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The Devil's Doctor
The true story of one man's courageous fight against unspeakable evil
In May 1940, as Nazi panzers overran the Netherlands, Felix Kersten received a summons he dared not refuse. A successful and prosperous physical therapist who had ministered to the Dutch royal family, Kersten was "asked" to forsake his adopted home in the Netherlands and become personal physician to Nazi Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. While others might ...
The Devil's Doctor
The true story of one man's courageous fight against unspeakable evil
In May 1940, as Nazi panzers overran the Netherlands, Felix Kersten received a summons he dared not refuse. A successful and prosperous physical therapist who had ministered to the Dutch royal family, Kersten was "asked" to forsake his adopted home in the Netherlands and become personal physician to Nazi Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. While others might have spent the ensuing years paying fearful obeisance to this monstrous and unpredictable master, Kersten discovered that he had both the means and the courage to manipulate the surprisingly naïve Himmler. In doing so, he saved thousands of lives and actually persuaded Himmler to join in a plot to overthrow Himmler's hero, Adolf Hitler.
The Devil's Doctor tells the incredible true story of how one brave man did everything he could, and more than he ever imagined, to turn the corrupt and maniacal Nazi power structure against itself and prevent the slaughter of thousands. This riveting and compelling tale will convince you that one política courage and determination truly can make a difference.
Praise for John Waller's The Unseen War in Europe
"Superb.... Mr. Waller knows his territory." —The Washington Times
"One of the most readable histories ever published of espionage, conspiracies, and intrigues that formed the backdrop against which the war's military campaigns were fought. . . . John H. Waller writes credibly and authoritatively on his subject." —Cleveland Plain Dealer
A Man of Influence
FELIX KERSTEN, a practicing physical therapist in The Hague, had since 1928 made a good professional reputation for himself by ministering to nobles and notables, particularly the Dutch royal family. This lucrative and gratifying life might have gone on indefinitely had his skill not come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, the powerful Reichsführer SS.
Himmler was tormented by painful attacks of colic and intestinal cramps that would temporarily immobilize him. No doctor or therapist had ever been found who could give him relief. Dr. August Diehn, a friend and patient of Kersten's in Germany, told a desperate Himmler about Kersten's extraordinary massages and recommended that the Reichsführer try them. Thus it was that on March 10, 1939, Kersten, having been summoned by Himmler, found himself face-to-face with the fearsome Nazi leader "whose part in many bloody deeds" he had often heard about "in awed whispers." Kersten looked at Himmler in disbelief. He had seen pictures of him, but none had so totally captured the look of insignificance that he presented in person. He was, as Kersten remembered him, "narrow-chested, weak chinned, spectacled," strangely belying his reputation for unbridled cruelty.
In a high-pitched voice, Himmlerpleaded with Kersten to help him. After one of Kersten's rigorous massages, which miraculously gave him relief, Himmler insisted that he be taken on as a patient. "You can and must help me," he said. For all Himmler's plaintiveness, Kersten knew that to refuse could prove dangerous.
This day would change Kersten's life. Nothing in his existence so far had prepared him for what he would experience during the next six years of war as Himmler's masseur. But before telling the tale of the extraordinary career of this little-known man, it is worth glancing at his origins.
Driven from Holland in 1400 by a flood of epic proportions, the Kersten family, bringing with them what remained of its workshops for making fine Flemish linen, resettled in the western German town of Göttingen. There, Andreas Kersten, a member of the town's municipal council, found favor with Emperor Charles V, who in 1544 granted him minor nobility status replete with a family coat of arms.
After a prosperous century and a half, the Kersten family again faced disaster when its workshops burned to the ground. Fortune then looked kindly on the Kerstens for the next two hundred years as successive generations worked a royal land grant of one hundred hectares of rich farmland. All this, however, came to a calamitous end when the family patriarch, Ferdinand Kersten, was mortally injured by a maddened bull as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Aspiring to a different kind of life, his youngest son, Frederick, took a civil service job in the Russian-controlled Baltic states. He married the postmaster's daughter, Olga, and moved to the Russian town of Yurev. Olga was highly respected in the region as a skillful masseuse whose talents would soon reappear in her son. Born at Dorpat, Estonia, in 1898, this new arrival in the family was christened Felix Kersten as his godfather, the French ambassador to the Russian court, stood in attendance. This was an auspicious beginning, but Felix proved to be only a mediocre student at school. Somewhat lackadaisical, he was better remembered for a gourmand's passion for good food.
In 1914, World War I broke out, heralding a new era of chaos in Europe. The Kerstens were one of many Baltic families distrusted by the Russians on general principles and exiled to towns deeper within Russia-in their case to a small village near the Caspian Sea. Felix, who was attending an agricultural college at Guenefeld in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, was now completely cut off from his family by the fighting.
Being left to his own devices in Germany taught young Felix the rigors of survival. The somewhat indolent youth began for the first time to see the need to work hard if he were to get ahead. Within two years he had earned a degree in agricultural engineering. Then, because he was considered a German national, he was drafted into the kaiser's army. But at heart he did not feel any affinity with the Germans, resenting particularly the stiff-necked tradition of Prussian militarism. In an effort to avoid regular German army service, he volunteered to join a special legion made up of expatriate Finns living in Germany, who were mustered in 1917 to resist Russian domination of their homeland. Because of his service in defense of Finland, Kersten was granted Finnish nationality. Serving in Estonia, he had the opportunity to visit his hometown, Yurev, and by 1919, the year after the peace treaty of Brest Litovsk had been signed, his family could return home and rejoin him.
Having recovered from a bout of severe rheumatism at a military hospital in Helsinki, Felix made a fateful decision to become a physical therapist. Fortunate in having had as his first teacher in the art of massage a well-respected practitioner, Dr. Kollander, young Kersten went on to Berlin for further training.
To save expenses, Kersten boarded at the home of family friends, the widow Lüben and her daughter, Elizabeth. As his training progressed, Kersten found that he not only had a natural talent as a physical therapist, but he had a certain charm that appealed to women. Throughout his bachelorhood women seemed to find him irresistible. But he found a companion and helpmate in Elizabeth Lüben, who served him through much of his life as his housekeeper-and virtually as an "older sister." They found in each other true friendship, in which mutual regard and companionship provided the ties that bound them.
Kersten's professional training would take a new leap forward in 1922, when he met a Chinese master masseur named Dr. Ko through a well-known German surgeon, Professor Bier, who specialized in unorthodox medicine in Berlin. Ko, a wizened, wrinkled Chinese gentleman with a graying goatee, had been trained in a Lamaist monastery in northwestern Tibet by monks who were masters of the art of healing through massage. He found in Kersten a worthy apprentice to whom he could pass on his "secret" technique of "physio-neural therapy."
After long discussions-part philosophical, part therapeutic theory-and having subjected himself to a rigorous test massage by Kersten, Dr. Ko took him on as his student, explaining "... you are the one I have been awaiting for thirty years. According to my horoscope, fixed in Tibet when I was still a novice, I was to meet, this very year, a young man who would know nothing and to whom I would teach everything.... In later life Kersten would often quote from Goethe's Roman Elegies to describe his art: "See with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand." He described the process more scientifically with somewhat enigmatic words such as these:
The fundamental effect of this physio-neural therapy, which is often really astonishing, rests on an intensive treatment of the tissues, based on anatomy and physiology. The essential point is its ability to penetrate in a way that is quite beyond the scope of ordinary manipulation. Blood and lymphatic fluids in the vessels treated are pressed towards the heart while unwanted blood is correspondingly sucked back. In brief, the circulation in the blood and the lymphatic vessels is strengthened and accelerated. The consequence of this is a more rapid renewal of the blood and a more effective nourishment of the tissues and muscles treated. Ordinary massage cannot include this specialized procedure, as this demands a fundamental and specialized insight into the anatomy and physiology of the human body and a technical training which is no less fundamental.
The rigid life discipline that Dr. Ko demanded of his student did not include a monklike existence; Kersten was delighted to discover that Dr. Ko believed that pleasure was salutary if balance was to be sustained in the nervous system. But Kersten's bliss in studying under Dr. Ko would not last. It was in the autumn of 1925 that Dr. Ko confided in his pupil that his horoscope, prepared in Tibet long ago by wise lamas, stipulated that he must return to his Tibetan monastery and prepare for a state of "apparent death," awaiting a new foreordained incarnation eight years later.
Kersten was distraught. He knew he would never see his teacher, nor benefit by his inspiration again. But taking some of the sting out of Ko's departure was the realization that he would assume control over his teacher's practice. Kersten prospered; helped by his faithful friend Elizabeth Lüben, he soon moved to a more gracious apartment and made his rounds in an elegant limousine driven by a liveried chauffeur. Launched on what began as a successful career in Germany, Kersten broadened his clientele to include patients throughout western Europe. In 1928, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was among the notables who summoned Kersten. Her consort, Prince Hendrik, who was suffering with serious heart problems, had been told by specialists that he probably would not survive for more than six months. Kersten miraculously revived the prince's health with a series of "physio-neural" massages. To assure Hendrik's complete recovery, or at least extend his reprieve from death, Queen Wilhelmina convinced Kersten to make his home in The Hague as royally appointed physician. While he kept his apartment in Berlin, which was minded by Elizabeth Lüben, he resided in The Hague, devoting most of his time to the prince, who responded to his treatments by leading a normal existence for many years thereafter. Kersten felt good about his return to the Netherlands, homeland of his ancestors. But his newfound prosperity made him property-conscious and he could not resist a tempting bargain back in Germany-a three-hundred-hectare estate at Gut Hartzwalde, some fifty miles east of Berlin.
In February 1937, Kersten, the ever-eligible bachelor at age forty, met in Berlin a lovely and well-educated young woman from Silesia named Irmgard Neuschaffer. After two months of courtship, conducted mainly through correspondence, they became engaged. Soon thereafter they were married and departed on a whirlwind honeymoon to Finland. The Kerstens' first child, a son, was born on the estate at Hartzwalde, although he was then spending most of his time with the Dutch royal family. The Kersten family's idyll was, however, rudely interrupted by the dislocations of Hitler's war, which would thrust Kersten into a strange and almost unbelievable career as Himmler's physical therapist-as well as a secret intriguer along the fringes of power in the heart of the Third Reich.
When Dr. Diehn, president of the German Potassium Syndicate, introduced Kersten to Heinrich Himmler in March 1939, he had an ulterior motive that went beyond bringing relief to Reichsführer's acute attack of colic. He hoped that Kersten would also "persuade him not to nationalize [privately owned] property"-particularly Diehn's potassium empire. Kersten may not have single-handedly saved Diehn's potassium, but he was so successful in treating Himmler's ailment that the Reichsführer asked him to leave the Dutch royal family and tend him exclusively. Kersten refused, but he agreed to treat Himmler as often as his time and royal obligations permitted.
Suddenly Felix Kersten suffered, much as his ancestors had when they had been driven from Holland by the flood in 1400; but the flood that now engulfed him was of a different sort. It was the flood of Hitler's panzers that inundated the Lowlands in May 1940 as the first strike in Germany's campaign to conquer western Europe. The Wehrmacht's lightning seizure of the Netherlands caught Kersten in Germany, where he was making his medical rounds of patients. When his career with the Dutch royal family ended after the queen and her family escaped to London to avoid capture and exploitation by the Nazis, Kersten had little choice but to remain in Germany and succumb to Himmler's insistence that he work for him. Himmler's private aide, Rudolf Brandt, remembered that the Reichsführer had offered Kersten 100,000 reichsmarks as a carrot to sweeten the deal if his treatments proved successful. But whatever monetary incentive was offered him was not as compelling as the implied threat that he had to accept Himmler's offer or suffer serious consequences. Nor could any payment compensate Kersten for the risks he would have to take as an employee in the devil's domain with its endless internecine plotting and its all-pervading aura of mutual suspicion.
Any probability of achieving job gratification by serving Himmler, much less being able to avoid guilt by association as his doctor, seemed remote to Kersten as he thought about the pitfalls ahead. Kersten seemed to have been genuinely appalled by Himmler's philosophies and beliefs-an amalgam of destructive Nazi dogma and psychic fantasy. The Reichsführer had convinced himself that he was a reincarnation of Germany's ninth-century mythic folk hero Henry the Fowler, duke of Saxony, who became King Henry I in 919, and had chosen Genghis Khan as his personal role model. Why, then, did Kersten accept the position given him by such a neurotic man, devoted to such an evil cause? The short answer is that Kersten, as a person without a country to protect him, was trapped in a web of dangerous circumstances from which he could not easily extract himself. There was probably little or nothing he could have done to reject Himmler's "invitation" to serve him. With the Gestapo under his command, the Reichsführer was in a position to decide the fate of most everyone in Germany-certainly defenseless expatriates such as Kersten. And it could not have cheered Kersten when, after the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the Gestapo told him that it would not be responsible for his or his family's safety unless he moved to Berlin. This was said more as a threat than a warning, and reminded Kersten that because of his favored position with Himmler, he was an object of envy and jealousy throughout the Reichsführer's inner circle, particularly among Gestapo leaders who suspected his Dutch connection.
Kersten did, in fact, try to find a way out. He was a Finnish national and, having fought in Finland's defense against Russia, was still a reserve officer in Finland's army, but his country's ability to protect its nationals in Nazi Germany was virtually nil. Nonetheless, he paid a discreet visit to the Finnish embassy and appealed to the ambassador, T.M. Kivimäkki, for help. Kersten explained his predicament. He described how the Reichsführer was frequently beset by almost unbearable pain that only he, with his unique massage treatments, could relieve-at least, that is what Himmler firmly believed.
Excerpted from The Devil's Doctor by John H. Waller Excerpted by permission.
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