Kersten, Himmler, and Count Bernadotte

Historian and scholar now teaching at Christ Church, Oxford, H. R. TREVOR-ROPER has emerged as the foremost British authority on the closing months of the Nazi regime, a reputation well earned by his book, The Last Days of Hitler. In the article which follows, he throws the spotlight on a mystery man, Felix Kersten, who was for a time Himmler’s personal doctor and whom members of the Dutch government recently nominated for the Nobel Prize.


FELIX KERSTEN was Himmler’s personal doctor, “the magic Buddha,” as Himmler introduced him to Count Ciano, “who cures everything by massage.” For live years during the war he attended the court of that most famous ogre of our time. Now he has been officially recognized — by a government that was itself a victim of Nazi aggression — as one of the great benefactors of mankind. Members of the Dutch government recently nominated him as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such a history might well seem incredible, but since the truth has at last triumphed not only over natural doubt but also over certain deliberate obstacles, I think it should now be told.

Kersten was born in Estonia, a Russian subject; he studied medicine in Berlin under a Chinese specialist, and today, with Finnish nationality, he practices manual therapy alternately in Sweden, Germany, and Holland. His professional success began in Germany, where the aristocracy and the plutocracy of the 1920s alike resorted to him; but since both these classes are international, their patronage soon carried him abroad. Thus, among the aristocracy, Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg passed him on to his brother, Prince Hendrik, the husband of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. This was one of the most important incidents in Kersten’s career, for in time he became a member of the Princes household and made his home in Holland. But he still practiced in Germany too, and there another recommendation led to even greater consequences. This time it came from the plutocracy. In March, 1939, his patient Dr. August Diehn, President of the German Potassium Syndicate, approached Kersten. “Herr Kersten,” he said, “I have never asked a favor from you before; now I have one to ask. Will you examine Himmler? I think he would be an interesting patient. Further, if you succeed with him, you may do us a great service. Perhaps you can persuade him not to nationalize private property.”

Kersten examined Himmler. He found that he suffered from intestinal spasms, causing great pain, sometimes unconsciousness. Hitherto his doctors had treated him with narcotics and injections, but without effect. Kersten treated him manually, and the result was astonishing: in five minutes the pain was relieved. Himmler asked Kersten to remain in attendance on him, but Kersten refused: Himmler simply became one of those German patients whom Kersten would attend on his regular annual visits to Germany.

Such at least was the intention, but the issue was different. By the next spring, when Kersten again visited Germany, war had broken out; and while Kersten was actually in Berlin, the German army suddenly invaded Holland and cut off his retreat. The Dutch royal family fled to England. It was with all the advantages of power that Himmler now repeated his demands to Kersten. Offered the alternative of the court or the concentration camp, Kersten chose freedom: he became the persona! medical adviser to the Grand Inquisitor of the Third Reich; the extraordinary part of his history began.

All tyrants, isolated in dangerous eminence — especially if they are fundamentally weak men — require confidants whom (perhaps wrongly) they suppose to be outside the vortex of political rivalry around them. Court fools, astrologers, priests, mistresses — these have filled a classic role in the past; the modern despots have given the same role to their doctors. Hitler relied on Morell, Himmler on Kersten. To him Kersten was always “my good Dr. Kersten”; he addressed him in almost tender terms, allowed him great liberties, listened calmly to the most outrageous requests; and Kersten, holding as he did the keys of physical salvation, became to Himmler a kind of all-powerful confessor, who could manipulate the conscience and the decisions as well as the stomach of that terrible, impersonal, inhuman, but naïve, mystical, credulous tyrant of the New Order.

How did Kersten use these extraordinary opportunities? The facts are now well attested. Hundreds of Dutchmen, Germans, Jews, and indeed others owe their survival to his intercession. All who sought respite for doomed men and women learned gradually to turn, directly or indirectly, to Kersten. The Finnish Legation used him to rescue Norwegian and Danish prisoners; the World Jewish Congress credits him with the rescue of 60,000 Jews; particularly he devoted himself to the interests of the Dutch. Thus in 1941 Hitler proposed to transport up to three million “irreconcilable” Dutchmen to Polish Galicia and referred the matter to Himmler. Fortunately Himmler was at that time in a low state of health and particularly dependent on Kersten. Consequently the move was postponed till after the war. Himmler afterwards regretted his weakness in this matter. The Führer’s decision, he sadly admitted, had been right; its postponement “was all the fault of my wretched health, and my good Dr. Kersten.”

These and numerous other achievements of Kersten have long been known and are well authenticated. Why is it that after the war the knowledge of them was apparently suppressed and Kersten himself widely denounced as a Nazi, so that a government inquiry was necessary before the truth could ultimately be vindicated? The answer to this question is to be found in internal events in Kersten’s third country, Sweden.

In 1943, Kersten obtained leave from Himmler to settle his family in Sweden, and from that time a new phase in his history began. He now made regular journeys between Germany and Sweden and interested himself in Swedish affairs. One such aflair was the arrest, on a charge of espionage, of seven Swedish businessmen in Warsaw. Kersten secured their release and in December, 1944, was allowed to take the last three of them personally back to Sweden as “a Christmas present” from Himmler. In the early stages of these negotiations Kersten became acquainted with the Swedish foreign minister, Christian Günther, and from that time he was an agent of Günther in Swedish humanitarian work in Germany. In the winter of 1944-45, when the defeat of Germany seemed at last imminent, this Swedish intervention took on international significance.

For what, in the last convulsions of Nazism, would be the fate of occupied Scandinavia? Hitler had ordered the German armies to fight to the end everywhere. And what would be the fate of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners — including Danes and Norwegians — in German concentration camps? Hitler had given orders that the camps were to be destroyed and the prisoners slaughtered as the Gorman armies retreated. Policy and humanity alike required that Sweden, as a neutral and a Scandinavian power, should intervene.

For this purpose Günther turned naturally to Kersten. The execution of Hitler’s orders depended on Himmler: might not Himmler, in these last days, heed the voice of prudence and persuasion? Kersten persuaded, and on both subjects Himmler showed himself reasonable. He agreed that Scandinavian prisoners should be concentrated in a single camp; he agreed to allow a persistent leakage of prisoners from their camps; he agreed to deliver for transport to Sweden as many prisoners, Scandinavian or other, as the Swedish government would, with its own transport, collect and admit. All that was necessary was secrecy — and a column of omnibuses. In February, 1945, the column was marshaled and set out for Germany. There were a hundred omnibuses of the Swedish Red Cross; they were under the command of Colonel Bjoerck; and they were accompanied by the vice-president of the Swedish Red Cross, a distinguished social figure, whom Kersten, at the request of Günther, now introduced to Himmler: Count Folke Bernadotte.

Of Count Bernadotte’s activities in these negotiations little need be said, for he was simply an agent — “a transport officer, no more,” as one of Himmlers associates has since described him. Nevertheless there was one interesting incident in which the agent sought to make rather than merely to execute policy. In his efforts to save the prisoners, Kersten has not concerned himself solely with Scandinavians: in Sweden he was in touch not only with Günther but also with the Stockholm branch of the World Jewish Organization and, in agreement with Günther, was planning the delivery of Jewish prisoners also to Sweden. He was therefore surprised, in March, 1945, on mentioning this to Himmler, to be suddenly told, “Count Bernadotte understands the Jewish peril; he refuses to take any Jews to Sweden; and now you speak for them and say that Sweden will take them! Which of you am I to believe?” Kersten replied that Bernadotte had no authority to make terms: he was only a transport officer. “Yes,” replied Himmler sadly, “I know that. Still I am glad to see that in Sweden there are men who understand the necessity of our fight against World Jewry.”

Kersten remonstrated with Bernadotte, but Bernadotte refused either to take the Jews or to deliver a letter to the World Jewish Organization in Stockholm. He advised Kersten to drop the Jews altogether, “unless you want difficulties for yourself and your family in Sweden.” Alarmed at these developments, Kersten himself flew to Sweden next day and reported them to Günther. Günther dismissed it as a misunderstanding: “Sweden’s boundaries are open,” he said, “to all victims of Nazi persecution.” Thus Bernadotte was overruled; the work went forward; and on April 21, Kersten’s work for the Jews culminated in one of the most ironical incidents in the whole war: the secret meeting, at Kersten’s house at Hartzwalde, between Himmler, the archpersecutor of the Jews, and Norbert Masur, the president of the World Jewish Organization in Stockholm, whom Kersten had personally brought from Sweden. That astonishing interview has been described elsewhere, by Masur himself; yet it is tempting to repeat the words with which Himmler greeted this unusual guest: “Welcome, Herr Masur. It is time you Jews and we Nazis buried the hatchet!” Thus the last details were arranged; 3500 Jews were taken to Sweden; and Count Bernadotte, for rescuing them, was afterwards presented by a rabbi in Stockholm with a laudatory scroll. Nevertheless Himmler did not forget the curious incident of Bernadotte’s original refusal. “Think of it,” he told an SS general afterwards, “what a surprise! Count Bernadotte refused to take the Jews! 5on see how the Nordic peoples think! I hey understand the Jewish problem. However, I have promised my good Dr. Kersten, and I must keep my promise: Count Bernadottc must take the Jews whether he likes it or not. Besides, I have now fixed all the details with Herr Masur.”

Such, it seems, was the true history of the rescue operations of early 1945, as it can be reconstructed not merely from Kersten’s own notes (which might be thought a partiaul source) but from affidavits by Germans and Jews and Swedes who witnessed or took part in it. Nevertheless, no sooner was the war over than a different account of them was launched. Count Bernadotte suddenly appeared before the world as the man who, on his own initiative, had alone conceived and executed this plan. He was overwhelmed with honors, decorations, degrees. He alone, it was declared, by facing Himmler in his den, had rescued Jews and Gentiles from death in the concentration camps. He was even credited with having ended the war. He was hailed as the “Prince of Peace,“ the Saviour, and, after his death, the martyr of humanity. He himself wrote three books which materially assisted in spreading this doctrine; and since his death he has been made undeservedly ridiculous by inspired hagiography. In these books by and about Bernadette, the name of Kersten is never mentioned.

How has this happened? Partly, no doubt, unintentionally. As Himmler’s doctor, Kersten had necessarily to live down one public reputation before he could acquire another. But partly it seems to have been the result of a deliberate campaign. Bernadotte’s first book, Slutet, in which he appears as sole author of the whole operation, was published within six weeks of Hitler’s death; and the day before its publication he advised Kersten, if he wished to avoid trouble in Sweden, not to publish any comments thereon. Later Bernadotte circularized prominent Englishmen to draw attention to his achievements, and then had those English letters translated and published in Sweden.

Further, he sought to build up, as a witness of his claims, Himmler’s chief of intelligence, Walter Schellenberg (whom Kersten had recommended to deal with him). Schellenberg, who had a war crime in his past (he had organized the kidnaping of two British officers on neutral territory in 1939), was glad to accept Bernadotte’s promise of asylum in Sweden in 1945; and although he was in fact extradited to the Allies and tried at Nuremberg, Bernadotte there testified on his behalf, describing Schellenberg as a loyal auxiliary in his, Bernadotte’s, humanitarian campaign. These activities evidently kept Bernadotte very busy; consequently when approached by Kersten’s friends (such as the Dutch minister in Sweden) he was never able lo spare them more than five minutes in which to discuss any different interpretation of events. On the other hand it is only fair to add that Schellenberg, when secretly interrogated in England, did not conceal the fact that it was Kersten, not Bernadotte, who was the real center of the system in which he had been himself, admittedly, a valuable auxiliary.

What were Bernadotte’s motives in thus suppressing all credit but his own? His own work was perfectly reputable: why did he think it necessary so busily and — it must sometimes appear—so unscrupulously to inflate its significance? Possibly it was personal vanity; perhaps Swedish politics. At all events it was successful, and by its success stifled the less privileged voice of truth. For who knew the facts? A few Swedes — but Bernadotte had got in first in Sweden, and why should they publicly challenge that formidable claim? A few Germans — bul why should they advertise the fact that they had been Himmler’s counselors? A few Jews — but Bernadotte was murdered by Jews and a sense of guilt inhibits them from further censure. All these have given private testimony, but publicly they have not spoken out.

Fortunately there is a fourth category of those who know. In Holland there are no such inhibitions, and so it is there that the truth has gradually emerged. In 1950, murmurs of the injustice done lo Kersten reached the Dutch government and a royal commission was at last set up to inquire into the facts of Kersten’s work during the war. The head of the commission was a distinguished Dutch historian, Professor N. W. Posthumus, then director of the Dutch National Institute of War Documentation, whose records I have used for this article. The final report which Professor Posthumus presented to his government has only recently come off the secret list and has caused some sour faces in Sweden. But the result is public. In August, 1950, Felix Kersten received from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands the insignia of a Grand Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau; in 1952 the Dutch nominated him as their candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. I am sorry that no prize is to be awarded: it would have been a happy symbol of the triumph of truth if Kersten had been honored not only in Holland but even, where he also deserves it, in Scandinavia.