By Anthony MostromJanuary 3, 2018
Blitzed by Norman Ohler
Readers of the major Hitler biographies have been long familiar with the hovering presence of Doktor Theodor Morell, a Dr. Feelgood dispenser of pills and many, many shots of various concoctions into the arm of the ailing Führer.
It used to be that when you joined the two words Nazi and drugs together you were probably referring to Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe and an obese hedonist who had also been a lifelong morphine addict. (Göring, a much-admired fighter pilot during World War I, was sentenced to death for his Nazi crimes at Nuremberg.) But Göring is apparently old-school now, making only a cameo appearance in German journalist Norman Ohler’s recent book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, a chronicle of the widespread dependence which many of the Reich’s ordinary citizens, and some of their leaders, had developed for various speedy medications.
Ohler begins by reminding us of the irony of the larger Nazi-drug equation, i.e., that intoxication, of a martial and patriotic kind, was exactly what Hitler set out to spread among the German public after the end of World War I. Recent biographies such as Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent repeat the old testimonials, which date back to the ’20s, of the “seductive force” which Hitler’s guttural, possibly war-damaged vocal chords had upon those crowds. He once shouted out to the crowd in the midst of a particularly orgasmic speech, “Are you as thrilled by me as I am by you?”
It is an accepted truism among historians that German society under Hitler, during the Third Reich’s early years (what those historians sometimes like to call the “good years,” circa 1933 to ’37), was characterized by a widespread sense of energy, enthusiasm, intense momentum, and, of course, fear; you could probably sum it all up with the evocative German word Spannung, tension. National Socialism, it can be argued, really was a kind of public version of speed.
But with the Nazi seizure of power, Ohler tells us, “[d]rugs were made taboo […] ‘Seductive poisons’ had no place in a system in which only the Führer was supposed to do the seducing.” Already during the Weimar era, the Nazi party, in all its upright, uptight, right-wing righteousness, adopted an official anti-drug stance in opposition to the licentious atmosphere of 1920s Germany, with its loosey-goosey, pansexual nightlife and its pervasive atmosphere of gayness, prostitution, and, of course, drugs. “For [the Nazis] there could be only one legitimate form of inebriation: the swastika,” Ohler writes.
But gradually, as a wound-up society needed more and more winding up to keep functioning, drugs did in fact become popular among the German public. A popular product, invented in Nazi Germany and widely marketed therein, was an over-the-counter pill called Pervitin, and its active ingredient was what we now commonly call meth.
“Germans,” writes Ohler,
didn’t need an order to take the buzzy substance. The hunger for powerful brain food was already there. […] Pervitin spread among all social circles. Furniture packers packed more furniture […] barbers cut hair more quickly […] and long-distance truck drivers bombed down freshly constructed autobahns completing their trips in record time. Post-lunchtime naps became a thing of the past […] Pervitin was a perfect match for the spirit of the age.
Germany was already a world leader at creating new drugs. “While France and Great Britain were able to acquire natural stimulants such as coffee, tea, vanilla, pepper, and other natural medicines from colonies overseas,” Ohler writes, “Germany had to find other ways — stimulants had to be produced synthetically.” And Germany did. Ohler tells the story of a young genius of the early 19th century, a 21-year-old chemist named Friedrich Sertürner, who isolated morphine from opium poppies; this would set the stage for a later Bayer company scientist, Felix Hoffmann, to create a derivative of morphine called diacetyl morphine, a.k.a. heroin.
Hitler himself, the ascetic vegetarian and teetotaler, wasn’t immune to the drug mania going on in Germany. In the book’s third chapter, “High Hitler: Patient A and His Personal Physician,” the author draws from a cache of diaries and assorted papers of Morell’s, now located at the National Archives in Washington, DC. These paint a tortured picture of his years with “Patient A” (sometimes marked down in the notebooks simply as “F,” for Führer).
Morell’s diary notation, “the Führer wants to have injections because of imminent hard work,” sums up Hitler’s surprisingly casual attitude toward cocaine, morphine, Eukodal, heroin, Pervitin, and grotesque-sounding, seemingly improvised concoctions of Morell’s own that included mixtures of uterine blood and bull testicles. Hitler took it all in, apparently without question. Ohler quotes the trustful Patient A as telling another doctor named Erwin Giesing, “please don’t turn me into a cocaine addict!”
It would be tempting to zero in on this chapter’s revelations in the hopes of finding some causal “explanations” for the actions of Word War II’s creator. Hitler becomes irritable and impatient toward his generals, certainly, but this is Adolf Hitler we’re talking about, and in the midst of losing a war. Throughout his life, Hitler’s reaction in the face of setback was always rage, and Ohler doesn’t even try to ascribe Hitler’s atrocities to drug-taking, since they had roots in his calculating earlier years. Readers looking for a grand explanation are going to be disappointed.
The intersection of drug abuse and mass killing is one reason certain sections of Blitzed can give off the ripe, pungent aroma of a novel by Céline, or William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. One of the most sordid images in this book comes via this passage:
Hitler and Mussolini were on their way to the front: a twenty-four-hour journey through Eastern Europe where mass murder was ubiquitous. They passed close by Kamaniets-Podilskyi in western Ukraine, where over 23,600 Jews had just been shot by the SS and a German police battalion — it was the first murder of all the Jews belonging to a whole region […] Morrell quickly opened his fat-bellied medical bag, took out the set of ampoules wrapped in black leather […] stuck in the needle, and drew out the fluid. He swiftly bound Hitler’s snow-white, almost hairless arm […] and jabbed in the syringe: first in the vein, then, quickly, a second intramuscular injection …
Thus the prime mover of World War II, the bearer of slaughter himself, takes an “angry fix” one junk-sick morning through a wasteland of carnage.
Former novelist Ohler has indulged in some essentially fictional speculations:
Eukodal could have helped him now. In a second he would move from total pain to total paradise […] when the Allies were entering the Reich from both East and West, the powerful narcotic erased any doubts about victory, any empathy for civilian victims, and made Hitler even more unfeeling about both himself and the outside world …
This is speculative writing, otherwise known as guesswork, and it mars the otherwise diligent research that went into this book.
It needs to be said that presenting the gigantic subject of World War II filtered through such a limited prism as this, and in a book barely over 200 pages, produces, ipso facto, a picture that is distorted. Nonetheless, Ohler has dug up something genuinely untapped and important here. This extends, most importantly, to the “lightning war” itself and how that shattering phenomenon was made possible.
Ohler, of course, puts it all into a nutshell: Pervitin, formerly an “upper” for civilians, was now pressed into military service. “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,” says one German officer, while also quoting from the report of a unit just returned from the Polish campaign:
When crossing the […] river Vistula in Poland, the 3rd Panzer Division […] report[ed] […] euphoria, an increase in attention span, clear intensification of performance […] [e]veryone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. […] After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors […] a vigorous urge to work.
By this, he meant killing, Ohler notes.
While the lightning-war assaults on Russia and France were undoubtedly helped along by the presence of this, and other performance-enhancing drugs, some of which negated the need for sleep for up to three days, that is a narrow slice of the story of even these specific campaigns, much less the European war.
Just as drugs aren’t the motivating secret for Hitler, neither do they explain the Nazi phenomenon as a whole. German troops did not conquer Poland and Czechoslovakia thanks to a pill called Pervitin; Paris was not overrun by German soldiers thanks to a hearty breakfast and good, strong coffee; Holland and Norway were not conquered because of stimulants; and German architects and engineers did not build barracks and structures equipped with poison-crystal chutes while working in a state of “mass intoxication” except in the most metaphorical of ways. Indeed in the most profound and all-pervasive sense, Adolf Hitler was their drug. Chemicals like meth were merely add-ons. Only Hitler’s criminal charisma, his energy, truly explains the Third Reich, its horrors and its successes.
Translator Shaun Whiteside deserves plaudits for turning in some nice English phrases from Ohler’s German. When discussing the Weimar era: “Everything whirled apart in a toxicological frenzy. The icon of the age, the actress and dancer Anita Berber, dipped white rose petals in a cocktail of chloroform and ether at breakfast, before sucking them clean.” Whiteside does an admirable job, too, of making a 1919 German ode to drug-taking and nightlife work quite well in English:
Let drowsy morphine take its
Upon our nervous system —
We snort and we inject!
And if we snort ourselves to death
Or into the asylum,
Our days are going downhill fast —
How better to beguile ’em?
Europe’s a madhouse anyway,
No need for genuflecting;
The only way to Paradise
Is snorting and injecting!
Books and films on this era can easily give the impression that the entire 12-year period of Nazi rule was a kind of whipped-up, feverish hallucination. Norman Ohler has proven that that was, at least in part, literally true.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Two new books tell the story of how one alarmed volunteer in L.A.’s Jewish community helped take down Nazi spies in the years leading up to World War II....
Anthony Mostrom reviews three new books about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.