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Pages from History: 
by Robert Noah Calvert

Massage's Greatest Humanitarian

Felix Kersten (1898-1960), sometimes referred to as a doctor but most often as a masseur, is responsible for saving the lives of countless human beings during World War II. As personal physician to the Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, Kersten administered massage he learned from a Tibetan practitioner, Dr. Ko. Kersten called this method "manual therapy" or "nerve therapy." Through his ministrations to Himmler, Kersten was able to convince the SS boss to avert plans to send millions to their death. His contribution to the massage field is as its greatest humanitarian. 

The United States is at war [as of this writing]. During the debate, and now that the war is underway, many pundits have compared this war with World War II; Hitler, the Nazi’s and their atrocities against humanity. These acts stand out as the best examples of man’s worst inhumanity. Few examples from World War II, though, have pointed to the best positive examples of man’s great humanity in the face of war. In this special segment of Pages from History we look at a war hero from pages in the history of massage, Kersten and his contribution to the war effort while doing massage among the enemy.

The latest book about the time Kersten spent among the Nazis during WWII is called The Devil’s Doctor, in reference to his chief patient, Reichfuhrer SS Himmler, head of the Nazi SS forces. Himmler, among others in the Nazi headquarters in Berlin, suffered from severe abdominal pains, and only Kersten could provide the periodic relief that not only kept the Reichfuhrer at work, but contributed to saving countless lives from the dreaded Nazi regime.

One story of how Kersten was able to get Himmler to be a co-conspirator against his own regime is reminiscent of the now famous Schindler’s list. Kersten and his cohorts would make a list of people they wanted exempted from the concentration camps and the inevitable death ovens. The list would be several pages long, but always with ample space on each page and above Himmler’s signature line to add more names after the Reichsfuhrer would sign off on the list after Kersten had given him relief from the severe abdominal pain suffered regularly by Himmler. 

Kersten became so bold in his ministrations of relief to Himmler that he was able to plea-bargain for the lives of his friends, government officials in his homeland and other important and often ordinary people who came to his attention.

Only the nerve therapy that Kersten administered worked to give Himmler any freedom from the debilitating pain. Other of Himmler’s staff were patient to Kersten’s ministrations, and from these ongoing sessions he developed a loyalty to his cause and betrayal to the Nazi regime that was never successfully squashed because of his close relationship with Himmler, who became his protector and protagonist.

Before the war, Kersten was a manual therapist with a high degree of success among the elite of Finland, Holland and Sweden. By referral from a friend and patient he was introduced to Himmler little more than three years before the war was to end. Kersten didn’t want to treat Himmler, whom he knew well was a powerful and ruthless man of the Nazi regime. But refusing such a person was tantamount to a death warrant for him and his family and so he did treat Himmler which resulted in the Reichsfuhrer insisting that he continue to treat him as his personal physician. Kersten himself makes no claims to be a physician, but a manual therapist trained in massage in Sweden and nerve therapy by the Tibetan Dr. Ko. It is evident from the numerous books written about the war activities of Kersten, that Dr. Ko was a pivitol figure in his life who after teaching him the techniques that would provide Kersten with the opportunities to save millions from the Nazi death squads, disappeared almost as suddenly as he had appeared in Kersten’s life.

After treating Himmler for a year or so, Kersten was able to establish a secret network of communications utilizing Nazi telephones and travel to and from Sweden, England, Holland and Finland, consulting with government and military sources because of his unique position within the Nazi headquarters of Berlin. He was forced to move to Germany with his family, but was given a spacious farmhouse and property, which, despite Nazi regulations against it, was used to help prisoners of war held near the farm by providing them with work opportunities away from the compound. These and many other privileges were afforded Kersten from the protection he had from treating Himmler.

Kersten wrote a memoir of his experience with the Nazi regime and in one passage attempts to explain the pains of his patient: "His [Himmler’s] severe stomach convulsions were not, as he supposed, simply due to a poor constitution or to overwork; they were rather the expression of this psychic division which extended over his whole life. I soon realized that while I could bring him momentary relief. I could never achieve a real cure. The basic cause of these convulsions was not removed, was indeed constantly being aggravated."

Kersten’s war activities, in contradiction to Nazi interests, were not without risk. Himmler’s counterpart hated Kersten’s special relationship with Himmler and made every attempt to thwart Kersten, even attempting to murder him on one occasion. Kersten lived in constant threat of being exposed, but always it was the caring ministrations and intimate counsel the sessions with Himmler provided that vouchsafed him during each and every effort he made to save lives. His manipulations of Himmler were physical, emotional and political, and resulted in Kersten receiving the highest awards from Sweden, England and Finland for his ability to use Himmler to act against the horrendous interests of the Nazi regime. And so Kersten will always stand tall in the history of massage as its first and greatest humanitarian.s

References: The Devil’s Doctor, John H. Waller, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.The Schellenberg Memoirs, edited and translated by Louis Hagen, Andre Deutsch, 1946. The Kersten Memoirs, by Felix Kersten, 1940-1945, Macmillan, 1957.


Robert Noah Calvert is the founder and CEO of Massage Magazine. The material for this column comes from the World of Massage Museum's collection and Calvert's book, The History of Massage, published in February 2002 by Healing Arts Press.