'Blitzed' details drug abuse in the Third Reich, from foot soldiers to the Führer

The true dark stars of 'Blitzed' are Hitler and a quack doctor named Theodor Morell, who kept the head of the Third Reich hopped up on dangerously addictive drugs.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich By Norman Ohler Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 304 pp.

Journalist Norman Ohler's 2015 "Der Totale Rausch: Drogen im Dritten Reich," now translated into English by Shaun Whiteside for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, is a lively narrative recounting of the Nazi regime's deep involvement with a wide array of drugs during its 12-year existence, a protracted case that the Third Reich was saturated with liberally-dispensed pharmaceuticals like cocaine, heroin (diacetyl morphine, invented by Felix Hoffmann in 1897), and most of all, methamphetamine, under its trademark Pervitin.

Even in translation, Ohler is an unfailingly engaging guide to all this sordid material, sketching the long history of his subject and the surprisingly widespread infiltration of all kinds of powerful stimulants into German civilian society – as in the United States, drugs now considered illegal and known to be dangerously addictive were commonly sold over the counter as ingredients in everything from bon-bons to baby food. He sharpens his story by highlighting the drastic contradictions that arose when the Nazis came to power loudly touting a clean, drug-free Aryan purity. “The Nazis had their own recipe for healing the people: they promised ideological salvation,” he writes. “For them there would be only one legitimate form of inebriation: the swastika.”

As he points out, drugs were made taboo under the Nazis; the Reich's Health Office in Berlin proclaimed a “duty of health,” proscribing alcohol and tobacco as degenerate evils fit only to be purged from German culture. This rendered all the more hypocritical the extremely common drug use Ohler uncovers at all levels of the Nazi regime. Front-line soldiers, for example, took Pervitin in regular doses in order to stay awake continuously for days or even weeks; “I took Pervitin as a precautionary measure,” attested a Luftwaffe bomber pilot in the immediate wake of the Battle of Britain. “Imagine the commander being tired in battle! … One wouldn't abstain from Pervitin because of a little health scare. Who cares when you're doomed to come down at any moment!”

And the hypocrisy, of course, extended to the top of the Nazi command structure. The Gestapo had for years kept a close surveillance on the drug use of Hermann Göring, which Ohler relates with dramatic aplomb: “Often during discussions Göring, once the opium content of his blood had dropped, felt so deranged that he would leave the room abruptly without a word of explanation and not come back until a few minutes later, plainly much refreshed.”

But the true dark stars of "Blitzed" are Adolf Hitler and his quack drug-supplier, a doctor named Theodor Morell, who “had no intention of questioning Hitler to genuinely find the root of his health problems,” Ohler writes. “The penetration of the needle was enough for him: it was a substitute for serious medical treatment.” Patient A, Morell's designation for Hitler in his diary, gradually became addicted to a staggering daily, sometimes hourly, concoction of steroids, vitamins, narcotics, and hormones, a concoction that left its recipient feeling invincible: “A neuronal firework explodes and a biochemical machine gun starts firing an uninterrupted sequence of thoughts,” as Ohler describes it. “All of a sudden the consumer feels wide awake and experiences an increase in energy: the senses are intensified to the extreme. One feels livelier, energized to the tips of one's hair and fingers.”

In Ohler's account, this constant drug use reduced Hitler to a shambling zombie who “engaged in lengthy and enervating conversations with himself” that lasted all night, “the Führer's soft baritone addressing no one in particular. Instead his eyes gazed into the distance as if he were talking to a vast and invisible following.”

The controversy that has accompanied the appearance of "Blitzed" centers around the obvious, immediate inference to be drawn from all this. The inference is easy: that rampant drug use to some extent absolves the Nazis of their evils. In interviews, Ohler has seemed shocked that anyone could draw such an idea from his book, and in a somewhat nervous passage in "Blitzed," he addresses it directly, asserting to his readers that “Hitler did not murder because he was living in a daze – quite the contrary: he remained sane until the end. His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions.… It does not diminish his monstrous guilt.”

Ohler's own book contradicts these assertions so fundamentally as to require no other arguments. Over and over, he portrays Hitler and his leading henchmen as drug addicts so strung out on cocaine and amphetamines that they could scarcely think of anything else. “An addict knows nothing but the longing for the next, completely satisfying shot,” Ohler writes about Hitler himself, “every other aspect of existence disappears into the background, regardless of whether it is daytime or the middle of the night.” If this isn't a portrait of what law enforcement knows as “diminished capacity,” it would be hard to imagine what would be.

The fact of that drug use is now unavoidable. Making sense of its implications lies outside of the purview of "Blitzed" – and will be the work of future historians.

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