Blitzed: the Third Reich as a society on drugs

So my copy of Norman Ohler’s splendidly-titled Blitzed showed up. This could have been a really disappointing book – in the acknowledgments, Ohler mentions a Berlin DJ friend who told him Nazis took masses of drugs, and I can well imagine going from that beginning to lurid Hitler Channel kitsch. But Ohler has achieved so much more, and the mass of archival references in the back shows us how and why. Although this is quite a short book, it does something genuinely interesting and difficult, a new view on the Third Reich. Also, as well as the superb title, Shaun Whiteside has produced a really excellent translation of a text heavy with Nazi and bureaucratic jargon, street slang, and pharmaceutical technicalities.

Pervitin: getting cranked up from below

Where to begin? Perhaps we could kick off with the so-called discovery of fatigue back in the nineteenth century, as scientists and especially the military began to explore the limits of human performance. Obviously, there was a limit. Nutrition was involved; physical training could push the limit out further. And fascinatingly, the limit was closely linked up, in complicated ways, with the emotional and psychological forces of motivation, leadership, and unit-cohesion. Some people took this all the way to believing that the soul, the supernatural, or previously unknown physics was at work. Otto Ranke, a German physiologist, was running the German army’s medical research at the outbreak of war and specifically working on these problems.

If Nazism was anything, it was a doctrine that claimed Germany could overcome the limits of its purely material resources through the combination of new technology, inspired leadership, and ideological motivation through hatred. It was necessary to do more, push higher, go faster, succeed through will, outdo the other guy in working towards the leader. As the brilliance of Adolf Hitler and of German military commanders would inspire soldiers to triumph on the battlefield, the brilliance of great scientists and entrepreneurs wouid lead Germany to the economic triumph that was also required to win. Ohler’s first case study speaks directly to this.

The one branch of science that was most identified with Nazism was chemistry. Fischer-Tröpsch coal-to-liquids technology would provide the petrol to fuel the blitzkrieg; further advances in polymerisation would use F-T feedstocks to provide synthetic rubber and plastics. IG Farben’s money funded the party, and the party served IG Farben. We all know where this is going. But what about chemistry directed towards Germans, rather than the enemy?

Temmler-Werke of Johannisthal, Berlin didn’t invent methamphetamine – they pinched it from the Japanese – but they did do what industrial chemists mostly do all day. They scaled up the production process, nailed down consistent purity, and packaged it as conveniently shelf-stable and orally administered tablets. Pervitin was born. Then Temmler’s marketers did what pharma marketers mostly do all day; they corrupted the medical profession, lavishing entertainment, advertising, and copious free samples on every GP in Germany. Very soon you could get it in any chemist’s shop, and Germans took it in epic quantities. By mid-1941, Temmler was manufacturing 30 million “units” a month; it’s not clear whether a unit was one tablet, or a pack of 30, so it’s possible they were producing enough to give every German a couple of tabs a day.

Nazi policy on drugs was contradictory in a way that reflects Nazism. In one direction, they were very punitive – Ohler’s endnotes mention the terrifying case of a dentist accused of sampling the superbly pure Merck liquid cocaine he had access to, who was ordered to undergo compulsory detox and was gassed under Aktion T-4 the very next day – but they also conceptualised drugs as foreign, degenerate, possibly Jewish substances associated with dodgy Weimar characters. Meth, as an innovative and pharmaceutically pure product of Germany’s great chemical industries, didn’t fit into this worldview at all. And it didn’t help that it seemed to speak to Nazi aims and methods; everyone who was desperately competing for power, pushing production targets, choking down their doubts, or marching frantically across the heaths found it supremely useful and then, of course, indispensable. It fit with a society built on hyper-motivation.

In this way, Nazi Germany got cranked up on speed from below. Ohler shows a string of letters Heinrich Böll wrote home from the army during the Phoney War, asking his parents to send more Pervitin urgently because it kept him from sleeping on watch.

This brings us back to Otto Ranke. As the German army worked through a complex set of wargames to evaluate the official plan for the invasion of France versus the minority report created by Erich von Manstein, known as Operation SICHELSCHNITT, a key variable became obvious. When it took the German side less than five days to get to the River Meuse, they usually won; when they didn’t, the Allies usually did. If SICHELSCHNITT was to be implemented, nobody could afford to sleep, and Dr Ranke had just what they needed, 31 million Pervitin pills. Later, after Dunkirk, as the campaign entered its second phase of operations against Paris and the French reserve armies, Ranke made his own tour of the front distributing his own kind of resupply from a sack in his car. Where Colonel Hentsch of the General Staff had toured the Marne in 1914 spreading doubt and despondency, Staff Surgeon Ranke toured the front spreading synthetic certainty. Ohler makes a decent case that the Western campaign of 1940 was won through chemical warfare, with the unusual feature that the chemical was administered to friendly forces rather than the enemy.

(That said, Ohler’s military history is shaky on Dunkirk, where he uncritically relates the myth of the decisive halt order.)

The Wehrmacht was well satisfied, if increasingly twitchy; they ordered as much Pervitin again for each army group invading Russia.

Eukodal: Shooting up at the top

Ohler now switches focus. If the Pervitin experience got Germany high from below, what impact did drugs have on the men at the top? We’ve seen that, in an important sense, Nazism aimed to be like a drug itself; testimonies from the time are full of references to the “intoxication” of the great rallies and the leader’s speeches. And of course leadership is a drug. The motivational effects evoked by emotion are, in the end, biochemical. Nazi slang reflected this; as the war went on and got worse, the term for being cheered up by an interview with Hitler was a Betonspritze, a shot of concrete.

The relationship between dictator and subject can be seen as a drug relationship in more than one ways. For a start, there is the direct effect of the leader on the led. This also works the other way around, though. Ohler points out that Hitler’s own drug abuse began when he radically reduced his public speaking; denied the swing from stage-fright to performance high as a drug, he turned to other drugs. And how; his daily pharmacopeia included, during the winter of 1944, pervitin, barbiturates, intravenous oxycodone, cocaine, and testosterone all at once.

Addictiveness seems to have been an important and under-discussed feature of the tyrant’s personality – when he first received Eukodal, he was begging for more and drug-seeking by the end of the day, and Ohler quotes him rhapsodising to his ear, nose, and throat specialist about “that wonderful cocaine”. Perhaps that was why he was so keen on prohibition and lecturing those around about their health – was he aware of this trait and projecting? On one occasion, Hitler’s doctor miscalculated the dose and only gave him half his usual fix. Hitler was hysterical. The doctor gave him more. Hitler was delighted and pathetically grateful. Ohler glosses his meltdown in the bunker as, in part, withdrawal from opiates after the supply broke down. Certainly, he exhibited all the classic symptoms of opiate addiction, notably constipation. He also had several typical problems related to steroid use.

Morell: The dictator, his dealer, and occupied Europe

His doctor, Theodor Morell, had been best known as a sort of Dr Robert figure who served Weimar celebrity by keeping his prescribing pad open and his mouth shut, two services for which he was well paid. Ohler makes the fascinating point that, because Morell rarely gave Hitler the same shot twice, Hitler was unable to feel dependent on any particular molecule, but rather became addicted to his doctor. Looking at Morell and his bag of pills and potions, the only bag ever allowed into Hitler’s presence without search, we see much more about the Third Reich. Morell was getting hooked on Hitler. The dictator took up all his time; he was terrified of the Gestapo, and only one man could protect him from them; he couldn’t resist the financial possibilities being Hitler’s doctor gave him.

Morell managed to arrogate an aryanised drug factory in Czechoslovakia to himself and followed this up by claiming dibs on all the glands from the Ukraine’s slaughterhouses for his hormone preparations, escalating to the minister or even Hitler every time the military tried to grab back his rolling stock. Ohler quotes dozens of letters and telegrams of Morell’s badgering various officials for the glands. He had to have the glands. In a sense, he had become a vampire – sucking the blood out of the Ukraine and injecting it into the Nazi elite to keep them young. He even got a carve-out from the drug-approval regulations so that he would be allowed to sell anything he used successfully in his practice at the leader’s headquarters.

Like Morell, the German bourgeoisie didn’t like what it was getting into but couldn’t resist the opportunities, and the servitude it entered into was all the more servile for being the comfortable kind.

10 Comments on "Blitzed: the Third Reich as a society on drugs"


  1. To be honest, this level of drug abuse, in particular the abuse of amphetamines, explains a lot about the Third Reich. Amphetamines are primarily stimulants and very occasional use doesn’t seem to do much harm apart from causing addiction.

    Long-term chronic use, on the other hand, causes strong addiction and paranoia in users. The more amphetamine a person uses, and the longer they use it for the more pronounced the paranoia becomes. This likely explains quite a bit of the behaviour of Hitler, although quite apart from being a chronic drug abuser he was also reputedly suffering from tertiary syphilis as well, which very often causes brain damage.

    Hitler as a man was not an impressive specimen. He was an undersized man, rejected from the army for being a weakling (until they became desperate enough for cannon-fodder that anything would do) and rejected by the public as an artist for being frankly rather crap. He was unintelligent and unimpressive, and only by chance a good orator and then only on a very limited set of subjects with an admiring audience.

    If you take a diseased dunce and feed him a variety of amphetamines and opiates, together with steroids of varying sorts, then you end up with a paranoid, deranged idiot. Hitler’s doctor really deserves a posthumous medal for clouding what remained of the mind of Hitler.

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  2. I wonder how this compares with drug use by the Allies.

    Benzedrine was handed out fairly freely (though not on the scale of Pervitin) to, among others, US pilots and British commandos. RAF aircrew had it but only in their escape kits, for use when you had to stay awake for 48 hours because you were e.g. crossing the Pyrenees, though I do wonder how often those EMERGENCY ONLY packets had to be replenished. Alertness was life for bomber turret gunners, after all. And Benzedrine was fairly widely used by British civilians (with friendly doctors) into the 60s; my own grandfather used to take it before setting off to drive the family on holiday, just to make sure he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.

    The Soviet Army, meanwhile, was mainly drunk, with large amounts of vodka administered at key times like “New Year”, “before an attack” and “after shooting prisoners”.

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  3. Richard Evans just trashed ‘Blitzed’ in the Grauniad, so people can look there for a contrary view, and references to the other writing on the topic

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    1. Unfairly, I think, and very much in the vein of “how dare this individual violate guild privileges and perpetrate history?” Notably, he says Ohlers should have read “War Hitler krank?”, a book that is repeatedly referenced in the footnotes to Ohlers’ book.

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      1. Agreed. I was particularly struck by this criticism:
        “The drug, he says, was manufactured in huge quantities: 35m tablets were, for example, ordered for the western campaign in 1940. This seems an impressive figure, until you recall that more than two and a quarter million troops were involved, making an average of around 15 tablets per soldier for the entire operation. Given the concentration on supplying tank crews with the drug, this means that the vast majority of troops didn’t take any at all.”

        Hey, Professor Evans? Don’t you think that “on average, every German soldier took meth once every two days during the invasion” is still an interesting fact? I mean, no doubt you’re right that it was generally given only to frontline troops (and, no doubt, loggies and maintenance troops as well…) but that means that they were taking even more! Like several a day! Don’t you find that striking at all?

        Also this:
        ” Methamphetamine made sure that the country stayed awake.” The “doping mentality”, he writes, “spread into every corner of the Reich. Pervitin allowed the individual to function in the dictatorship. “This sweeping generalisation about a nation of 66 to 70 million people has no basis in fact. No doubt a number of Germans took, or were even prescribed, opium derivatives for medical conditions..”

        Hey, before writing a scathing review of a book about drugs in the Third Reich, maybe you should learn some basic facts about drugs, like “methamphetamine is not an opiate”!

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  4. It’s interesting – I think Chester Wilmott notes this so it isn’t a new idea – that the Allied invasion of France may have been doped up in the completely opposite direction. A recurring theme, he says, in accounts of D-Day is the tendency for soldiers simply to fall asleep as soon as they found a quiet spot. The US paratroopers, who had been strewn all over the place by their transport aircraft, were particularly prone to this. He suspects it might have something to do with the airsickness/seasickness pills they were all given; hyoscine hydrobromide does tend to make you drowsy. (And also, of course, a lot of it would have been simple fatigue. They’d had a false start, 24 hours waiting around in their LSIs or LSTs, some actually at sea, then several hours chucking up on the crossing, then a lot of high-stress physical activity.)

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  5. yes of course herbal stimulants have been used everywhere to whip warriors and holy men etc into states of blind pain free enthusiasm since history began. Pro. Morell’s notes turned up and can be read and of course we all know his nickname around the inner circle was Herr Fuhrer Injection Master. Tis explains Hitler’s way of moping around his bedroom all morning and into the afternoon until Morell turned up and with in 15 mins Der Chief was bouncing into the situation room in his smartest uniform demanding his staff and issuing orders and knowing exactly what to do and where to send which Div. and “I want it done NOW!” And they all fell for it, but that’s another story. What gets me is when Morell was dismissed from the Bunker Hitler said “I don’t need any of that to do what I have to do now.” You would think being in anxiety due to the sudden lack of medication would have made it all worse. Pass the PPK and some Prussic acid when everybody knows the easiest way out is a hand full of sleeping pills and no mess on the carpet for Linge to clean up. But he did say many times the warrior’s way was fight to the last bullet and hope it’s not a misfire when you deny the enemy the pleasure of torturing you to death. See y’all on YouTube for the debate and the denial.

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