Hitler and drugs are such an obvious formula for successful popular history that it is a wunder someone hadn’t already published something similar to Norman Ohler’s 2016 Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. Likely to please readers interested in social history and drug policy, the book is certain to perturb serious political and military historians with what appear almost uni-causal explanations for phenomena such as Adolf Hitler’s erratic decision making and the success of the blitzkrieg as a strategy. For all its flaws and perhaps because of them, Blitzed is an entertaining account of some neglected mid-20th century history.
The author sets the stage by describing the moral panic about drugs in interbellum Germany. For the authoritarian movements working to subvert the still unconsolidated Weimar Republic, sensational stories about cocaine and morphine use in freewheeling Berlin were deployed to symbolize everything wrong in postwar society. Anti-Semitism was central to its ideological exploitation by the Nazis, who succeeded in associating these drugs with the Jewish Other in the minds of politically unsophisticated Germans. The obvious parallels are to the association by several generation of prohibitionist ‘moral’ reformers in the United States of opium with Chinese immigrants, marijuana with Mexican immigrants, cocaine with African-Americans, etc. The war on drugs launched in the name of ‘racial hygiene’ following the Nazi seizure of power then produced, as in the United States, not a sustained reduction in drug consumption but a shift in the drugs consumed. Germans gave up illegal cocaine for legal methamphetamine and illegal morphine for legal oxycodone. Thus, after alcohol and tobacco, the recreational drugs of choice in the Third Reich were the same that now ravage Trumpistan.
Blitzed tells three related war stories. The first is that the blitzkrieg or ‘lightning war’ with which Germany rapidly conquered most of continental Europe was made possible in large part because methamphetamine was distributed in massive quantities to the troops. Although the idea of meth crazed storm troopers is entertaining, military historians attribute the success of the invasions in the west to the German military to better training, thicker layers of officers and non-commissioned officers, and better coordination of armor, infantry, artillery, tactical air and anti-aircraft units. That the British government of Prime Minister Winston Churchill panicked and abandoned its French ally to fight on heroically alone, a.k.a. ‘the Miracle at Dunkirk’, made German victory more likely and more rapid.
The main story in Blitzed is Adolf Hitler’s decent into substance addiction at the hands of his personal doctor Dr. Theodor Morell. The agency problem warning that circulates among the extremely wealthy to avoid employing a physician all to yourself was born out in the relationship between the megalomaniacal dictator and his ambitious physician. Injection after injection of strange mixtures of laxatives, peculiar supplements, anticonvulsants, palliatives and stimulants kept ‘Patient A’ on a chemical roller coaster that maintained the stability of delusion. Other biographers have noted Morell’s role but devoted greater attention to Hitler’s ideology and psychology as reasons for his departure from reality as the Nazi regime began to collapse. What Ohler’s account contributes is a description of the struggle between ambitious subordinates over the Führer’s medical treatment.
The last war story is of pharmacological abuses at the end of the war. Fanatical Hitler Youth recruited to crew hellishly cramped mini-submarines for days were given cocaine chewing gum to keep them alert on what were virtual suicide missions. Concentration camp inmates were experimented upon with peyote as an (ineffective) interrogation drug. As with so much else generated by the Nazi scientists, the research was seized by the postwar occupying powers.
Walking past the history section in any book store is a reminder that Nazis and Hitler remain immensely popular, as subject matter. Blitzed will entertain American readers in 2017 not only for that reason for also as a reassuring story of a doomed delusional national leader who leads his followers to their destruction. The story reassures because they know how it ends. We now recognize the downward trajectory of our own delusional national leader, but are still waiting for Brünnhilde’s soprano solo in Act 3, or “when the fat lady sings.”