Ohler’s book claims not only that German soldiers and civilians commonly used methamphetamine, but that Hitler was a drug addict
16 November 2016
Nazi Germany proclaimed from the outset that it was going to break with the moral and physical degeneracy of the Weimar republic. The Hitler Youth would provide the younger generation with physical exercise, military drill and long hikes over the mountains, in place of sex, drugs, alcohol, dance-halls and the “negroid” music of jazz and swing. The contrast is vividly encapsulated in a scene in the movie Cabaret, in which the sleazy world of the singer Sally Bowles is rudely brushed aside by a uniformed troop of young Nazis who rise up in an outdoor cafe to belt out an aggressively Nazi version of the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. At the apex of this self-proclaimed moral renewal was, of course, Hitler, who demonstrated his purity and self‑sacrifice for the Fatherland as a non-smoking, vegetarian teetotaler, celibate and without a personal life, as far as the public was concerned.
According to the German writer Norman Ohler, however, this public image, like so many other aspects of Nazi propaganda, was the reverse of the truth. Ohler, who has diligently researched in the German federal archives and other relevant collections, presents a picture of an entire nation high on drugs. The use of methamphetamine was common, he argues, particularly in the form of “Pervitin”. 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.
Ohler goes much further than claiming that methamphetamine was central to the German military effort, however. He claims that its use was universal among the civilian population of Germany, too. For the ordinary person, he says, Pervitin became a routine “grocery item” well before the war. “‘Germany, awake!’ the Nazis had ordered. 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, or took them to alleviate the growing stress of living in a country that by mid-1944 was being invaded from all sides and buckling under the strain of intense aerial bombardment. But to claim that all Germans, or even a majority of them, could only function on drugs in the Third Reich is wildly implausible.
What’s more, it is morally and politically dangerous. Germans, the author hints, were not really responsible for the support they gave to the Nazi regime, still less for their failure to rise up against it. This can only be explained by the fact that they were drugged up to the eyeballs. No wonder this book has been a bestseller in Germany. And the excuses get even more crass when it comes to explaining the behaviour of the Nazi leader.
Ohler provides much detail on the drug regime to which Hitler was subjected by his personal physician Theodor Morell, especially during the war. His medication, above all Pervitin and Eudokal, an analgesic morphine derivative, propelled Hitler into a world of delusion in which the defeats and disasters of the last two years of the war could be brushed aside as irrelevant. His “chemically induced confidence” hardened his resolve and made him reject all thoughts of compromise. Generals who wanted to stage tactical withdrawals were dismissed by Hitler, intoxicated by the “artificial euphoria” induced by the pills and injections provided by Morell. The Führer’s genocidal aggression was fuelled not only by hatred of Jews and “Slavs” but by continual methamphetamine abuse. Hitler was a drug addict who was in the end not responsible for his actions. No wonder the similarly drug-addicted German people failed to realise the scale of the disaster into which he was leading them, or the magnitude of the crimes in which he was implicating them.
Ohler is of course aware of the moral implications of this argument, and in a brief paragraph he provides a disclaimer suggesting that “this drug use did not impinge on his [Hitler’s] freedom to make decisions”, and concludes that “he was anything but insane”. But the two pages in which he makes these points are contradicted by everything he says in the other 279 pages. It’s all too reminiscent of the claims made by some old Nazis I spent an evening drinking with in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller, the starting-point for the 1923 beer-hall putsch, in 1970: Hitler rescued Germany from ruin but went mad during the war. Here, too, is a good reason for the book’s success in Germany.
Ohler’s previous publications have been novels, and in the German edition of this book he points out that “writing history is never just science, it’s also always fiction”. So he employs a “skewed perspective” to recast our previous understanding of the Führer’s behaviour. This involves massive exaggeration based on spurious interpretations of the evidence. For example, whenever Morell notes that he had injected Hitler with an unnamed substance (marked “X” in his notebooks), Ohler assumes it was an opiate. Yet Morell, concerned to stay alive should Hitler die, always made a point of recording when he supplied the Führer with opiates. These occasions were very few, and Hitler would not have voiced his contempt for Hermann Göring’s well-known morphine addiction had he been an addict himself. Nor is there any solid evidence that the physical deterioration Albert Speer and others perceived in Hitler in the last months of his life was the result of his having to go “cold turkey” when the drug supply ceased. His tremors were the result of Parkinsonism, as many writers have concluded.
These authors have included Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann, in their book Was Hitler Ill?; a similar investigation has been carried out by another medically qualified investigator, Fritz Redlich. Ohler makes no attempt to deal with their arguments, which were also made on the basis of a thorough reading of Morell’s notebooks. He portrays Germany under the Nazis as a nation gone mad under the influence of powerful stimulants, but these earlier historians have shown in detail the limited extent of Hitler’s drug abuse, while there are other books, notably Werner Pieper’s Nazis on Speed, which put the military employment of methamphetamine into perspective. Ohler’s skill as a novelist makes his book far more readable than these scholarly investigations, but it’s at the expense of truth and accuracy, and that’s too high a price to pay in such a historically sensitive area.
• Richard J Evans’s books include The Third Reich in History and Memory andThe Pursuit of Power 1815-1914. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £16.40 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.