There is an expectation that the leadership of a country maintains good health and refrains from excessive drinking and drug use. We also assume that our doctors have the best interests of their patients in mind when suggesting appropriate treatments for their various maladies.
According to Norman Ohler in his book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (translated from German into English by Shaun Whiteside) both presumptions are misguided when referring to Nazi Germany.
It seems Hitler, who prided himself on maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a vegetarian, suffered from stomach upsets, abdominal cramps, constipation and insomnia. Seeking relief he called upon a doctor who was a favorite among those in the private sector, to see if he could help abate the symptoms. Dr Theodor Morell’s popularity was due to his liberal script writing practices, a skill which he exploited when he became Hitler’s personal physician. Ignoring the root cause of the complaints, Morell treated the symptoms with various “nutritional” shots which started with vitamin supplements but slowly progressed to designer injections including animal extracts as well as various highly addictive narcotics. As the victories of the Third Reich lessened, the health of the Fuhrer declined, necessitating higher and more frequent dosages of the injections to make him “feel more like himself”. This euphoria helped Hitler deny the inevitable as he continued to search for a secret weapon to finally defeat the Allies. Towards the end of the war when the pharmaceutical factories were destroyed by American bombs, Dr Morell could no longer give his addicted master the necessary fix so his role as drug dealer was terminated. When the inescapable take over of Berlin occurred Hitler’s final drug choice was a cyanid tablet which he freely passed around to his inner circle, including his dog and his girlfriend/wife.
In the beginning there were numerous pharmaceutical companies in Berlin which were producing heroin and cocaine, readily available as over the counter drugs. Remember during the 1920’s, cocaine was one of the ingredients in Coca Cola. When Hitler came to power, he wanted to purge Germany of those who had a dependency, so drug addicts were either put into rehab, neutered, or sent to the concentration camps for extermination. The Supreme Race had no room for flawed individuals.
But lessons about the results of indiscriminate drug use were not taken to heart. The army was looking for a chemical fix so that their soldiers could move forward without the need of sleep or rest. Thus began the prolific distribution of Pervitin, which uses the same chemical components found in crystal meth. It worked. The German Army moved like a battering ram, taking France under its control with little resistance. Who could fight an army of zombie-like creatures – hyped up on medication which banished the need for sleep or food, making the user feel invincible?
Throughout the war, the SS continued to search for and experiment with various drugs to increase their soldiers endurance without considering the eventual effects of their overuse. In other words, “What goes up, must come down”. Whether the abuse of stimulants led to the downfall of the Third Reich might be arguable, but it certainly didn’t help their cause.
The author backs up his claims with research, especially with the use of the extensive records/diary of the “good” doctor which were available in various archives in Germany as well as in the National Archives of Washington DC. This meticulous process of research (not everything is readily available on the Internet) led to Olney’s conclusions. In answer to why the Americans didn’t glom onto this information at the war’s end might be due to the sloppy penmanship of the Doctor, an insufficient grasp of German, and a lack of knowledge about the significance of the pharmaceutical industry. Patient A – Hitler – at one point was downing 120 to 150 tablets a week and receiving at least 8 injections including the highly addictive Eukodal and the opioid Eupaverin. Many of the doctors involved in the distribution of these medications, due to this oversight of the Allies, were able to take a stance of innocence when they should have been questioned as war criminals.
I found the whole premise fascinating, providing a plausible explanation for the occurrences of WWII, although appalling to read. One particular nightmarish story sticks in my mind. At Sachsenhsusen Concentration Camp there was a special track which the prisoners in the so-called walking unit were forced into an uninterrupted march to test out the endurance of various substances used to create shoes since leather was in short supply. The SS decided to use these inmates to test out various combinations of drugs to discover their effect on a soldier’s endurance to march through the night. Towards the end of the war, the Navy took several of these drugs to give to a new set of recruits from the Hitler Youth who were assigned to a mini sub which was supposed to go into the enemy harbor, torpedo English ships and then quickly retreat. The goal was to have the crew remain awake for the three to four day mission. Unfortunately, while these drugs increased endurance, they also decreased competency (an aspect which wasn’t tested). Most of the sailors perished when their hallucinations made navigation difficult and the muddied instructions too garbled to implement. One sub even surfaced and put up a white flag, ready to be put out of their misery.
If these stories aren’t horrid enough, after the war the Americans continued to study the effects of these drugs for their own potential use in warfare. It is difficult to be smug since, during that time period, our knowledge of the side effects of narcotics were rudimentary at best with uppers prescribed for weight loss and downers to assist insomniac patients. Even today, the pharmaceutical industry “experiments” on a society looking for a quick fix to better health, despite the lengthy process necessary for a drug’s approval for distribution. Every day there is an obituary for one or more people in any given community who has overdosed on heroin, with addictions to cocaine and crystal meth a continuing problem – even though these are illegal substances. We won’t mention the pervasive use of pot, legal in many states, for both medicinal and recreational use. This books gives a glimpse into the attitudes many still hold about the use of artificial means to reach a goal without regards to the predetermined resulting harm.
In picking up this particular book, one concern is the intent of a German author (this book was recently translated into English). Is Ohler trying to minimize the atrocities of Hitler and the Third Reich, blaming WWII on a rash of drug use? The answer is a resounding “no”, backed by his use of derogatory adjectives in describing the key players and the note that Hitler’s plan was clearly written in Mein Kamph years before the war, indicating his megalomaniac ways were ever present. While the drugs exaggerated the Fuhrer’s egotistical stubbornness, paranoia, and controlling manner, they didn’t create these character traits.
My one complaint is the author’s use of a fair bit of repetition as well as too much of a hard sell to prove his point. However, almost half the book contains notes for the various citations, resources, and illustrations/photos used to come up with this scenario. There is just too much evidence to dismiss this theory as ridiculous.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on Goodreads.