Himmler's stomach (and Kurt Cobain's too)
Of what does the body speak?
There can be a dark sort of satisfaction in seeing the wicked suffer physical pain. One of the reasons why Downfall - the film of Hitler's last days in his Berlin bunker - is so enthralling is that it shows the erstwhile Fuhrer as a stooped physical wreck, his arm shaking violent from Parkinson's. Hitler's broken body becomes a metaphor; the one who destroyed so much was in the end physically destroyed too. There is a similar sense of narrative justice in knowing that Heinrich Himmler was also tormented by crippling stomach pains. Again, there is an irresistible metaphor to be made here; Himmler's stomach represented the revenge of his body against the evil it perpetrated.
Yet while I am drawn to such metaphors, I am increasingly convinced that we must resist them. It took my reading of a new edition of a deeply odd book to make me realise that, when we make assumptions about how the body speaks and what it says, we risk trite over-simplifications that, in the end, don't help us understand pain or the toll it takes.
Joseph Kessel's The Man With Miraculous Hands was first published in 1961 and has been re-released with a new foreword by Norman Ohler, in advance of a film of the book starring Woody Harrelson. The man with the eponymous miraculous hands was Felix Kersten, masseur to Heinrich Himmler and sundry other Nazis.
As the only man who could provide relief to Himmler during his bouts of stomach pain, Kersten was able to exploit the SS leader's dependence to convince him to save lives of individuals and entire populations from Nazi persecution. This included the entire population of the Netherlands, whom Hitler had charged Himmler with deporting to Poland. Kersten was something of a cosmopolitan - born in what is now Estonia and was also eligible for Finnish citizenship, he also spent considerable time in the Netherlands and had good contacts in Sweden - and perhaps this made him a liminal figure who could intercede between Germany and the rest of the world.
In fact, as Ohler points out, there is no evidence that the Netherlands plan was ever even considered. While Kersten did manage to convince Himmler to save certain individuals, they were usually fellow members of the conservative elite in the Netherlands and Germany. His most significant achievement - acting as a middle-man to broker agreements with Sweden and the World Jewish Congress to release concentration camp inmates - took place at the very end of the war when Himmler and his court were attempting to save themselves from the revenge of the allies.
Kersten benefited enormously from not just Himmler's largesse but from the wider Nazi elite, both before and during the war. While not an ideological Nazi himself, he was deeply enmeshed within that elite, and in the post-war period, vastly exaggerated his own resistance to the regime and that of senior Nazi officials. Indeed, as Ian Buruma's new book The Collaborators shows, Kersten was a deeply unreliable narrator of his own life. His various post-war memoirs, and other accounts he gave during the post-war period, often contradict themselves or refer to incidents and conversations that are uncorroborated. Kersten did do some good, but the truth appears to be that he was a manipulative and venal individual who benefited from Nazism and then sought to minimise his complicity.
The Man With Miraculous Hands was written by Joseph Kessel, although based on Kersten's own account and his collaboration. It is precisely the fact that the book is so clearly unreliable as an historical account, that makes it worth reading. Kessel - who was born to a Jewish female and fought for the Free French during the war - was also the author of, amongst other things, of Army of Shadows, which was the basis of the memorable film of the same name about the French resistance. That someone like Kessel could have been taken in by Kersten (as many others who resisted the Nazis also were) tells you something about the feverish post-war desire to find consolation in the accounts of resistance, even at the heart of the Nazi regime. The book helps us understand why so many people implicated in the Nazi regime were able to sanitise their reputations after the war.
For me though, the most striking and disturbing thing about the book is how Kessel depicts Himmler in pain. Kersten/Kessel describe the (fictional) attempt to persuade Himmler not to deport Dutch Jewry as a dramatic series of confrontations. In the face of the order from Hitler, Himmler is so conflicted that Kersten's massages no longer have an effect:
Every morning, waxen and hollow-eyed, drenched with sweat, he stretched out on his couch and offered his tormented body to Kersten’s hands with an avid, feverish hope. They had helped him so often in the past that he could not believe they had suddenly lost their magic power.
The keen frustration of waiting doubled his anguish. And Kersten’s hands went to the same spots as always and went through the same motions, executed the same pressures, the same twists. Himmler’s nerves shrank more and more, and cried out for the miracle . . . it was coming, it had to come. Arched with pain, the wretched body prayed, begged for relief. In vain: the doctor’s hands could no longer save him.
‘I warned you,’ said Kersten. ‘You cannot simultaneously carry these two overwhelming burdens: to increase the number of the SS tenfold, and to organise the deportation of an entire population. It is too great an ordeal for your nervous system; it no longer obeys me. Renounce the lesser of the two missions, and I guarantee I can cure your pain.’
‘Impossible,’ Himmler almost sobbed, ‘impossible, it is an order from
A moment later, he begged, ‘Try, try again . . .’
‘I will try,’ said Kersten. ‘But I am sure it will be useless.’
And so it was
The drama later continues as follows:
‘You are mad, Reichsführer,’ Kersten said over and over. ‘You see for yourself the state to which you are reduced. You see for yourself that you cannot do everything at once. Postpone the deportation until the end of the war, and I promise you that my treatment will be as effective as it was before.’
Himmler was contorted, ravaged by his suffering. On his pinched and waxen face, which looked like that of a dying man, streamed a cold sweat, mingled with tears of pain which he could not hold back.
Nevertheless, he would not give in.
‘I cannot, it is an order from the Führer.’
‘I cannot, the Führer trusts only me.’
‘I cannot, I owe everything to my Führer.’
It was now only a week before the deportation was scheduled to begin.
Eventually of course, Himmler agrees not to go ahead with the deportation and Kersten is able to release him from his torment. The contrast between pre and post-torment is a hallmark of these reported exchanges. We can see this in an incident that occurred towards the end of the war, when Finland had turned against its former German co-belligerents:
'You Finns, what a dirty bunch of traitors you are! I’d like to know what the English and Russians paid those bastards, Mannerheim and Rytti, to get them to sell out. I only regret one thing, that I didn’t have them hanged before all this.’
His voice was getting louder.
‘Yes, hanged. And all the Finnish people liquidated. All, at once. That’s all they deserve. Hitler said so to me tonight. Kill, kill!’
Kersten let Himmler rant and rave. He didn’t answer. He knew that the angrier he got, the more his cramps tore him apart.
Suddenly, foaming at the mouth, his voice more hysterical than ever, he screamed, ‘You, what are you up to, sitting there like a log, deaf and dumb? Do something, for Christ’s sake. I can’t stand it. It’s killing me!’
Kersten set to work to relieve his patient’s torment. The magic, which had first helped Himmler during the last spring of peace in 1939, immediately spread throughout his body. The technique had its usual effect. Himmler felt his nerves relax, and he breathed more easily and after a while more freely. The pain gave way and finally receded. Again he knew the bliss of recovery. Tears of gratitude towards the man who had rescued him from his torture welled up in his eyes. Yet this man belonged to a nation of traitors. A pretty state of things! There was nothing in common between those dogs and the good Dr Kersten who treated him with such success and devotion.
Himmler looked at Kersten’s hands. Strong, soft, skilful and capable of performing miracles, for five years they had rooted out his suffering. For five years the doctor had been his only friend, the only man in the world to whom he could speak freely and openly. What a doctor! What a person to confide in! Finland might prove herself a hundred times more base and treacherous, but Kersten would remain the healer, the friend, the Buddha. God help the man who dared harm a hair of his head!
Kersten sensed all of Himmler’s devotion in the astonishing tenderness with which he asked the doctor, ‘Did you have a good trip, my dear Kersten? Is your family well?’
The doctor answered warily, ‘I had a very good trip, thank you. And when I left, my family was still free.’
Himmler started up in his bed, as if he had been struck with a whip.
‘Do you doubt my good will?’ he asked. ‘I would rather die than hurt you or your family.’
Throughout Kessel/Kersten's account, Himmler's stomach acts to make him susceptible to manipulation, towards both compassion and hate. As discourse, this investing of Himmler's pain with a kind of agency performs a number of functions that serve Kersten's need for rehabilitation: It turns Himmler into a weak and pathetic figure who Kersten manipulated for righteous ends. At the same time, this pathetic quality also seems to lessen Himmler's evil. His stomach acts as his conscience, predisposing him to limited acts of decency. So Kersten becomes both the man who could control Himmler while at the same time minimising the negative taint of his association with him.
But the discourse can also be understood differently, if one wishes to do so: Himmler's weakness undermines his Nazi pretentions. He is a bad, even treacherous Nazi (indeed, Hitler stripped him of his titles at the end of the war when he discovered his back-channel negotiations with Sweden). Himmler and the SS were, after all, sometimes feared and sometimes ridiculed in Nazi circles, particularly in the German army. Himmler's stomach is a sign of his secret lack of fitness for inclusion in the Aryan elite. Kersten becomes the hapless figure who attempts to turn Himmler into a functional Nazi. This possible interpretation also perhaps served Kersten in post-war former-Nazi circles.
What isn't in doubt though, both in The Man With Miraculous Hands and in other accounts of Himmler that I have read, is that his stomach speaks. And it is this assumption that infuriates me. It's not that I don't believe that stomach pain can be brought on from anxiety and stress - or, indeed, from a tortured conscience - it's the assumption that this was the case for Himmler that offends. Because as far as I can tell we do not have clear evidence as to what caused his stomach issues. He may well have suffered from a treatable condition but, until Kersten came along, felt he could not seek treatment without undermining his public image. Or he may have suffered from a condition that was untreatable then but could have been cured today. Or he may have had a mild stomach condition that was exacerbated by stress. The psychosomatic element of Himmler's stomach complaint remains unquantifiable. The same is true for Kersten's healing hands; we know little of his treatment methods other than that he drew on shiatsu and we cannot know how much of his successful treatment of Himmler was down to the placebo effect (it was certainly conveniently short-term in its impact, allowing for a conveniently open-ended arrangement).
As someone who has a long-term chronic condition (CFS/ME) that is sometimes dismissed as psychosomatic - albeit less widely today than was the case until relatively recently - I know that, if the body can be said to speak, it does so with only limited clarity. I know what it is to have the body rebel at times of great stress and anxiety. Yet I have experienced times of great stress and anxiety where my physical health held up. I have experienced periods of good health and relaxation when my health suddenly collapsed for reasons I could not identify. While there are things one can do to maximise the chances of not relapsing, ultimately ME/CFS speaks for itself, from its own mysterious standpoint. Why should Himmler's stomach not have been equally capricious?
Our tendency to treat the body's speech as moralistic is also dangerous. For any biographer, Himmler's stomach is obviously part of the story of who he was, even if we don't understand why it 'misbehaved'. But in terms of moral judgements, Himmler's stomach pain is an irrelevance. It is neither a signifier of his evil nor a signifier of his long-supressed conscience.
The same is true of those individuals who, unlike Himmler, are worth revering. Kurt Cobain is one example: Like Himmler, he suffered from terrible stomach pain whose cause was never identified. Just as Himmler came to rely on his massages for temporary relief, so Cobain self-medicated with heroin and other drugs.
I have read accounts of Cobain's life that see his stomach pain as a part of his existential pain that he poured into his songs and also ultimately led to his suicide. His stomach spoke of a tragic suffering and was therefore a source of his artistic gift. His stomach spoke through his music.
Cobain's stomach pain clearly impacted on his life and career in significant ways. Yet we are unlikely to ever know what was behind it and the extent to which his self-medication was really down to the need for pain relief. In any case, the notion of art as an unmediated expression of pain is over-simplistic and asociological. And Cobain's pain is an irrelevant factor in judging his aesthetic and moral worth. He was no more reducible to his stomach than Heinrich Himmler was.
All this goes for me too: My chronic condition is an integral part of who I am; it shapes my life. It should be part of any explanation of who I am, what I do and what I care about. What my health condition doesn't do, is to judge my morality or my work. My health doesn't tell you whether I am a good person or not, or whether my work has value or not.
Or, indeed, whether this essay has value or not.
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