Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany
Norman Ohler (trans Shaun Whiteside)
Allen Lane, Hbk £20
Hitler almost died of a cocaine overdose, and the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg was powered by methamphetamine. These are just two of the areas of investigation in Blitzed, Norman Ohler’s study of the massive pharmacological intake at all levels of the Nazi war-machine.
Ohler begins by detailing the widespread availability of cocaine and morphine in early 20th-century Germany. Despite the Nazis’ initial suppression of this decadent drug trade, it was soon replaced by what Ohler refers to as ‘National Socialism in pill form’.
The particular pill was Pervitin, a powerful new methamphetamine that gave the user energy, amplified their senses, and overwhelmingly increased their sense of purpose (effects that could last over 12 hours).
Ohler’s first major claim is that the Wehrmacht’s use of Pervitin was instrumental in the Nazis’ successful invasion of France. The blitzkrieg strategy, implemented by the panzer divisions in the Ardennes, was only possible because the chemically aided soldiers were able to advance for days at a time without the need for rest or recuperation. In fact, Ohler argues, the Wehrmacht could easily have pushed on to Dunkirk, and cut off the Allies’ last chance of escape from occupied France.
But Hitler was untrusting of his generals, and Göring, whose heavy morphine addiction gave him an unshakeable confidence and sense of power, asked Hitler for permission to attack Dunkirk from the air. Hitler agreed, halting the drugged-up panzer units, and 340,000 Allied soldiers escaped: arguably one of the key turning-points of the war.
Ohler calls this his ‘pharmacological interpretation’ of the miracle of Dunkirk, and it is an illustration of his willingness to reach beyond the historical record, using supposition in order to offer a complete story.
As you would expect from a novelist by trade, the writing is compelling and the book zips along (credit must also go to translator Shaun Whiteside). In his final section, Ohler traces Hitler’s growing dependence on his personal physician Dr Morell. Morell injected Hitler with all manner of drugs, including Eukodal – an opiate almost twice as strong as morphine, to which Hitler appears to have become addicted.
Hitler is presented as a pitiful specimen, unable to get through the day without pharmacological help. That is not, though, to abdicate him of responsibility, as Ohler makes sure to note: ‘his opioid addiction only cemented an already existing [worldview]’.
Whilst some aspects of the book’s subject have been covered elsewhere, Ohler’s extensive primary research has allowed him to present a detailed and highly readable synthesis.
This review appeared in issue 76 of Military History Monthly.