Drugs, War, and Nazi Germany

Last night I finished reading Norman Ohler’s fascinating and best-selling Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (2017, translated by Shaun Whiteside). Ohler describes the relationships between Adolf Hitler and drugs, Nazi soldiers and drugs, and German society and drugs. In addition, Ohler explains how drugs changed the nature of wars. 

Society, War, and Drugs

Before continuing, we must recognize that the “drugs” in Blitzed generally consist of substances deemed illegal or highly-regulated today. What is a “legal” vs. an “illegal” drug is socially constructed. During the 1930s and 1940s, drugs taken by or administered to Germans were not always illegal. And as Norman Ohler discusses, drugs prompt a variety of ethical questions: Who owns my body? Do I own it? Does my family, including ancestors, own it? Does my society own it? 

Ohler argues that modern drugs initially emerged to masks effects of modernism: Industrialism and urbanism required that people work faster than ever and live in uncomfortable conditions. To survive, people turned to new substances designed to alleviate stress or to provide more energy.

Such drugs first changed conditions on the battlefield, Blitzed says, during the American Civil War of the 1860s. Such mind-altering substances–drugs–made more intense wars possible. Wars became longer and increasingly demanded more intense fighting. Soldiers previously incapacitated by casualties of war, were given pain medications and were sent back to the battlefields. Soldiers were also more immune to what was happening around them and to what they were doing.   

In Nazi Germany, drugs were a ubiquitous part of society, according to Norman Ohler. In particular, soldiers and other ranking Nazi officials were administered a variety of drugs, depending on what was required. Billions of pills, especially the methamphetamine Pervitin, were manufactured for purposes of war, specifically. Germany, Ohler argues, had a leg up on inventing a whole host of drugs (and other synthetic products) because it had little-to-no natural resources and did not have any colonies.

Nazis tested these drugs on people set to be murdered at Concentration Camps (tests, Ohler says, were continued by the United States) and on soldiers and other officials. No one really knew the short- or long-term effects of these drugs. Drugs there were sometimes combinations of different drugs. Drugs in the form of a pill, other times in the form of gum, other times in the form of injections. 

Because of Adolf Hitler’s desire to have a super army and because of such mind-altering substances, Nazi soldiers had speeds unmatched by other armies. Nazi armies could also go incredibly long periods–up to at least four days–without sleep or rest. The British didn’t understand what was happening in these regards. 

Some officials and soldiers were given substances, not that would increase their emotions and energy, but that would suppress emotions, feelings, and even consciousness. Norman Ohler makes it clear he is not excusing anyone’s behavior, but points to the common sense consequence that some soldiers were deliberately kept immune to the atrocious acts they committed. 

Before interrogations, other people were given substances in hopes of decreasing their inhibition. 

People throughout Nazi Germany, even those in general society, were addicted to new, synthetic substances, substances that were readily available, Blitzed argues. And, for sure, similar such substances were available in the United States and elsewhere before present-day notions of “illegal drugs” and “prescription-only drugs” developed. 

Adolf Hitler and Drugs

Adolf Hitler created an illusion of himself: He was brave and strong, was a leader and in control, and represented the purest race of people. In reality, Norman Ohler–primarily a journalists and novelist–argues, is very different and has been ignored by professional historians. Especially in the 1940s, Hitler constantly grew weaker and sicker and could only function with the cocktails of drugs administered by his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell. Hitler’s appearances were almost nonexistent in an effort to hide how incapable and unaware he really was. Approximately half of the book is devoted to describing Hitler’s dependence on drugs and on his close relationship with Morell, who left detailed notes explaining how he treated Hitler.

Adolf Hitler, reportedly, constantly took vitamins and supplements and medications in the form of 120-160 pills and 8-10 shots weekly. His drugs consisted of Cocaine, Eukodal, Opium, and a variety of experimental substances. In short, Blitzed says, Hitler was always high, and his death in 1945 is at least partly the result of withdrawals, as there were no drugs left to take in the war-torn Germany. 

Implication and Reception of Blitzed

Some scholars, such as Richard J. Evans, have been critical of Blitzed because Norman Ohler is not a trained historian and because he writes a different kind of history. Evans even wrongly asserts that Ohler tries to dismiss and excuse the Nazis’ behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Blitzed is certainly not a typical examination of war, especially when it comes to Nazi Germany. The horrors committed by Nazis generally result in articles, books, and lectures that only discuss such horrors–because how could they not. The Holocaust is of such importance it can never receive too much attention. (You can listen to a podcast I made about it here.)

Yet, not every book has to or can examine the most horrendous acts. Hundreds do that. This book does not provide in-depth comments about Concentration Camps or battlefields, for example. We need to understand the full scope of what happened and why. For sure, we need more research and more perspectives on the relationship between drugs and Nazis, but Ohler provides an important book with important conclusions.

I do wonder, as a result of Blitzed, who was actually “calling the shots” and who made the public appearances and what else was going on, given that Hitler was so far removed from everyday life. I hope that Ohler’s scholarship is the first of many books that help form a more comphrensive picture of what happened in Nazi Gemany. 

For a more detailed summary of the book, see “The Very Drugged Nazis” and “Hitler’s Little Helper: A History of Rampant Drug Use Under the Nazis.” And I encourage you to read it for youself! 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda