Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, Norman Ohler trans. Shaun Whiteside, Allen Lane, £8.99 (paperback)
When the Nazi Wehrmacht finally bowed to the inevitable and surrendered to Allied forces in Europe on 8 May 1945, hostilities did not all immediately cease. Beneath the waters of the north Atlantic, pilots of the cramped submersibles that were all that was left of the Reich Navy went on diving for targets for a further four days, wholly oblivious to events above. They were manned by boys in their mid-teens who had answered the general call-up of underage personnel issued by Admiral Karl Dönitz the previous December, their insomniac tenacity owing less to nationalist fervour than to the fact that their bloodstreams were still fizzling and sparking with methamphetamine and cocaine.
Norman Öhler is probably right to claim that this was the hardest drug regime ever administered to any fighting force. Psychoactive substances have played a virtually indispensable role in combat since ancient times, but no nation has ever sent its combatants into battle on such cynically calculated doses of pure stimulant. The drugs were taken as pills and chewing-gum, their fifteen-year-old users convulsively swallowing mouthfuls of alkaloid-rich saliva as they carried out missions that typically lasted four psychotically sleepless days and nights. Nothing had been left to chance. This material had been tested on inmates at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who were forced to march around night after night on it until they dropped. What had been given to those who were still more or less upright at the end of the exercise was then issued in industrial quantities to the troops.
The search for a miracle drug that would keep fighting men going beyond the normal span of endurance became an exigency of the long decline of Nazi power, conventionally held by historians to have begun as early as the autumn of 1943. It was not, however, solely the desperate recourse of unscrupulous military authorities, but had its origins, as this fascinating book shows, in the intoxicant habits of civil society in the Weimar Republic. In the opening chapter, Öhler points to one of the less noticed effects of the calamitous Versailles Treaty that concluded the First World War. Among other punitive measures, the terms of surrender stripped Germany of its few colonial possessions, thereby making it poorer in imported natural stimulants and spurring the production of synthetic agents.
The country already had a long-established pharmacological tradition in laboratory drugs. It had been a German pharmacist, Friedrich Sertürner, who first isolated morphine from opium in 1805. Dextroamphetamine, the crude central nervous system agonist known as speed, was first formulated in Germany in 1887, although its stimulant properties were not immediately recognised. A German company, Bayer, independently synthesised diamorphine (heroin) in 1897, while attempting to isolate codeine from morphine. The pharmaceutical combine, Merck and Company of Darmstadt, invented MDMA in 1912. Legal stimulants in the form of tonic wines and anticongestant snuffs were available in other western jurisdictions, but no other race was quite as enthusiastically given to consuming what are now controlled substances as the German people were.
In the dancing-on-the-edge atmosphere engendered by the near-revolution and catastrophic inflation that followed the defeat of 1918, artists and decadents of all stripes took what they could get. The actress Anita Berber soaked white rose petals in ether for breakfast, sucking them like artichoke leaves in vinaigrette. Use of intoxicants was by no means confined to the bohemian margins, though. A brand of pep pills called Pervitin contained methamphetamine, the basis of what is known in today’s drug trade as crystal meth, and were widely retailed. Hildebrand chocolates, the advertising slogan for which was ‘Always a joy’, came in a gift-box of assorted pralines, each one of which contained 14mg of methamphetamine, about the strength of an average hit of street meth for today’s user. One assumes there was no such thing as a boring Christmas, but the company recommended that you confine yourself to no more than nine at a single binge.
In due course, the health ministry of the Third Reich would enact legislation against the retailing of cocaine and opium, while its propaganda publications associated intoxicants such as hallucinogenic mushrooms with the toxic effects of the ubiquitous Jewish conspiracy. Nonetheless, Pervitin remained available, and once it had subtended the endurance of stormtroopers during the invasion of Poland, and fuelled their shockingly rapid advance through France in 1940, it became a central pillar of the Nazi war effort.
Blitzed is essentially a narrative of the war told through the dual biography of Dr Theodor Morell and his most famous patient. Morell ran a pharmacist consultancy from smart premises on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, where he treated well-heeled, run-down clients with intravenous administrations of vitamin supplement. His testimonials book bulged with the thankful tributes of clients who felt they had been given their lives back, while his needle technique was reportedly so svelte that they barely noticed it going in. Thus it was that, in the spring of 1936, Morell received point-blank notice that a private flight had been laid on to take him to Munich, where the Führer was most eager to avail himself of the good doctor’s ministrations.
From then until a few days before his suicide in the Berlin bunker at the end of April 1945, Hitler wrapped Morell into his innermost circle of confidants. It wasn’t just vitamins with which the Nazi leader was dosed. Extract preparations of animal organs – livers, stomachs, pituitary glands – were injected into the bloodstream of the confirmed vegetarian, but the decisive intervention came when, in summer 1943, with Hitler wallowing in gloom amid the imminent collapse of fascist Italy and undergoing the agonies of the damned with intestinal trouble, Morell decided to chance giving him a subcutaneous injection of Eukodal, a patent medicine containing the powerful opioid oxycodone.
The transformation was miraculous. A galvanised Hitler, free of pain, loquacious with new hope and deliriously cheery from the flood of dopamine now whanging round his brain, was restored to himself. When he subsequently met Mussolini to advise him against withdrawing Italy from the war, the Duce, perhaps for the first time in his life, found himself unable to get a word in edgeways as his Nazi ally, afloat on a gigantic cloud of intramuscular Eukodal, talked the hind leg off his Italian donkey.
Following Hitler’s improbable survival of the Stauffenberg bomb plot in July 1944, he was prescribed nasal and oral dabs of pure cocaine by a rival doctor, Erwin Giesing. This was a risk indeed, given that cocaine was viewed as little more than Jewish filth in the Reich, but the treatment was so well received by the Führer, who had suffered ruptured eardrums in the explosion, that he would be given about fifty applications over the next three months, interspersed with forty-eight-hour fixes of Eukodal. Giesing failed to displace the incumbent as Hitler’s official doctor, and although Morell had his doubts about the risks of a cocaine regimen, the Führer was sufficiently insistent on it to go to the unprecendented length of submitting coquettishly to a naked medical examination in return for more.
In the final phase of the war, when only Hitler himself still thought it was worth fighting, he had not only been turned unwittingly into a helpless intravenous drug-addict, but was now a helpless addict in withdrawal. Supplies were running out, a situation greatly exacerbated when the British bombed the Merck production plant flat. All there was to inject Hitler with in the bunker were vitamins and herbs, and as the patient went into raging withdrawal, even the court favourite found himself dismissed in a spittle-flecked rage, taking one of the last available cars out through the smoking ruins of a Reich capital now almost entirely in the possession of the Red Army.
A broken Morell, spared the judicial proceedings at Nuremberg as an unreliable witness, died in a sanatorium in 1948. His medical services to the Reich had helped prolong the war, but in the process served to reduce the Führer, who may or may not have been suffering from Parkinson’s disease as well, to a physical wreck. It is well known that Churchill spent the greater part of the war in an alcohol haze, but Hitler took the intoxication of power to a whole other level.
Although not all this material is as unknown as the author thinks, Blitzed caused a stir on its German publication. Öhler, a novelist whose first foray into non-fiction this is, writes in graphically direct journalese, the clumsiness of its occasional rhetorical flights only serving to remind us that this isn’t a subject for rhetorical flights. Shaun Whiteside’s English version has nothing of the normal elegance of his craft, as witness his translation of Robert Musil’s novella The Confusions of Young Törless, settling instead for a clumping literalism that probably suits the original better. Despite these infelicities, the story is as moreish as meth itself, and perhaps a capstone in the monumental edifice of the literature of Hitler pathology.
Stuart Walton is a cultural historian and critic, with a particular interest in the history and philosophy of intoxicant use. He is author of Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, as well as A Natural History of Human Emotions, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He has also written widely on food and wine, and lives on what is known unironically as the English Riviera.