The Nazis were all on drugs! So far, so sensationalist but German writer Norman Ohler’s absorbing new non-fiction book, Blitzed, makes the convincing argument that the Nazis’ use of chemical stimulants, from the infantry all the way up to the Führer himself, played a crucial role in the successes, and failures, of the Third Reich.
Ohler looks at this phenomenon through two lenses. The first is wider: considering the ways the Germans sought to boost the performance and stamina of troops with stimulants. Ohler suggests the capitulation of France in 1940 was due to the Wehrmacht being given Pervitin, a pill whose active ingredient was methamphetamine, or crystal meth. The drug gave German forces a sense of fearlessness and drastically decreased the need for sleep, meaning the panzers could roll to the Belgian-French border in just three days — much faster than the French had ever thought possible.
The second strand of Ohler’s story has a smaller focus, though one intrinsically linked to the bigger picture. It concerns the complicated relationship between Adolf Hitler and his physician, Dr Theodor Morell, who — Ohler claims — turned the Führer from a vegetarian ascetic to a dribbling addict over the nine years in which Hitler was in his “care”. During a chance meeting at a dinner party, Hitler mentioned his chronic intestinal pains and Morell suggested he try Mutaflor, a reasonably effective probiotic still in use today. Its success led the Führer to demand stronger, quicker treatments from Morell for a variety of symptoms. By the time he died, says Ohler, Hitler had become a regular, even dependent, user of opiates and cocaine, even mixing the two as a “classic speedball”.
Ohler argues that the Führer’s drug use had a direct impact on certain outcomes of the war. At a meeting with Mussolini in 1943, at which Il Duce had planned to tell Hitler that Italy should leave the war, the dosed-up Nazi boss talked incessantly for three hours. Mussolini wasn’t able to get a word in, and Italy stayed put. Where things get murkier, as Ohler knows, is when considering how much an intoxicated individual should be held responsible for his actions. Could chemical psychosis be used to explain the barbaric madness of, say, the Final Solution? Ohler makes his feelings on this particular point unequivocally clear.
It wouldn’t have been desirable in Nazi Germany, of course, for the Wehrmacht’s strength and bravery to be explained as nothing but a chemical high, or for Hitler to be seen as buoyed by something other than the National Socialist dream. As a result, documentation from the time is patchy, and Ohler’s research ranges from the concrete: typed orders for huge quantities of Pervitin to be sent to exhausted frontline units; to the questionable: which substance was Morell disguising when he wrote that he’d injected Hitler with “X”?; to the speculative: could Hitler’s erratic behaviour towards the end of the war be indicative of drug withdrawal?
Some of these questions will resist a definitive answer but Ohler’s book offers an intriguing angle on the motives and machinations of the Nazis and their leader.
Blitzed by Norman Ohler is out now