Tag Archives: World War II

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler, translated by Shaun Whiteside

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.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

If you are looking for an HEA (Happily Ever After) story, then you need to look elsewhere. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys takes place towards the end of World War II in winter of 1945 and any tale involving the Holocaust and the savageness of war is not a feel good read. Yet, during the most adverse conditions, despite the despicable actions surrounding each individual’s struggle for survival, there is love, compassion, and even humor amongst the tragic events.

Salt to the Sea has four narrators who each give us rotating glimpses of their thoughts and actions as a means of advancing the plot. Three are in an incongruous entourage of refugees on their way across East Prussia to the Baltic Sea to catch a ship to Kiel in order to escape the advancing Russians and the marauding Germans, both likely to kill on sight. The fourth is a German Soldier preparing a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for departure. How their lives intersect is the basis of this story. The youngest of the four is Emilia (Shame is a Hunter), a Pole who was sent to safety by her father and then betrayed. Then there is nineteen year old Joana (Guilt is a Hunter), a trained nurse from Lithuania whose guilt ridden need to help others leads her to befriend a wandering boy in search of his dead grandmother. Finally there is the young Prussian artist, Florian Beck (Fate is a Hunter), who has a secret hidden in his backpack which must be preserved no matter what the cost. Somehow Emilia attaches herself to Florian who she views as her savior after he rescues her from some savage thugs. Although Florian wants to travel alone, he finds himself tagging along with the others, all moving in the same direction. Ingrid, whose blindness allows her to hear hidden sounds, a grandfatherly cobbler they refer to as the “Shoe Poet”, and Eva, a Viking Giantess, round out the pack. The fourth narrator is Alfred Frick (Fear is a Hunter), a foolish young man who creates mental letters to a girl called Hannelore referring to himself as a war hero. Yet instead of courageous deeds, the inept German soldier is sent to scrub toilets, a job which better suits his talents. Each of the four carries a secret which is revealed as the events unfold. Their lives intersect at the Port of Gotenhofen leading to an exciting climax which is guaranteed to mesmerize the reader.

Whenever I think I have a handle on WWII, (for God’s sake I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Schindler’s List as well as a myriad of other books, both fiction and nonfiction), I realize there is always something new to learn. I’m glad that Sepetys wrote this book as it explores a subject which is not common knowledge. Truths such as these must be quickly told as time is running out. How many eyewitnesses are left to share their stories? History will soon be relegated to the distant past as we continue to forgot the lessons Iearned by our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. Even in the US, there are still white supremacists and other radicals who wait for their chance to annihilate the enemy. The identity of this enemy depends upon the speaker, but those of us who know how easy it would be to repeat history, are terrified by the rhetoric and violence we see throughout the world.

The story of the maritime evacuation, Operation Hannibal, which despite its rescue intent resulted in the death of over 25,000 people, mainly retreating women and children, is a secret that must be revealed. Neither the Russians whose uboats torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, nor the Germans who were facilitating the refugees escape, wanted to admit their culpability in the death of over 90% of the 10,000 fleeing passengers, so the truth remained hidden. Yet there are survivors who have a tale to tell and storytellers, such as Sepetys who had the wherewithal and connections (her father’s cousin had a ticket to board the fatal ship but miraculously missed the launching), that are willing to share these horrors from the past. Over three years of research, including interviews with eyewitnesses and their families, allowed the author to create a realistic scenario as a background for the fictional trek towards freedom. While this book is written for teens (the extremely short chapters and young main characters will be a draw for the YA crowd), adults will also be fascinated by this historical saga with a new angle about the atrocities of war.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser

WWII! Of course we studied it in high school. Everybody has read The Diary of Ann Frank and the current generation has read The Book Thief. When I was twenty one I read the entire Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and over the years I have watched various movies from Bridge on the River Kwai to The Great Escape to The Guns of Navarrone. I even had the privilege of hearing the 80 year old Elie Wiesel at the Chautauqua Institute speak about his experiences in German concentration camps during the war. I reread my purchased autographed copy of Night between his two talks (so I could save a good seat).

I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where some of my friend’s parents had visible tattooed numbers on their arms as evidence of their war experiences. My father was a mine sweeper in the Pacific and survived two sinking ships, pulling one to shore and earning a medal for saving the Captain’s life. (My dad died less than twenty years later from a weak heart – the after effects of malaria and chain smoking). So even though, in a way, I grew up surrounded by the war, in reality, my knowledge is limited. When I began reading The Cost of Courage by former New York Times reporter Charles Kaiser, it was like reading a science fiction novel full of fantasy. Although I knew about the French Resistance, I didn’t know the particulars as retold by the author. Here is the down and dirty side of the French occupation by the Germans, not a story coached in politically correct descriptions, but an honest accounting of what happened from the eyes of the people involved. Just as my father rarely spoke of the war (and never to me), these folks were tight lipped as well. The horrors they experienced remained a taboo subject. Luckily Kaiser was able to convince them to share their memories as members of the Maquis, a tale which will all-to-soon be lost resulting in a world ignorant of the nitty gritty details of that era – a time which needs to be chronicled if only to allow us to understand how our past is effecting the future.

Nobody else could have written this book. Charles’ Uncle Henry Kaiser was an American Lieutenant who was invited to stay at the Boulloche home in Paris in 1944 after the Liberation of Paris and the return of Charles de Gaulle. Over the year he remained, Henry head the stories of Christiane, Jacqueline, and Andre and their experiences as a part of the French Resistance, which he later conveyed with a dramatic flair to his young nephew. Charles Kaiser first visited the Boulloche family in 1962 when he was eleven and over the years was able to frequent their gatherings. He considered the Boulloches his “French cousins” and became an “adopted” member of their extended family. Charles noticed that the past adventures relayed by his uncle were never mentioned. It is not surprising that after the senseless death of their parents (Jacques and Helene, and their older brother Robert) and the end of the war, the surviving three siblings married and started life anew, leaving the horrors of the war behind.

Finally, nearing the end of the century, Charles was able to convince Christiane, the only surviving sibling, that if her tale was not told the history would be lost to future generations. It would simply disappear if she failed to record it. For her it was a sense of obligation, so, at the age of 71, she began the emotionally difficult task of transcribing her experiences in a forty five page manuscript for her children and grand kids to read. Charles used this memoir, completed in 1999, as a starting point. He spent two and a half years in France researching and interviewing key players in the drama. This is a book which was fifty years in the making, beginning with the “stories” as retold by his uncle on up through to 2015 when this tome was finally published.

Charles, a journalist, relates the specifics of the European War from the rise of Hitler and the reactions of England and France to the German invasion of France to the Battle of Normandy where the allies began defeating the Germans to the final retaking of Paris continuing up until the end of the war. Within this historical background is the story of the French Resistance and the role the Bollouche siblings played in bringing down the Nazis. This book takes a straightforward unapologetic view of the reactions of the French citizens, especially the Parisians, to the German occupation. If this topic intrigues you there is also the 1969 documentary – The Sorrow and the Pity – which explores European life during this era. Despite the revealed depictions fraught with tragedy (all man made), there are also moments of success and ultimate victory. Kaiser rounds out this book with details about the postwar lives of the Boulloches and includes a list of characters, acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index along with an afterward and preface. The included photographs were a nice touch.

The author writes the story as if we are there and life is unfolding as we read. This telling in the present tense might be jarring for folks who would rather read about the past and not feel as if they were reliving events as they happened. It is, however, an effective tool to immerse the reader into the story to get a touch of the gut wrenching horror felt by the participants. In any case, while fascinating and well written, this is not an easy book to get through simply because there is just too much to take in. Just as when I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I concede that even if I reread it a second time, I still would not be able to retain all the information. Yet, I perceive its essence and that is good enough for me. God bless Christiane, Jacqueline, and Andre (and their cohorts) for their fearless work on behalf of the French nation as well as the rest of the world. Thank you! Four stars.

I would like to thank Netgalley and Other Press for this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.