1942, as products of the dictator’s “volatile temperament” which, they say, may have been exacerbated by his Parkinson’s.

dopamine_hitlerBut military incompetence is not the end of it. Gupta et al. go as far as to suggest that Hitler’s inhuman policies were influenced by his disease:

Hitler often accused, deceived, and betrayed others for personal gain and was especially known for his lack of remorse and sympathy, which can be further associated with his Parkinson’s… The character traits which define Hitler as a notorious political leader and brutal dictator, one who carried out innumerous war crimes in the 20th century, may then be directly associated with his diagnosis.

I’m really not sure what to make of this. Gupta et al. seem to be suggesting that Parkinson’s can make people, literally, prone to becoming like Adolf Hitler. I don’t think this will go down well with Parkinson’s sufferers. The authors go on to say that

Hitler’s inhumane personality, marked by a true lack of sympathy and remorse, can also be ascribed to his condition, often compelling him to act in ways that we today characterize as brutal, callous, and unethical.

One problem with this theory is that it can’t explain Hitler’s behaviour before 1933, a year Gupta et al. suggest as the onset of the disease. Yet Hitler had been impulsive and unrealistic long before that.

As early as 1923, the young Hitler rashly decided to launch the Beer Hall Putsch, an armed uprising to seize the city of Munich and ultimately overthrow German democracy. The plan failed and Hitler was imprisoned. Hitler’s ‘inhumane, brutal, callous, and unethical’ views did not arise in 1933 either. Hitler published Mein Kampf, a book hardly known for its compassion, in 1925.

Perhaps mindful of this point, Gupta et al. actually suggest that Hitler developed Parkinson’s long before 1933. They state as a fact that

Hitler began suffering from early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease sometime after World War I, including dyspepsia, colon spasms, and pathological sleep habits such as severe insomnia.

I’m not a neurologist, but this seems like a huge leap. Indigestion and insomnia are hardly unique to Parkinson’s! Overall, I’m not convinced by all this.

ResearchBlogging.orgGupta R, Kim C, Agarwal N, Lieber B, & Monaco EA 3rd (2015). Understanding the Influence of Parkinson’s Disease on Adolf Hitler’s Decision-Making during World War II. World Neurosurgery PMID: 26093359

CATEGORIZED UNDER: history, papers, politics, select, Top Posts
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  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa

    I’m just a common sense person, but they guy just can’t be a run of the mill ASPD type personality? Torquemada also had it in for jews due to being jilted by a jewess, so what’s so hard to understand?

    Comparative scale isn’t that different, even the systematical way of extermination.

    Why look for all kinds of ‘explanations’ when the obvious one is so easy? they guy was nuts.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Hitler’s impulsive behavior is explained by speed, as is his decay. Hitler’s daily vitamin regime included amphetamine. Germany discovered amphetamine in 1887. In the late 1920s amphetamine was prescribed to ease breathing in asthmatics. Hitler was gassed in WWI. Parkinsonian symptoms are alleviated by speed.

    A large fraction of male schoolchildren are speeding right now – Adderall and Vyvanse literally, and other speedy pharma like Ritalin ( a favorite among mothers – for themselves). Hitler, 1933-1945, 12 years. 2nd grade through high school ought to be the large case confirmation. Frank Zappa PSA, “rot your body, rot your mind, cucaracha!”

    • rthorat

      Right on. His Parkinson’s was no doubt caused by his daily use of amphetamine. The symptoms would be masked at first by the drug, but would become visible as he got progressively worse. A Kaiser study a few years ago found a 60% increase in Parkinson’s among those who had taken amphetamine for weight loss. We also know that abusers of illegal stimulants are prone to Parkinson’s. This is not surprising given the pharmacology of amphetamine. Good luck getting a researcher to touch this topic, given how much money and power is involved with stimulants.

      • Jay Norris

        Right ON! Hitler’s problems were caused by being evil not sick, he became sick by using the “miracle cures” of his doctor, Theodor Morrell. Bad combination: drug use, meglomania, slavish adoration by those around him and missunderstanding the strength of the Soviet Union.

  • Wouter

    Let’s for the sake of argument say that Hitler’s Parkinson’s disease in fact can explain some of his decissions/character traits. Might one take that to mean that Hitler should not be held accountable for his actions during WWII? At which point do we switch from “sure, you’ve a got an illness, but it was still all you, buddy.” to “Oh poor soul, that disease made you do horrible things, but we know it wasn’t you.”?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Well, the same dilemma applies to other influences, not just medical ones. For instance, Hitler was born into an anti-Semitic society. Does this excuse (even partly) his own anti-Semitism?

  • Friz Martin

    That a chronic physical affliction would annoy a disturbed mind to the point of influencing the actions of that mind actually seems quite logical. Feeling sick or lousy about ones disabilities can fluster even the finest person’s emotions. It need not necessarily be biologically tied to the affliction.

    • H. Davis

      And Stalin had…

  • Buddy199

    My diagnosis is a bit old fashioned. He was evil.

  • OWilson

    I knew it!

    Evil Western capitalism didn’t actually win WW2.

    Hitler was just a “victim” of a degenerative disease.

    • Mike Richardson

      Well, Western capitalism plus Eastern Communism (the Soviet Union did play a pretty big role). But I do get your point about deflecting credit from the outside forces necessary to defeat Hitler. He had some self destructive tendencies, but they were probably due more to him being a narcissistic sociopath than someone with the early stages of Parkinson’s. I’ve known a few folks with Parkinson’s disease, and somehow they all managed to avoid becoming deranged mass murderers. I’d say this thesis might need a little more work.

  • paul wright

    As a person with parkinsons, I can add one more piece of evidence – there is eye witness evidence that in the final days in the bunker, Hitler was obsessed with getting as much chocolate as possible. I, and others, have found that chocolate is effective at releaving parkinsons symptoms for a short period. In the days before levadopa it would have been his best self-treatment.

  • ejhaskins

    I don’t know that this article/supposition is very kind to Parkinson’s sufferers. :-(

    I’m reading Norman Doidge’s latest book “The Brain’s Way of Healing”, as well as Oliver Sacks books and NEVER seen any suggestion that Parkinson’s disease affects personality or behaviour in this way.

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  • gypsydoctor

    This is nothing but lurid speculation. Parkinson’s is not known to cause such mental aberrations, and there has never been any proof that Hitler suffered from the disease. I am disappointed that Discover Magazine has picked up this sensational story. It is an insult to people with Parkinson’s Disease.

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  • https://www.inyourcornerkc.com/ In Your Corner KC

    I really don’t know that Hitler was suffring from parknson’s disease. That time people were not aware about Parkinson’s disease and symptoms.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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