Blitzed

Title:                      Blitzed

Author:                  Norman Ohler

Ohler, Norman (2017) and Shaun Whiteside. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. UK: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. To be published in 2017 by Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

OCLC:                    941875127

DD256.5 .O54 2016

  • First published in German as: Totale Rausch: Drogen im Dritten Reich. Köln : Kiepenheuer & Witsch, (2015).
Summary: “The Nazis presented themselves as warriors against moral degeneracy. Yet, as Norman Ohler’s gripping bestseller reveals, the entire Third Reich was permeated with drugs: cocaine, heroin, morphine and, most of all, methamphetamines, or crystal meth, used by everyone from factory workers to housewives, and crucial to troops’ resilience – even partly explaining German victory in 1940. The promiscuous use of drugs at the very highest levels also impaired and confused decision-making, with Hitler and his entourage taking refuge in potentially lethal cocktails of stimulants administered by the physician Dr Morell as the war turned against Germany. While drugs cannot on their own explain the events of the Second World War or its outcome, Ohler shows, they change our understanding of it. Blitzed forms a crucial missing piece of the story.”

 

Contents: 1. Methamphetamine, the Volksdroge (1933-1938) —
2. Sieg high! (1939-1941) —
3. High Hitler: Patient A and his personal physician (1941-1944) —
4. The wonder drug (1944-1945).

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 6, 2017

Review by David Segal[1]

Given the sheer tonnage of books already devoted to the Nazis and Hitler, you might assume that everything interesting, terrible and bizarre is already known about one of history’s most notorious regimes and its genocidal leader. Then along comes Norman Ohler, a soft-spoken 46-year-old novelist from Berlin, who rummages through military archives and emerges with this startling fact: The Third Reich was on drugs.

All sorts of drugs, actually, and in stupefying quantities, as Mr. Ohler documents in Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, a best seller in Germany and Britain that will be published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April. He was in New York City last week [first week of December, 2016] and sat for an interview before giving a lecture to a salon in a loft in the East Village, near Cooper Union.

“This is actually my old neighborhood,” he said, sipping grape juice on a sofa. “I lived around here when I wrote my first novel, a detective story.”

Mr. Ohler fell back on his interest in sleuthing during the five years it took to research and write Blitzed. Through interviews and documents that hadn’t been carefully studied before, he unearthed new details about how soldiers of the Wehrmacht were regularly supplied with methamphetamine of a quality that would give Walter White, of “Breaking Bad,” pangs of envy. Millions of doses, packaged as pills, were gobbled up in battles throughout the war, part of an officially sanctioned factory-to-front campaign against fatigue.

As surely as hangover follows high, this pharmacological stratagem worked for a while—it was crucial to the turbocharged 1940 invasion and defeat of France—and then did not, most notably when the Nazis were mired in the Soviet Union. But the most vivid portrait of abuse and withdrawal in Blitzed is that of Hitler, who for years was regularly injected by his personal physician with powerful opiates, like Eukodal, a brand of oxycodone once praised by William S. Burroughs as “truly awful.” For a few undoubtedly euphoric months, Hitler was also getting swabs of high-grade cocaine, a sedation and stimulation combo that Mr. Ohler likens to a “classic speedball.”

“There are all these stories of party leaders coming to complain about their bombed-out cities,” Mr. Ohler said, “and Hitler just says: ‘We’re going to win. These losses make us stronger.’ And the leaders would say: ‘He knows something we don’t know. He probably has a miracle weapon.’ He didn’t have a miracle weapon. He had a miracle drug, to make everyone think he had a miracle weapon.”

Lanky and angular, Mr. Ohler quietly conveys the mordant humor that occasionally surfaces in his book, which has a chapter titled “High Hitler.” Blitzed, he explained, was born when a Berlin friend who is a D.J. and a fan of mind-altering substances asked, “Did you know that the Nazis took loads of drugs?” While growing up in Munich, the friend had heard about wartime meth use from former soldiers.

Aside from a documentary on the subject, Mr. Ohler found little information online. So he contacted an academic in the documentary, who provided invaluable leads about how to search military archives, which weren’t indexed for “drug” searches. Initially, the findings were intended as material for a fourth novel, but his publisher told him the story was too weird for fiction. Just tell it straight, he was advised.

History can be a treacherous discipline for neophytes, but some professionals have given the exhaustively researched and carefully footnoted Blitzed high marks. The renowned Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw called it “a serious piece of scholarship.” And though elements of this tale have been told, the extent of narcotic consumption by Nazi soldiers and Hitler has surprised even those who have spent decades researching this era.

How is that possible?

“It’s one of the old problems of specialization,” said Antony Beevor, the author of several highly regarded books about World War II. “No historian knows a lot about drugs. When an outsider comes in with an open mind and different interests, the results can be fantastic and very illuminating.”

Mr. Ohler’s fascination with drugs comes from colorful personal experience. In his 20s, while visiting New York, he took acid and hallucinated a full-scale race riot on Second Avenue.

Did he ever trip again?

“Yeah,” he said.

Blitzed begins with Germany’s success in the 19th century as the world’s pre-eminent inventors, manufacturers and exporters of drugs, ranging from the benign (aspirin) to the infamous (heroin). One of those drugs was meth, which was initially marketed over the counter to the German public as an all-purpose upper that beat back everything from depression to hay fever.

Red, white and blue tubes of pills, sold under the trade name Pervitin, caught the attention of a doctor at the Academy of Military Medicine in Berlin, who would oversee the logistics of ferrying millions of pills to troops. Hopped-up soldiers would sprint tirelessly through the Ardennes at the onset of war, an adrenalized performance that left Winston Churchill “dumbfounded,” as he wrote in his memoirs. A German general would later gloat that his men had stayed awake for 17 straight days.

“I think that’s an exaggeration,” Mr. Ohler said, “but meth was crucial to that campaign.”

The other focus of Blitzed is a man long considered one of the era’s farcical bit players: Theodor Morell, the portly, overweening physician who had won Hitler’s confidence in 1936 by curing the stomach pain that had afflicted the Führer for years. An opportunist and a maestro with a syringe, Dr. Morell responded to the incessant demands of Patient A, as he calls Hitler in his notes, with an escalating regimen of injected vitamins, hormones and steroids, which included extracts from the hearts and livers of animals. (While Hitler’s diet was vegetarian, his veins told a different story.) Starting in the summer of 1943, the cocktail included generous quantities of opiates.

By 1944, the doctor had trouble finding veins to shoot. Then, as the Allies bombed the factories that produced Germany’s drugs, he had trouble finding opiates.

“Historians have tried to explain Hitler’s tremors that started in 1945 by saying that he suffered from Parkinson’s,” Mr. Ohler said. “I wouldn’t rule it out, but there’s no proof of it. I think Hitler was suffering from cold turkey.”

Mr. Ohler believes that Hitler’s drug consumption prolonged the war, by enabling his delusions. But Blitzed does not aspire to recast our understanding of National Socialism, or Hitler’s psyche, fundamentally, so much as to add particulars that make other portraits seem incomplete.

For Mr. Ohler, writing the book was cathartic. He grew up with a palpable sense of the horrors of Naziism, learning an unflinching account of the war at school in what was then West Germany. The history was made all the more appalling and personal by his maternal grandfather, a former Nazi Party member who lamented the demise of Hitler whenever something about life in a democracy got on his nerves.

Then there was the legacy of his paternal grandfather, who fought for the Nazis in the Soviet Union.

“I always wondered why my father never showed any emotions toward me,” he said. “It’s because his father never showed any emotions toward him. The German people coming out of the war were emotionally so disturbed. I had always been in that story. Now, I have written myself out of that story. I have freed myself by writing this book. It was a liberating experience. It was a good five years.”

Review by Dagmar Herzog[2]

Norman Ohler, a journalist and novelist, believes that the Third Reich was, quite literally, an altered state. From factory workers to homemakers, from businessmen to members of the SS, almost everyone was, at some point, high on something. In particular, he writes in Blitzed, they were drawn to a little pill called Pervitin—a low-dose methamphetamine akin to present-day “crystal meth.” In the case of Adolf Hitler, the methamphetamine was supplemented with barbiturates, cocaine, steroids, sex hormones and an early form of OxyContin.

Ohler starts from the contradiction between the Nazi leadership’s vow to clean up the reputedly indulgent and pleasure-soaked culture of the Weimar Republic—constantly coded as “Jewish”—and the pervasive evidence that, within a few years, medical experts and military officials alike were pushing large quantities of Pervitin on the population. Ohler documents the persistent intertwining of anti-Semitic rhetoric with the Nazis’ war on drugs, the laws passed in 1933 that threatened addicts with imprisonment and sterilization, and the encouragement to neighbors and co-workers to denounce habitual users—especially of cocaine and morphine—to the police. Yet in 1937, when Fritz Hauschild, the head chemist for the Temmler firm in Berlin (expropriated from its Jewish co-owner in 1934), synthesized the drug patented and marketed as Pervitin, the company received free rein to advertise. Temmler hired public relations experts who plastered posters on streetcars and buses. Temmler representatives lectured at hospitals all over the country. Physicians received packets with free samples and were urged to experiment on themselves. Soon Temmler was shipping millions of Pervitin pills each week.

No matter the ache or ailment—depression, fatigue or slack muscle tone, first-date jitters or postpartum baby blues, reduced sex drive in men or frigidity in women—Pervitin became the recommended remedy. Only in 1939 did Leonardo Conti, the head of the Reich Health Office, express alarm at the drug’s addictive properties and move to make Pervitin prescription-only. Pharmacists, however, interpreted the ruling loosely, and the drug’s popularity continued to soar. In any event, Conti’s order did not apply to the military.

The beauty of Pervitin lay in the delightful feelings of euphoria, self-confidence and sharp mental focus it gave its users. It could also banish sleep for up to 48 hours or more. This made the drug especially useful during the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and then again in the rapid offensive by tanks through the Ardennes Mountains in May 1940. Officers and military doctors provided a torrent of appreciative testimonials. “I’m convinced that in big pushes, where the last drop has to be squeezed from the team, a unit supplied with Pervitin is superior.” Pervitin’s effects were deemed “fabulous.” Ohler writes of the French campaign: “In less than 100 hours the Germans gained more territory than they had in over four years in the First World War.” Winston Churchill, he records, was “dumbfounded.”

The strengths of Ohler’s account lie not only in the rich array of rare documents he mines and the archival images he reproduces to accompany the text, but also in his character studies. One such character is Otto F. Ranke, the head of the Research Institute of Defense Physiology and the key player in liaising between Temmler and the armed forces, who was himself becoming steadily more habituated and experiencing alarming side effects from Pervitin overdose. Ohler’s portrait of Ranke, based on a close analysis of his correspondence and notes from the field, is persuasive, even if the larger conclusions Ohler draws are unsubstantiated. For whether the availability of Pervitin was simply a supplemental aid or whether it provides an essential explanation for the success of the blitzkrieg approach remains an open question.

Similar problems arise in the other major tale at the heart of Blitzed: Hitler’s own journey into addiction (or in Ohler’s terms, his “polytoxicomania”). Here the prime character is Theodor Morell, Hitler’s private physician, a slick and fawning charlatan. Ever anxious to keep his patient in top form, first for the Nazis’ huge open-air rallies and later for vital meetings with top generals or world leaders, Morell plied Hitler not only with sundry quack remedies but also with near-daily injections. Initially these consisted of glucose and multivitamins for rapid energy. But by the fall of 1941, when Hitler briefly fell ill, they additionally included steroids and hormonal concoctions made from pigs’ livers and other animal offal. And in the summer of 1943, in the run-up to a crucial Axis summit, Morell introduced the opioid Eukodal, a drug Ohler describes as a “pharmacological cousin” to heroin. Once hooked, Hitler asked for it frequently. Eventually he was on an ever-varying cocktail of about 80 substances, more than a dozen of them psychoactive. But it is above all Eukodal that Ohler sees as the key to Hitler’s ever more implausible megalomaniac overconfidence and buoyancy in the face of one military setback after another.

Ohler effectively captures Hitler’s pathetic dependence on his doctor and the bizarre intimacy of their bond. His suggestion that Hitler had, by the end of his life, become a “junkie” in the throes of addiction and withdrawal is a proposition that should be considered seriously. But while Blitzed repeatedly tacks back and forth between the medicating of the supreme commander and the major mistakes of judgment with regard to military tactics that characterized his conduct of the war, the connections between events remain unclear.

Ohler is unafraid to make his case in grandiose terms. “Pervitin allowed the individual to function in the dictatorship,” he writes at one point, “National Socialism in pill form.” This is a thesis pieced together from a mix of hard evidence and complete speculation. No full history of these dark times can ever be so simple, and Ohler’s analysis does not withstand close scrutiny.

Ohler frequently identifies causation where there is only correlation. Whether Hitler’s “illusions could be bolstered only by narcotics,” as he asserts, and whether Hitler’s opioid addiction “contributed to the fact that in the last phase of the war and in the genocide of the Jews he never once thought of relenting” is unwarranted supposition. Hitler’s insecurity vis-à-vis his generals and his ineptitude as commander-in-chief—not to mention his inflated opinion of “Aryan” competency and the savage lunacy of his beliefs about Jews—long pre-existed any reliance on stimulating chemicals. Ohler’s claim to be offering new insights too often rests on such leaps in logic, casting doubt on his book’s status as history, rather than really interesting historical fiction.

At the same time, and despite repeated allusions to the Holocaust, Ohler says nothing about the well-documented link between Nazi genocide and alcohol abuse. In the killing fields of Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics (sites of the mass murder by bullets that constituted fully a quarter of the Holocaust), and also in the Operation REINHARD camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka (which relied on suffocation by carbon monoxide), an atmosphere of license, impunity and terror prevailed that was heavily lubricated by liquor. In the end, then, while Blitzed makes for provocative reading, and while the encouragement to look at the Third Reich from a fresh vantage point is salutary, anyone seeking a deepened understanding of the Nazi period must be wary of a book that provides more distraction and distortion than clarification.

[1] David Segal, “High on Hitler and Meth: Book Says Nazis Were Fueled by Drugs,” The New York Times (December 10, 2016). Downloaded December 13, 2016. A version of this article appears in print on December 10, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: How Hitler’s Henchmen Were Kept Hopped Up.

[2] Dagmar Herzog, “Hitler’s Little Helper: A History of Rampant Drug Use Under the Nazis,” New York Times (April 2, 2017, p. BR 19), downloaded April 6, 2017. Dagmar Herzog is a distinguished professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her most recent book is Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes. A version of this review appears in print on April 2, 2017, on Page BR19 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Hitler’s Little Helper.”

 

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