Book Review: Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

In this captivating account of drug use in the Third Reich, author Norman Ohler takes us on a journey through the history of Germany and explains how, and why, it became a center of pharmaceutical research. Although the National Socialist Party presented themselves as clean cut, and Hitler praised abstinence, it is clear that much of the Nazi hierarchy, including Hitler himself, were very reliant on drugs and, indeed, that their use was widespread both in the armed forces and in civilian life.

In 1925 the immensely powerful chemical and pharmaceutical corporation I.G. Farben was created out of an amalgamation of many different companies. In the following year German exports of opium accounted for 40 percent of the global market, while just three German companies controlled 80 percent of the worldwide cocaine market.

Nowhere were the 1920s more roaring than in Berlin – cocaine and morphine were available over the counter and cheaper than alcohol, and everyone was escaping reality, particularly since life in the Weimar Republic, with its mass unemployment and hyperinflation, was such a nightmare! Then these drugs started to be outlawed for obvious reasons (physical/mental health damage, addiction, death, etc.) and the Nazis came to power in 1933, supposedly ushering in an era of abstinence and sobriety.

Ohler examines the use of a drug, called Pervitin, in particular. So widespread was this drug that it was even included in chocolates, advertised for housewives needing a little help to cope with the housework. It was known as the ‘people’s drug’ and was said to banish sleep and hunger, while promising euphoria. Now, it is better known by the name of crystal meth.

Pervitin is linked to a senior staff doctor, named Professor Dr Otto F Ranke, director of the Research Institute of Defence Physiology. Ranke was involved in suggesting the drug could boost the performance of the army, which were under incredible pressure to perform, with Hitler making unprecedented demands. Indeed, the author suggests that the real enemy were not the British or Russian troops, but tiredness, and Pervitin offered a cure for exhaustion. Too late, Ranke saw the danger signs of addiction and side effects, but by then the army were marching for days and, while witnesses saw the invaders as virtually super-mensch, the troops themselves also began, dangerously, to believe in their own image.

The largest and most interesting part of this book looks at Patient A, or Hitler, and his relationship with his personal physician, Dr Theodor Morrell. Unlike Stalin, who was happy to leave running the war to his Generals, Hitler wanted to be in charge of everything. He gradually lost touch with reality – his delusions and fantasies causing him to be dangerously reckless. Meanwhile, afraid of being ill and unable to attend meetings, Hitler demanded that Morrell keep him healthy and active. He may have failed at helping Hitler stay healthy, but he was always there with a ‘pick me up’ in the form of an injection, if Hitler felt tired, unwell or out of sorts.

As Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Theo Morell, was a corpulent, smelly, slovenly, venal individual, as shown by several photos in Blitzed. He successfully treated Hitler once, and apparently his unconventional therapies worked well enough to keep him in Hitler’s good graces for a long time.

Few other than Hitler thought Morell was any more than a quack. Hermann Goering referred to Morell as “Der Reichsspritzenmeister,” or “Reichmaster of Injections,” because of his tendency to give patients a shot for almost any condition. Even though Morell actually did prescribe pills and physical therapy on many occasions, the name stuck.

According to Ohler’s sources, Morell introduced Hitler to Pervitin*, Hitler, well aware of his inherited alcoholic tendencies, feared addiction greatly, but became dependent on Pervitin and, later, Eukodal (oxycodone). Those and over 90 varieties of other medicines were used to “treat” him, as many as 28 different substances in one day, including oxygen. In mid-1943, Morrell gave him Eukodal subcutaneously, attempting to avoid addiction. Just hours later, he gave Hitler an intramuscular dose in preparation for an Axis conference.

Other sources indicate that Morell added Pervitin to Hitler’s vitamin and glucose injections without telling anyone, destroying the containers afterwards.

After the July 20 assassination attempt, it was an eye-ear-nose-and-throat specialist, Dr. Erwin Giesing, who treated Hitler with 10% cocaine swabs for his injuries. Hitler told him, “Please don’t turn me into a cocaine addict.” But Adolf liked the cocaine and asked for more frequent application. This may have turned another corner in Hitler’s drug-induced deterioration.

Morell’s records are a bit cryptic in spots, so it’s not known exactly what Hitler received during the final months leading up to his suicide in the bunker. Ohler records that Hitler had become addicted to whatever it was that Morell gave him, possibly a mixture of Eukodal, Pervitin, and cocaine, along with other substances. As the Third Reich crumbled around him, Hitler was falling apart from withdrawal, Morell’s drug sources having been bombed out of existence.

Blitzed gives an extensive history of these events and more, along with a full bibliography and an index. The book contains many fascinating facts, such as a description of Goering’s bizarre ‘uniform:’ “A white silk blouse with yellow, fur-lined vest; long bloomers; a wide, gold embellished leather belt holding a short sword; silk stockings, gold Saffiano sandals; makeup, and enameled fingernails.” Goering resembled nothing less than a veritable Götterdämmerung-meets-Cabaret tragi-comic opera character.

Regarding Hitler’s December 16, 1941 “No Retreat Order,” Ohler says: “There was a convincing reason for the frantic insistence on refusing to give up any conquered territory: to keep the chimneys of the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Majdanek, and Belzec smoking for as long as possible, to hold all positions until all the Jews were dead.” Ohler is correct. The Holocaust was the driving force behind Hitler’s Russian strategy from the start.

I would highly recommend this book for an unusual and inside look at a subject seldom discussed at any length in other histories of the Third Reich.