Charlotte Grimshaw reviews the sensational (also really good, and even scholarly) best-seller about Nazis fucked-up on P.
In the 90s, when the Berlin Wall had just come down, German novelist Norman Ohler began experimenting with ecstasy and LSD. After learning that drugs were widespread in the Nazi era, he got the idea to write a novel on the subject, but once he’d started looking at archives and gathering material, he realised he had the basis for a non-fiction book.
The result was Blitzed, his bestselling account of drug use in the Third Reich, from the crystal meth distributed by the Wehrmacht to keep soldiers alert during the Ardennes offensive, to the Fuhrer’s own use of cocaine and opiates, a habit that turned him, by Ohler’s account, into a desperately ill junkie by the end of the war.
Witness accounts record that Hitler was physically robust when he took power, but had been reduced to a trembling wreck by the time he killed himself and Eva Braun in the bunker, as the Russians overran Berlin. There have been numerous theories about the cause of his physical degeneration, as well as countless analyses of his psychopathology.
His frailty, tremors and general ill health have been attributed, speculatively, to Parkinson’s disease or some other hidden disorder. The cause and nature of his “madness” (pathological or otherwise) has also been extensively debated. Ohler’s account is the first to consider, in detail, Hitler’s physical and mental decline exclusively in the context of the stupendous amount of substances injected into him by his plump and sinister personal physician, Dr Theodor Morell.
Dr Morell’s role in treating Hitler is well known, as is the fact that some of the Nazi top brass suspected his treatments were having a negative effect. Ohler examined records to uncover exactly what substances Morell was giving his patient, and to consider what the negative effects actually were.
In an interview with the Guardian, he explained his original take: “I guess drugs weren’t a priority for the historians. A crazy guy like me had to come along.” By his account, evidence of drug use in the Third Reich was present in the records but wasn’t systematically referenced or focused upon, simply because it hadn’t occurred to historians to do so. It took the crazy guy, the guy interested in drugs, to “add another piece to the puzzle.”
Ohler is at pains to explain that he didn’t gather this evidence in order to excuse Hitler, who was, he says, “taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes. It does not diminish his monstrous guilt.”
So, what began as research for a novel turned into a serious trawl through archives, some of which hadn’t been considered much at all, and others that had been examined, but not with Ohler’s particular thesis in mind. He gained the support of the late German historian Hans Mommsen, and in the course of his research located the papers of Dr. Morell, in which the “fat doctor”, as Ohler calls him, documented the treatment of the Fuhrer, whom Morell called Patient A.
Blitzed has had a mixed response from historians, with the renowned Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw praising it as a “serious piece of scholarship, very well researched”, and others picking out inaccuracies, labeling the book sexed up, hyperbolic and breathless.
For the ordinary reader, the non-historian fascinated with the Nazis as a spectacle of human depravity, Ohler’s account is compelling. The research is accompanied by evidence, and has the weighty endorsement of Ian Kershaw and Hans Mommsen. There’s the interest of well-known information (Hitler was a wreck) seen with a fresh eye (he was the Reich’s Uber-Junkie.) It provides yet another angle on Nazi corruption and hypocrisy: they called themselves the Master Race; they were degenerately off their faces.
Yet accusations of exaggeration by some historians raise the question, already vaguely wafting through the reader’s mind, of confirmation bias: does the guy interested in drugs find drugs wherever he looks?
Perhaps the answer to that is: not necessarily. There’s some argument among critics about the significance of drug taking by the Wehrmacht (although no argument about the fact that the army ordered 35 million methamphetamine tablets for the troops during the Ardennes offensive) and some commentators have objected to Ohler’s speculation about the nature of one drug Morell routinely gave Hitler, which the doctor referred to only as X. But most of the research in Blitzed is solidly backed up with documents, particularly Hitler’s medical records, and army correspondence. It’s a startling fact: the Third Reich – which furiously condemned drug taking as a “foreign plague” indulged in by the “racially inferior” (Jews) – was a society awash with drugs.
Ohler is a writer with a taste for the dramatic. There’s a kind of “novelist’s relish” in his portrayal of the top Nazis, a cast of characters so evil and grotesque they’re like creatures from a fairy tale. His account is highly enjoyable in many places, disgusting and disturbing in others. Does colourful storytelling render the accuracy suspect? Not necessarily.
History is storytelling, after all.
The Germans were always highly accomplished chemists, and had long established a flourishing pharmaceutical industry. During the Weimar Republic drugs were everywhere, the people escaping from post-war gloom in a fog of heroin, cocaine and morphine. In the words of one popular song, “Europe’s a madhouse anyway/No need for genuflecting/The only way to Paradise/Is snorting and injecting!”
The Nazis sought to clean up society, and began a war on drugs, introducing the idea that consumption was an unsavoury Jewish activity. Use was restricted and drug takers began to be outlawed. Puritanical Hitler, meanwhile, put it about that his body was a temple: he consumed neither coffee, nor alcohol, nor meat. His genius unclouded by substances, he was vegetarian, a pure abstainer (yet with the help of the awful Dr Morell, he would end up drug addled, heavily addicted, in shuddering withdrawal, his immune system crashing from the narcotics, quack potions and steroids Morell had injected into him daily. He was not even vegetarian any more, since Morell’s bogus potions included substances made of animal hormones from glands and offal: meat.)
In the new post-Weimar atmosphere of purity, a German pharmaceutical company started to manufacture a drug that would sharpen up the people for National Socialism. Marketed as Pervitin, it was methyl-amphetamine (or crystal meth) in pill form, and was advertised as a healthy remedy for everyday ills: tiredness, inefficiency, low libido, menopause symptoms, depression. It soon became wildly popular, and was even sold as confectionary: after a couple of crystal meth chocolates, women were told, the housework could be done in a trice. “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight”, was the slogan.
The Wehrmacht saw the potential in Pervitin, and distributed the pills to the troops before the Ardennes offensive, enabling them to stay awake and alert for days, and rendering them unstoppable in battle. As Ohler describes it, the drugs enabled them to do what the German generals had previously assumed would be militarily impossible. The soldiers, wired and fried on methamphetamine, roared through the Ardennes, overrunning the enemy, annihilating them, destroying their morale. Disinhibited by drugs, they took insane risks, were tireless, terrifyingly aggressive, fearless. The Belgians and the French were so taken aback by the Germans’ speed and ferocity, they were almost helpless to resist.
The Nazis had discovered Blitzkrieg in a pill.
Here’s Ohler’s racy account of external and internal bombardment: “Meth unleashed charge after charge in German brains, neurotransmitters were released, exploded in the synaptic gaps, burst and dispersed their explosive cargo; neuronal paths twitched, gap junctions flared, everything whirred and roared. Down below the defenders cowered, their bunkers shaking…. In the course of the hours that followed, 60,000 Germans, 22,000 vehicles and 850 tanks crossed the river: ‘We felt a kind of high, an exceptional state,’ one participant reported.”
Ohler’s account of the Dunkirk Halt Order is similarly compelling, a tale of drugs and narcissism, of power and personality disorder.
Goring and Hitler both had a reason to be discomforted by the stunning success of the troops in the Ardennes: they felt that the Wehrmacht Generals had taken over. Hitler was a classic case of dilettantism and narcissistic ignorance: he had no experience in running a military campaign, but felt that he, as a genius, should be the one to direct the Generals. (You can’t help but think of President Trump’s refusing briefings from security experts, since he will simply “know” the facts. The serious narcissist resists education, since a genius knows all. Learning involves competing too, and unfavourable comparison can’t be sustained by the ego.)
Goring, Hiltler’s second in command, was a drug addict, as well as a cross dresser, wearer of cake makeup and painted fingernails. Ohler gives him the fairytale quality of an evil gnome: “As an indescribable feeling of wellbeing from the morphine rushed through him, he replaced his red pointed slippers with black high-sided boots and stamped out into the forest.”
High on morphine, dressed in his customary weird outfit, Goring was off to meet Hitler, where together, over porridge, muesli and apple tea, they cooked up the order to halt the German advance, a decision that baffled the generals, prevented German victory and allowed hundreds of thousands of Allied troops to escape from Dunkirk. It was a decision based on ego, disastrous to their own side, an example of the momentous effects mad individuals can have on history.
As the war continued and things began to go wrong with the Nazi quest for Lebensraum, Hitler retreated into his bunker and turned increasingly to the treatment provided by Dr Morell. As Ohler describes it, Hitler’s dilettantism extended to his drug consumption. He accepted without question the crazy regime of Dr Morell, and was soon being injected with “over eighty different, and often unconventional, hormone preparations, steroids, quack remedies and balms.”
His physical health deteriorating, he became, by Ohler’s account, a serious junkie, dependent in particular on documented injections of a powerful opiate called Eukadol, and, after the July 1944 assassination attempt, on cocaine as well. If Ohler’s view is correct, Hitler’s famous “carpet-gnawing” rages, his crazy highs and gloomy lows, can be attributed to drugs as much as to personality disorder, insanity, or whatever it was that made him supremely evil.
By the time the Russians arrived in Berlin, drug supplies were running out and Hitler was in withdrawal, lurking in his rat hole beneath the bomb-flattened city, as much of a blasted wreck as the nation he’d destroyed.
While Patient A went out in operatic style, Dr Morell, the opportunistic quack, sycophant and peddler of disgusting substances, managed to slip away into the ruins. Captured by the Allies, Morell was deemed too insignificant to be brought to trial at Nuremberg. Perhaps he did the world a favour by half-killing Hitler; no one except the Nazis would have wanted the Fuhrer clear-headed and effective. But it’s a pity Hitler withstood his crazy treatment for so long. How much better it would have been for millions of people, if Dr. Morell’s drugs and quack treatments had finally been the death of Patient A.
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (Allen Lane, $55) by Norman Ohler is available at Unity Books.