Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany

  • Norman Ohler
Allen Lane: 2016. 9780241256992 | ISBN: 978-0-2412-5699-2

Norman Ohler's Blitzed depicts the pervasive drug culture that allegedly developed in Germany's Third Reich. From 1933 to 1945, Adolf Hitler, many Nazi officials and a proportion of the military rank and file were — he contends — in thrall to prescription and recreational drugs. Ohler's is a vivid account; whether it convinces is less certain.

Credit: Illustration by Eoin Ryan

Historians now recognize that despite Nazi racial and political persecution of German scientists, Hitler's Reich offered immense opportunities to many. There was an upswing of research in pharmacology during preparation for total war, and new drugs were hailed as additions to the armoury of high-performance medicine. However, drugs were viewed paradoxically in the Reich. The Nazi ideology of fitness meant that users of opiates such as morphine were branded 'psychopathic personalities', and serious addicts could be compulsorily sterilized. Yet Nazi officials took high-performance drugs such as methamphetamine hydrochloride (crystal meth) and cocaine. German military units and aviators were dosed with the patent methamphetamine-based drug Pervitin (manufactured in Germany from 1937) to improve operational efficiency. And drugs such as Pervitin and metabolic stimulants were tried out on on students, military recruits and, eventually, in concentration camps. Questions remain, however, over precisely how the drugs were tested, prescribed, distributed and used.

Meanwhile, Hitler's façade was that of a vegetarian and non-smoker, but he became increasingly dependent on patent vitamin tonics produced from bovine thyroid glands, livers and bones. (His favoured physician, Theodor Morell, claimed exclusive rights to process these in occupied Ukraine.) Hitler also had a predilection for sedatives such as the opiate Eukodal (oxycodone). But the extent to which he took any of these drugs remains controversial.

Ohler has effectively written two separate books, one focusing on the military; the other on Hitler and Morell. There is a thin connecting thread attributing Hitler's military misjudgements to drugs, such as Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union when he overstretched German troops. Ohler's descriptions of military operations, such as the Blitzkrieg against Poland and France, are very generalized. By contrast, the treatment of Hitler as a patient is a detailed study based on Morell's diary and personal records.

Called 'Patient A' by Morell, Hitler is depicted as increasingly stooped and tremor-ridden. Ohler attributes this decline to drug dependency rather than Parkinson's disease (mooted as early as 1945 by the Nazi neurologist Max de Crinis). And Ohler goes further. He argues that drug consumption initially boosted the Reich's military success, but then undermined it as widespread addiction set in — a focus that ignores corrosive factors such as anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the drive to secure Lebensraum (territorial living space). Ohler presents some staggering statistics on drugs supplied to individual units, but fails to provide statistics on Pervitin production, fluctuations in its supply to the military, or the extent and duration of its use. Nor is there a detailed analysis of individual soldiers to determine the impact on health. If military operations were so saturated by drugs, more evidence should be forthcoming.

Ohler draws on the same sources as other books and papers on the Nazi consumption of crystal meth and cocaine, and on Hitler's medical predilections. These include Giles Milton's When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain (Picador, 2016) and the paper 'Speed in the Third Reich' (S. Snelders and T. Pieters Soc. Hist. Med. 24, 686–699; 2011). Some material countering Ohler's argument is not referenced. In Was Hitler Ill? (Polity, 2012), Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann argue that Morell was a competent diagnostician, albeit compliant in prescribing. And Ohler does not draw on witness studies such as that of SS nutritionist Ernst-Günther Schenck on Hitler as a patient. Finally, Pervitin was known by the 1980s to be a crucial component of Nazi high-performance medicine.

Ohler pays more attention to the perpetrators of Nazi drug experiments than to their victims. He cites experiments with mescaline, trying to create a 'truth' drug, from the perspective of the Dachau doctor Kurt Plötner, for instance. My book Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments (Bloomsbury, 2014) draws on original findings from more than 15,000 prisoners' narratives of coerced medical testing — including of mescaline — at Auschwitz and Dachau, but is not referenced. Nor does Ohler mention the victims of another notorious experiment. Seven British Royal Navy commandos endured experimentation with stimulants, including cocaine and amphetamines, at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After a forced, three-day march carrying heavy loads, five were executed in 1945. Ohler mentions only a German survivor.

But my key issue is with Ohler's central claim that Pervitin and Eukodal induced a sense of invincibility, first enhancing operational boldness, then destroying the Nazis' ability to engage with military collapse. He also concludes that addiction to ever-stronger doses of patent medicines clouded Hitler's judgement on strategic issues concerning Dunkirk and Crimea. He reduces every twist and turn of the war on the German side to addiction. Yet the US and UK military used amphetamines as part of a highly successful scientific and technological war effort without apparent issues with addiction.

Ohler ends at what he dubs the “Last Exit Bunker”, with Hitler addicted to Eukodal. That title encapsulates my problem with Blitzed. It strings the reader along with facile phrases such as “High Hitler” and “One Reich, One Dealer”, calling the bunker-bound Führer a “super-junkie”. This is a text full of short cuts and speculation rather than a balanced synthesis of a mass of literature and sources to date, rendered readable and accessible.