Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (Allen Lane, 2016)
What do Ukrainian combatants in the ongoing conflict with Russia, ISIL fighters, American pilots during Operation Iraqi Freedom, child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, American servicemen fighting in Vietnam and Korea, and soldiers on every side of World War II all have in common?
They were all boosted for combat with amphetamines or amphetamine-type stimulants. Speed is running through the veins of Ukrainian fighters. Jihadists in Syria have been buzzing on Captagon — fenethylline, which metabolizes in the body into amphetamine and theophylline. American pilots have access to dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine). Juvenile soldiers were given amphetamine, known locally as “bubbles.” U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were liberally prescribed dextroamphetamine. During the Korean War, American servicemen were also supplied with methamphetamine. In World War II, British and American soldiers were issued amphetamine (Benzedrine), whereas German and Japanese troops were distributed methamphetamine (mainly Pervitin and Philopon). And what of the Finns?
It is a little known fact that during the Continuation War (June 1941 to September 1944) against the Soviets, the Finnish military also used meth. On becoming a co-belligerent of the Third Reich, Finland got access to Pervitin, the German cutting-edge “assault pill.” In 1941, the Finns had at their disposal 850,000 tablets of a crystal meth-style drug that was mass-manufactured by the Berlin-based Temmler-Werke pharmaceutical company, with more supplies on the way. This potent stimulant was issued mainly to special commando units on their demanding, long distance raids in deep snow and later also to regular troops. Yet, meth was but an addition to the vast pharmacological ordnance stockpiled by 1940 by the Finnish Defence Forces’ Medical Department of the General Staff for the Winter War (November 1939 to March 1940). The chemical arsenal included cocaine, heroin, morphine, and opium. The extent of the army’s use of intoxicants may be shocking, but as Mikko Ylikangas argues in his book on the modern history of drugs in Finland (Unileipää, kuolonvettä, spiidiä. Huumeet Suomessa 1800–1950), it mirrored their rampant medicinal consumption in the society. The Continuation War was, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, the continuation of the Winter War by pharmacological means.
While at the beginning the Finns employed these means for purely medical purposes, their Pervitin supplier — Nazi Germany — turned uppers into an integral part of its military effort. Total war required the full commitment of the nation’s assets, thus demanding that humans go beyond their usual limits. Pervitin, the “people’s drug,” matched the purposes of boosting the fighting spirit among soldiers and improving the productivity of workers. In his book Art of War, Sun Tzu writes that “Speed is the essence of war”. This could not be more accurate a remark to describe the speedy war of Blitzkrieg, for which German forces were primed by chemical speed. Between April and December 1939, the Temmler company supplied the German military with 29 million Pervitin pills, many of which were used experimentally during the campaign against Poland in September 1939. At the peak of the Blitzkrieg in the spring of 1940, troops were issued some 35 million tablets. The Wehrmacht’s amazingly rapid advances appear less incredible given that in some units many soldiers took up to four Pervitin pills a day for weeks on end.
It is precisely this extentsive use of psychopharmaceutical performance enhancement in the Third Reich that is the subject of Norman Ohler’s fascinating and eye-opening book. Though by no means the first work on the synergy between drugs and war under National Socialism, Blitzed is by far the most comprehensive account in English of the remarkable ways in which intoxicants fuelled the Nazi war machine.
The large-scale use of uppers has barely been recognized in the dominant narratives of World War II, military performance, and decision-making. Now, here comes Blitzed, aspiring to fill the gap in “the pharmacological story” of state-society and government-military relations in the Third Reich, providing what historiography has thus far lacked.
Ohler is original and enlightening in his unearthing of some previously unknown facts. Three of these seem especially revealatory. First, after exploring the records of Hitler’s personal physician Theodor Morell on his medical treatment of the Führer, he challenges the commonly held belief that “Patient A” abused methamphetamine. Instead, we learn that from July 1943 to January 1945, Hitler received regular injections of Eukodal, a painkiller and cough medicine, with doses reaching 20 milligrams in 1944. Consisting of an opioid called oxycodon, Eukodal is a near-cousin of heroin. While methamphetamine works as a potent central nervous system stimulant, Eukodal’s effects are narcotic and euphoric. Thus, argues Ohler, Hitler felt invulnerable and enhilarated even when the strategic situation became grave because his medication made him increasingly detached from reality. Following the unsuccessful assasination attempt of June 1944, Hitler was also administered a 10 percent cocaine solution by a laryngologist Dr. Erwin Giesing for 75 days. So from July to October 1944, Hitler was high on a powerful “speedball” of opioid and cocaine. These were, however, but two of the potent ingredients of Hitler’s narcotics cocktail. For, as we already knew, during the war the Führer received a dizzying weekly array of dozens of varieties of drugs, amounting to 120 to150 tablets and eight to 10 injections every week. All of this may help us understand some of his stunning decisions and irrational planning, such as those that led to the outcome of the Battle of the Ardennes.
Second, the attempt by Reich Health Führer Leonardo Conti to curtail the general abuse of Pervitin by subjecting it to the opium law in June 1941 did not, as was previously assumed, result in a substantial reduction or more cautious military use of meth. Not only did civilians not take “any notice of the rigorous prohibition, let alone observe it” but also, as Ohler tells us, the Wehrmacht continued to recognize Pervitin as “decisive for the outcome of the war,” especially on the eve of the invasion on the Soviet Union.
And third, Ohler significantly clarifies the story of the Nazi search for a novel “wonder drug” that could help Germany win the war by redefining the limits of human endurance. His archival research revealed that this was not, as thought, the famous “D-IX” (a mixture of 5 milligrams of Eukodal, 5 milligrams of cocaine, and 3 milligrams of Pervitin) that was trialed on inmates of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp but instead high doses of pure cocaine ranging from 50 to 100 milligrams. The aim was to find a magic bullet that could invigorate the German navy’s small, kamikaze-like battle crews whose task it was to stop the Allied landings. Before the drug went into tactical use, Germany had lost the war.
Ohler takes the reader on a storytelling journey in a suggestive reportage style. Being not an academic, but a writer with three novels under his belt, he writes grippingly, flowingly, and on occasion thrillingly — maybe overly so. At times, the book reads like a mix of a crime and adventure story, a novel, and a war memoir. Overall, Blitzed is a peculiar biography of intoxication in Nazi Germany but also a collection of pharmacological biographies of Adolf Hitler, Theodor Morell, Herman Göring, and Otto Ranke. The latter, although the least well known, was the director of the Research Institute of Defense Physiology in Berlin and the first person to test meth as a military performance-enhancer.
It is not only mind-altering substances that make humans intoxicated and dependent. Ideology and charismatic leadership can produce heady and highly habit-forming non-chemical highs. And it’s precisely this combination of intoxicants, ideology, and personality that informs Ohler’s interpretation of Nazi Germany. Some of his plentiful metaphors are attractive and appealing. The Nazis, who officially pursued a strignent and repressive anti-narcotic policy, “hated drugs because they wanted to be like a drug themselves,” seeking to create “a state of collective ecstasy.” In reality, however, “social intoxication” went hand in hand with turning a blind eye to “Pervitin fever,” as the stimulant “allowed the individual to function in the dictatorship. National Socialism in pill form.” Many Germans became dependent on “a disastrous cocktail of propaganda and pharmaceutical substances.” If National Socialism was a drug, what of Hitler? Ohler quotes historian Sebastian Haffner, who said that the Führer “prescribed himself to the Germans for six years as a drug.” As the war progressed Hitler steadily removed himself from public view, while simultaneously becoming increasingly addicted, meaning that “Morel’s drugs and medications replaced the old stimulus of mass ovations.”
Some of Ohler’s metaphorical evocations are a bit flowery and overblown, as when he depicts German soldiers as “Teutonic Easy Riders with drugs from Temmler,” describes morphine as “a kind of pharmacological Mephistopheles that instantly magics pain away,” or suggests that as Hitler “stepped on to his pharmacollogically created Mount Olympus” his existence “dissolved gradually into Nirvana”.
Overall, the book is well researched, based on plentiful primary sources explored in the German (mainly the Federal Archive in Koblenz and Institute of Contemporary History in Munich) and American archives (National Archives in Washington DC). Its double nature, being somewhere between a history book and a work of fiction, may be the work’s greatest asset as a popular book. However this, as we have already seen, may make him vulnerable to criticism: as lacking scholarly rigour in some of his speculations (i.e. his claim that in the final months of the war Hitler suffered from withdrawal symptoms when the supplies of Eukodal were exhausted); a slight shortage of nuance in his interpretations; and an overplaying of the impact of drugs on Nazi society and politics, tactics and strategy. For is it really true that “the doping mentality spread into every corner of the Reich”? What was the actual percentage of the civilian and military population that regularly took uppers? We will probably never know. Wasn’t it in fact alcohol and not meth that was the most popular intoxicant of war, to the extent that the Wehrmacht struggled badly with an epidemic of drunkeness in the ranks? Where is the proof that the unnamed substance that Morell administered Hitler (marked as “X” in his bookkeeping-style, but not always detailed, records) was Eukodal rather than any other item in the Führer’s rich pharmacopeia?
The book, then, contains plenty of narrative and and some over-generalizations, but Blitzed should be read — and the author makes no bones about this — for what it is: a popular non-fiction book not a history monograph. It is vital, nevertheless, to bear in mind that there have long been many myths and false or exaggerated ideas around the use of drugs in war — such as the hashish-eating assassins, the “soldiers’ disease” (severe opium and morphine use among combatants and veterans of the American Civil War ), or the myth of the addicted U.S. army in Vietnam (which was believed to be unsuccessful because of the rampant consumption of marijuana, heroin, and other intoxicants). Since many legends have already grown up around the Nazis-on-speed, it is necessary to be careful not to create yet another myth — of the Third Reich totally high on drugs.
As much as intoxicants should no longer be neglected in military history, the pharmacological factor must not be overstated. It is important to remember that Pervitin was just one component that fueled the Blitzkrieg and that Hitler’s decision-making cannot be reduced to his drug-induced altered states of consciousness. For centuries, drugs have sustained individual warriors and entire armies in diverse ways. Nazi Germany, even if it was an extreme case, is but one example. What was unique — and Ohler depicts this vigoriously and consistently — was the extent of the chemical performance enhancement strategy. Reading Blitzed in a wider context can disarm it of any sensationalism and strip Nazis of their aura of exceptionalism. It’s true that during World War II, the German military was the first to introduce deliberate military doping but soon others followed, with the British using in all about 72 million Benzedrine (amphetamine) tablets and Americans between 250 and 500 million. Although in the last years of the war Hitler was probably a junkie, he was not the only pharmacologically-assisted political leader. Benzedrine proved beneficial to British prime minister Winston Churchill, while his successor Anthony Eden was kept going during the 1956 Suez crisis by regular doses of speed. Or take American president John F. Kennedy who was, on many occasions, therapeutically injected with dextroamphetamine by the New York physician Max Jacobson, known as “Dr. Feelgood”. Finally, the pervasive civilian consumption of amphetamine, which at the time was not perceived as a harmful nor illicit subtance, was recorded not only in Germany but also in Britain, the United States, and Japan, and often long after the war was over. In short, during the Second World War uppers were by no means prevalent only in the Third Reich. And today, they still assist some fighters, militias, and armies.
Ohler does a good job in reconstructing the social, cultural, medical, and — first and foremost — military life of meth in Germany under National Socialism. His approach is not revisionist — there are no grounds for accusing him of arguing that mass intoxication eased individual or group responsibility and guilt. The greatest value of his vividly written story is perhaps that now it will be difficult to disregard the pharmacological factor as merely an alternative history or a background issue in the Nazi conduct of war, both on the battlefield and home front. For if we want to grasp the psychological aspects of the Nazi political and military program and its power relations, dynamics, and appeal, we need seriously but carefully to consider — aside from various factors commonly set out by historians — the role of drugs. Intoxicants emerge as a missing link connecting murderous totalitarian ideology, war, and genocide. Ohler should be praised for generating a discussion which may lead to a better understanding of the Nazi way of warfare but also to placing later examples of the use of amphetamine stimulants in combat in the contextual-historical perspective of its origins.
Łukasz Kamieński is Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and the author of Shooting Up. A Short History of Drugs and War (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Image: A.L. Tarter