You may have heard the stories that Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine in its recipe, but have you heard the one where heroin was first marketed as an over the counter cough syrup? Or perhaps the story of a little pick me up pill called Pervitin, that took Germany by storm in the 1930’s? If you haven’t, then Norman Ohler’s book Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany will help fill in the gaps of your knowledge around how drugs were a much bigger part of WW2 than you ever might have imagined.
Charting the rise and fall of Hitler alongside the discovery and steeply rising use of methamphetamines, Blitzed focuses mainly on Germany’s use of Pervitin in the 1930’s and 40’s based on the communications and diaries of many key players in the Nazi Party. Most remarkable of these are the writings of Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal doctor.
Having delved into the archives in Germany and the US, Ohler sculpts a narrative that brings to light how Hitler’s persona of a teetotal vegetarian keen to rid the German people of the vices of intoxication is far removed from the fact that actually his personal physician was injecting him on a near daily basis with a cocktail of animal hormones, vitamin supplements, Pervitin, and towards the end of his life, Eukodol (similar to Oxycodone).
Hitler wasn’t the only one. Troops on the ground were given Pervitin in order to ensure they could march for days on end without any fear of the fighting they were being asked to do. The Navy, pilots in the Luftwaffe and tank drivers were all given methamphetamine-laced gum and/or chocolate to ensure they were able to get to where they needed to be without any cause to stop. There was no thought given to the side and/or after effects, the exhaustion, hallucinations, depressions that followed. According to Ohler, if the enemy of the Army is sleep, then the Army Doctors’ solution is the “alertness aid” Pervitin in very large quantities doled out throughout the Wehrmacht.
Blitzed is Norman Ohler’s first foray into non-fiction, having previously written three novels and co-wrote on the film Palermo Shooting. He’s not an academic, or a historian, just a German novelist with an interest in presenting his view on a part of the past he felt had not been fully explored. And it’s important to keep in mind while reading Blitzed, that while it is non-fiction, it is still Ohler’s take on history and not 100% proven fact. When all the parties involved in the past are no longer with us to provide first-hand accounts, then in a way, all non-fiction is a little bit fiction too. There is conjecture, there are assumptions and there are conclusions drawn that may tell a good story, but may not tell that story exactly as it occurred.
Much of Ohler’s supporting evidence is the diary kept by Dr. Morell, who feared retribution should anything happen to Hitler in his care. He kept detailed accounts of every concoction injected, the time and date; however, as time progressed and both his and Hitler’s health began deteriorating, these records became less thorough, with some only being captured as “injection X”. Ohler assumes this “X” contains the mixture of various drugs such as Eukodol, though this cannot be 100% proven to be true. This is where I feel like his assumption supports the story he wants to tell, but I can’t trust that it’s not just a convenient assumption rather than hard fact.
This is a subject that has been covered numerous times by a wide variety of authors. There are countless articles/papers/books on the subject of Hitler and his health as well as that of the Nazi Party, from just years after the event and continuing up until the present day. Which means Blitzed is nothing new. Ohler makes no claims that he has found groundbreaking new evidence but instead is placing more focus on Hitler’s relationship with Dr. Morell than he believes previous studies have in the past.
His history of writing fiction does help in making his work more of an accessible read than other academic-focused offerings. While overall there isn’t the kind of flow to the book that helps you get lost within its pages for hours, the facts are much more digestible and don’t require the reader to know much about history, chemistry or anything specialised. It’s purely enough to have in interest in the general idea of drug use in WW2 era Germany to enjoy the ride that Ohler takes you on. And while Blitzed doesn’t provide the kind of concrete evidence to say that drugs alone dictated the war, it certainly raises some interesting points that may change the way we view the past.