Ohler, Norman. 2017. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin Books.
This book covers an area of historical research I had
not even thought of before: the effects of psychoactive drugs on
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 fueled by sleepless soldiers relying on 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 (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.
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.