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Translated by Helen Weaver and Leo Raditsa

Reviewed by Rob Spence

If you were asked to suggest which real-life character was to be played by Woody Harrelson in his next Hollywood blockbuster, it’s safe to say you’d be unlikely to come up with Heinrich Himmler’s personal physician as your answer. Yet this is apparently the case, and the forthcoming film is based on this book, originally published in French in 1960, and now reprinted in its English translation by Leo Raditsa and Helen Weaver, with a new introduction.

The subject of the book, Felix Kersten, led a remarkable life, and his exploits during the war encouraged multiple nominations for the Nobel peace prize. Joseph Kessel paints him as a kind of Oskar Schindler figure, but perhaps the reality is a little more complex. Kersten was born in 1898 in Yurev, the city in south-east Estonia now called Tartu, but then under Russian rule. His mother, the daughter of the local postmaster was, significantly for Kersten’s future career, well-known in the area for her ability to heal aches and pains through massage. Kersten was sent to school in Germany, and was there at the outbreak of the First World War, in which he eventually served in a Finnish regiment on the German side. After the war, he studied medicine, but was encouraged to train in massage, completing his initial training in Helsinki before moving to Berlin for further study. It was there that he had the second most important encounter of his life: he became a sort of apprentice to Dr Ko, a Tibetan master of massage, with many prestigious clients. When Dr Ko left for his homeland, Kersten took over the practice, and became the go-to therapist for European high society and royalty in the thirties. He eventually came to the attention of Himmler; their meeting shaped the rest of Kersten’s life and had enormous historic repercussions.

Himmler suffered from chronic abdominal pain, and Kersten’s healing hands worked their magic so effectively that he was soon on call to the Reichsführer, just as Germany precipitated the Second World War. In Kessel’s telling of the story, the circumstances in which Kersten found himself meant that he was inexorably drawn into the intimate circle of the highest-ranking Nazis. How that played out forms the man body of the book, and is the source of the controversies that are associated with Kersten. 

The author, Joseph Kessel, is an unusual figure. An aviator as well as a journalist, he turned to writing novels after the First World War, producing about eighty books in a long career. One of his novels was the basis of Buñuel’s classic film Belle de Jour. His interest in this subject stems from his own meetings with Kersten, whom he consulted professionally. As a novelist, he treats his subject as an omniscient narrator would, able to report conversations and thoughts with no reference to official records or corroborative material. So, in short, punchy paragraphs, he tells the astonishing story of Kersten’s activities during the war, when, using his closeness to Himmler, he managed to intervene on behalf of thousands of potential victims of the Nazi genocide machine. Kessel says he was dubious about Kersten’s story at first, but was convinced by a treasure trove of letters and documents that Kersten showed him. The clincher for Kessel was the endorsement of Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, the much-lauded British historian. From a distance of sixty-odd years, that endorsement looks somewhat shaky, since Sir Hugh is now irretrievably associated with the shambolic episode of the fake “Hitler Diaries”, which he authenticated as genuine in 1983. For this new edition, the introduction by Trevor-Roper has been replaced by one written by Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed, a study of the use of psychoactive drugs by the Nazis during the war. Ohler is not totally convinced of the veracity of Kersten’s story, or Kessel’s account of it – and certainly, some of the claims are outlandish, the most extraordinary being that Kersten’s influence over Himmler saved the entire population of the Netherlands from extinction. Ohler confronts the difficulty of Kersten’s narrative head-on, acknowledging the problematic aspects, whilst accepting that there is much that is verifiable in the tale.

That tale is a singular one, and Kessel’s novelistic approach keeps the reader engaged as the war progresses, and Himmler’s monstrous plans begin to be put into effect. As Ohler points out, although Kessel was convinced that Kersten’s story was true, his approach admittedly mixed fact and fiction in order to present a coherent and organised history. Kessel did not conduct any research himself. So, while the reader must take some of this with a pinch of salt, there is plenty here to suggest that Kersten had a major influence on the way that Himmler and other leading members of the hierarchy behaved. The feverish atmosphere of the court of Himmler, awash with intrigue and deceit, is brought vividly to the fore, and it is in this evocation that the value of this book lies. Here is an intimate portrait of the inside of the Nazi organisation by a man who observed it at its height and was present at its demise. It is a remarkable document, despite the caveats that still persist, and it is presented well in this new edition. 

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Rob Spence writes at robspence.org.uk.

Joseph Kessel, The Man With Miraculous Hands (Elliott & Thompson, 2023). 978-1783966938, 247pp., hardback.

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