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So I was watching Downfall last night (good movie by the way) and I noticed that whenever Hitler walked around, the movie always showed him with his left hand behind his back and it was always kind of shaking, especially when he was doing things like praising his soldiers and generals etc.

Did Hitler actually do this? If so, why? Is this some sort of Nazi gesture? Was he sick?

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Downfall is a movie, it is a fabrication and should be acknowledged as such. –  john Jun 29 '12 at 10:50
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@HermannIngjaldsson so what? That thing could still be based on some historic fact. –  Lohoris Jan 30 '13 at 20:23
    
I am sure they wanted to make him look more crazy by giving him a nervous tic or manner. Just, because people like to see great/famous people to have something odd and flaws. Why do you think people love to buy and read celebrity gossip ;-) –  Hendrik Beenker Jan 31 '13 at 8:35
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movies.stackexchange.com has been set up for such questions. –  coleopterist Jan 31 '13 at 17:25
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Reworded this a smidge to make it more appropiate to this site. I don't think the core of his question was about the portrayal, but the historical facts behind it. –  T.E.D. Feb 1 '13 at 21:47

10 Answers 10

I'm going to take a stab at this because I also have Parkinson's Disease.

Parkinsonism is an umbrella term that describes many conditions which share some of the symptoms of Parkinson's. The main symptoms of Parkinson's – tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement – are also the main symptoms of a number of conditions that are grouped together under the term parkinsonism. Generally, Parkinson's symptoms are caused by a lack of dopamine in the brain. See more.

The most common form of Parkinson's is Idiopathic Parkinson's disease. Its typical symptoms are tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement, among others, but symptoms and the rate the condition progresses can vary in each patient. The underlying cause of idiopathic Parkinson's is unknown and a diagnosis is usually determined after testing the patient with anti-Parkinson's medicines, such as carbidopa/levodopa. Ibid. This medicine was not developoed until the 1960s and would not have been available to Hitler.

Parkinson's can also include a slow gait (which is how I was first diagnosed five years ago), stooped posture, a voice reduced to a whisper, and a dull stare that does not seem to focus on its surroundings. Those suffering from Parkinson's can also suffer from cognitive disorders that include a lack of imagination and spontaneity, difficulty making decisions and general apathy. These are all symptoms that Hitler reportedly showed in 1945. For example, whereas early in his career he was a tremendous orater who was known for violent gesturing with his hands while speaking, that trait left him in his last year. Similarly, although Hitler was willing to trust his generals with battle plans early in the war, he was less willing to at the end of the war.

Other symptoms were obvious to Hitler's advisors. According to Dr. John Murphy in a Newstime.com article, Hitler's entourage wrote in their memoirs that he walked slowly by the war's end. His voice was reduced to a whisper and both hands shook. He was bent over and shuffling. In his 50s, he looked like a man two or three decades older. "Hitler's left hand trembled and he had a stooped and rigid posture," wrote Gen. Heinz Gudarian, one of Hitler's generals. An intelligence officer, Gustave Boldt, also wrote of Hitler's tremors and shuffling walk. An SS officer wrote that Hitler in 1945 "had become an old man,'' his voice a whisper. Murphy added that handwriting analysis shows that as the war progressed, Hitler's handwriting became small and cramped -- another classic symptom of Parkinson's patients on which I am monitored.

I am reluctant to endorse the opinion, cited in another answer here, of F. Gerstenbrand, E. Karamat to the extent that it appears to associate Parkinson's with anti-social personality disorders. Pope John Paul and Muhammed Ali are two other well-known Parkinson's patients, among many, who were never known for anti-social behavior.

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If we are leaving out the Parkinson's "diagnosis" something to consider that everyone has left out is that on July 20 1944 Hitler had nearly been killed in a bomb plot. This could have had effects on him physically and on his nerves when in basically the same situation.

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From Wm. Shirer's 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich', which is sourced from diaries of various Nazi officers as well as the Reich's secret papers captured by the allied forces:

"The generals who assembled at the Führers headquarters at Ziegenberg on the evening of December 12th, minus their briefcases and revolvers, found the Nazi warlord, as Manteuffel later recalled, "a stooped figure with a pale and puffy face, hunched in his chair. His hands trembling, his left arm subject to a violent twitching which he did his best to conceal. A sick man... When he walked, he dragged one leg behind him."

Hitler's doctor noted in his diary on August of 1941 "Left hand shows a tremor." This first-hand account is likely the chief reason that they chose to include this in Downfall. But there is also film of Hitler where the tremor can be seen.

Several doctors (Dr. Tom Hutton and J. L. Morris chief among them) have concluded that Hitler must have been suffering from Parkinson's by, and likely before, 1941.

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In series Nazi Underworld (episode "Patient Hitler"), you can see original footage from a German propaganda film (that was censored at the time) with Hitler's left hand tremor. The authors claim that it was one of the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Also they mention forward-flexed posture as another symptom. But they say there is no actual medical records about Parkinson's disease from Hitler's doctors, except perhaps the opinion of Professor Max de Crinis.

I found this also in Adolf Hitler's Parkinson's disease and an attempt to analyse his personality structure:

It has been proved that Adolf Hitler suffered from idiopathic Parkinson's disease. No indication for postencephalitic parkinsonism was found in the clinical symptoms or the case history. Professor Max de Crinis established his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease in Hitler early in 1945 and informed the SS leadership, who decided to initiate treatment with a specially prepared ‘antiparkinsonian mixture’ to be administered by a physician. However, Hitler never received the mixture, this implies that the SS intended to remove the severely diseased ‘Leader’.

Two different character traits can be analysed in Hitler's personality: on the one hand the typical premorbid personality of parkinsonian patients with uncorrectable mental rigidity, extreme inflexibility and insupportable pedantry. On the other an antisocial personality disorder with lack of ethical and social values, a deeply rooted tendency to betray others and to deceive himself and uncontrollable emotional reactions. This special combination in Hitler's personality resulted in the uncritical conviction of his mission and an enormous driving for recognition. The neuropsychiatric analysis of Hitler's personality could lead to a better explanation of the pathological traits of one of the most conspicuous historical personalities.

Yes, Hitler had a tremor of his left hand. According to F. Gerstenbrand, E. Karamat he had a Parkinson's disease.

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Hitler began to contract Parkinsons disease in the last few years of war, explaining why his left hand shaked as it did,=.

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-1 As having no sources and posting what is speculation as if it's definite fact. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 3 '13 at 12:13

Joachim Fest, who wrote a major Hitler biography in German, cites four sources and concludes thus (in footnote 63 on p. 807 of the English paperback edition):

Probably the exact nature of Hitler's illness can no longer be determined, since no examination with a specific investigatory aim was ever undertaken. Because of the extremely inadequate documentation, none of the various diagnoses can be persuasiverly supported or rejected; the principal symptom of both Parkinson's disease and the Parkinson syndrome, namely the shaking arm or leg, can also be caused by many other diseases.

The shaking of Hitler's left arm and the fact that he tried to hide it is also mentioned on several occasions in this biography.

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I've meanwhile also seen Parkinson syndrome mentioned (in somewhat more detail) in a biography of Hitler‘s partner Eva Braun. –  Drux Nov 6 '13 at 8:52

Hitler was a hypochondriac, and received many "experimental" medications from his "doctors" (many of whom would be called quacks now, and then, were it not for their powerful protectors in the Nazi hierarchy).
Some of these contained mercury, a known neurotoxin, and other nasty things that will have caused neuromuscular problems.
Combined with stress, that's understood to be the main cause for his "tic". All this was mentioned in several programs on NGC and History a few years ago before both degenerated into conspiracy theory central, and I've read things about it as well in books over the years (maybe the (in)famous doctor's diaries have some information as well, never read them).

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-1 As having no sources and posting what is speculation as if it's definite fact. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 3 '13 at 12:13

If we consider Wikipedia a reliable source, especially on a sensitive topic and on a person like Adolf Hitler, there is no room for speculation, but only factual information.

Looking at the Wikipedia page for Adolf Hitler on the health section. We can be sure that if Ian Kershaw, one of the top historians about the Third Reich and Hitler, did not find any convincing evidence about Parkinson's disease. He believed he might have suffered from Parkinson's disease, which is what he wrote in his book, but he found no compelling evidence. He was able to remove fact from hearsay and speculation, which is what we should do.

A movie script, has the freedom to use the speculation and other wild stories to make the script more exciting, and to make you love/hate/understand the main character better.

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The encyclopaedia, following Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company p 782, claims Parkinsons. This is I believe the standard account.

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He believed he had Parkinson's, however he found no evidence of it. –  Hendrik Beenker Jan 31 '13 at 9:05
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Which encyclopedia? There are a lot of them out there. –  Joe Aug 28 '13 at 20:49

It wasn't Parkinson's, it was a nervous tic. Why? Because he was losing the war and slowly breaking down. It all culminated in the famous meltdown scene that has been parodied so many times. Notice he loses the tic during that scene.

PS Downfall is just a movie. It is neither historical fact, nor a documentary.

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Do you have any sources? –  American Luke Jun 25 '12 at 21:27
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@Harland, welcome to the site, and I hope you will please take the time to read our faq. (See link at the end of this comment.) Without any references to a source for this information, the community as a whole is likely to vote to close this answer. Any supporting information for this response would be appreciated. history.stackexchange.com/faq –  Steven Drennon Jun 26 '12 at 14:06
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It's indeed a nervous tic, but it's not caused by the fact of losing the war (which to the end he didn't believe was happening, at least publicly) but by his medication which contained among other things high doses of mercury and other neurotoxins (Hitler was a hypochondriac, his physicians had a field day trying all kind of obscure things on him). For sources I'd have to refer to printed material I don't remember the titles of, but no doubt it's available online as well. –  jwenting Jan 31 '13 at 7:28
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@jwenting: Perhaps you can turn the comment into an answer? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 31 '13 at 9:39
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I did, and it instantly gets downvoted without comment by someone of course, probably someone who wants his own comment to appear higher on the list –  jwenting Feb 1 '13 at 4:58

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