For many years now, allegations that the Wehrmacht was hooked on the performance-enhancing drug Pervitin (known today as crystal meth) have floated around the history books. Equally well known is Hitler’s reliance on a personal physician—a quack, actually—named Theodor Morell, who provided the Führer with injections of vitamins, hormones, and stimulants.
Norman Ohler is the first author to combine these themes and weave a more holistic view of drug use in the Third Reich. He points out that Germany had the most developed chemical and pharmacological industry in the world long before Hitler came to power. German scientists invented the modern analgesic, or painkiller: good ones like aspirin and bad ones like the morphine derivative marketed as Heroin. In fact, the same company, Bayer, invented both. In the feverish, thrill-seeking atmosphere of 1920s Berlin, people were up for anything, and recreational drug use was rampant: morphine to mellow you out, cocaine to give you the boost for a long night on the town.
The Nazis promised to get rid of all that. They stressed clean living, purity of food and drink, and the intoxication of being a “master race.” Like so many of their other promises, they failed to deliver. In fact, many Nazi officials were getting hammered on a daily basis: morphine, cocaine, meth. Hitler had a whole slew of maladies—tics, tremors, bloating, eczema—which were almost certainly of a nervous character. He battled them by turning to Morell for daily injections of a huge pharmacopeia: Pervitin, cocaine, the narcotic Eukodal (based on the opioid oxycodone), and more. The combinations yanked his already disordered personality from euphoria to black depression, a crazed whipsaw that users know as the “speedball effect.”
Ohler’s book has already become controversial. Some reviewers see it as giving Hitler, along with his Third Reich, a pass by blaming his crimes on the “people’s drug,” Pervitin. They must not be reading the same book I did. The author states clearly that Hitler “acted with terrible consistency to the end,” and that his drug dependency “does not diminish his monstrous guilt.” In fact, perhaps the book’s target isn’t really the Führer at all, but what we like to call “Big Pharma”: companies who develop drugs of questionable utility or outright danger and market them aggressively despite known side effects. Not to mention the government officials who carry out a hypocritical “war on drugs” while using drugs themselves.
In the words of the old public service announcement on television, “this is your brain on drugs.” As Blitzed reminds us, it isn’t a pretty sight.
This Book Review was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of WORLD WAR II magazine.