Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Review: Blitzed!

Ohler, Norman. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin Books, 2017. Review also posted at Goodreads. Copies available at Powell's and other fine bookstores.

This book covers an area of historical research I had not even thought of before: the effects of psychoactive drugs on war.

The book is broken into four sections: “Methamphetamine, the Volksdroge,” a short history of the German pharmaceutical industry’s development and marketing of psychoactive drugs, “Sieg High,” on the use of methamphetamine as a battlefield performance enhancer during the Blitzkrieg, “High Hitler: Patient A and His Personal Physician,” about Hitler and his personal physician Theodor Morell, and “The Wonder Drug,” about the end of the war as an amphetamine crash, and desperate attempts to create new and more powerful drugs.

Every chapter covers something I had not heard of before. Giants of the pharmaceutical industry turn out to have been founded on psychoactive drugs – Merck on morphine, Bayer on heroin as well as aspirin, and the less-widely known but major Temmler (they are now part of Aenova Group) on the drug they called Pervitin, a methamphetamine-based pharmaceutical. “Sieg High” covers how the Blitzkrieg, where Guderian and Rommel raced through France to the sea, was fought by sleepless soldiers fueled by Pervitin. In passing, one thing this chapter makes clear – it is not news, I expect, to any historian, but I was not aware of it – was just how incompetent a military leader Hitler was. Guderian and Rommel were responsible for the success of the Blitz, and Hitler ordered Goering to change his strategy midway through the Battle of Britain, possibly losing the Battle. Popular English-language accounts of the Battle of Britain focus on Churchill’s determination, but it would have gone worse for Britain had it not been for Hitler’s foolish interventions; likely there would have been no Dunkrik boatlift.

“High Hitler” is a novelistic account of Hitler’s relation with his personal physician Theodor Morell. Morell was most of a crank, pushing various organic concoctions as medicine (vitamins! animal glands! bull’s testicles!) but as the war wore on, and Hitler’s health, energy, and mood deteriorated, Morell began injecting Eukodal, a Merck oxycodone-based drug, and, probably, later Pervitin. Ohler’s account of the deterioration of Hitler’s health, perhaps as a result of drug abuse, or perhaps for other reasons, is grim.

And, finally, “The Wonder Drug” covers the end of the war and the death of Hitler, as ever-more-desperate attempts are made to find drugs that will keep soldiers, sailors, and Der Fuehrer fighting in the face of defeat.

The book is a short and straightforward popular history; 368 pages, of which perhaps 25% are bibliography and notes. I judge it well-researched; the bibliography overwhelmingly cites primary sources. But, oh, the questions it raises! Surely the largest historical question is “To what extent are psychoactive pharmaceuticals factors in history and, especially, war?” I know vaguely about cocaine in World War I, heroin in Vietnam, and other drugs in Central America (the book brought to mind James Tiptree, Jr’s. savage “Yanqui Doodle”), but is there a broader story to be told? To what extent is this still being done?

Beyond that, it is an often-asked historical question: “How could the Nazis have been so cruel and crazy?” Part of the answer may be that they drove themselves crazy with methamphetamine, inducing rigid singleness of purpose and paranoid delusions.

A number of science fiction writers have incorporated technologically created super-soldiers in their stories: Heinlein most famously, but also Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) & Joe Simon (Hymie Simon) created the superhero Captain America. Kirby and Simon had it that there was also a Nazi super-soldier project. I wonder if these authors were aware of the Nazi use of Pervitin during the Blitz? It certainly intimidated the French – they couldn’t imagine how the Germans kept going with no sleep. [Added: here is a 2013 William Saletan piece, "The War on Sleep," about military uses of Provigil (modafinil.)]

And, finally, the picture of Hitler himself. The English-language popular imagination of Hitler owes much to Nazi propaganda and the enormous efficacy of the drug-fueled Blitz, but H.G. Wells 1941 description of Hitler as “that screaming little defective in Berlin” turns out to be more accurate. I have no trouble seeing our modern fascist leaders as similar – racist, health cranks, more than a bit crazy. In a broader focus, I wonder if prescription drugs now widely prescribed as treatments for the conditions of old age are affecting the thinking of older voters.

So, an interesting and important book, which raises good questions. If you have the stomach for it, go read it.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

I had seen a review of this book and was vaguely aware of some of it before hand. I have dded it to my wish list. Thanks