The Wehrmacht — the Nazi armed forces — owed some of its most remarkable victories and, later, its bitterest defeats to the stimulating effects of methamphetamine and cocaine, according to Norman Ohler’s book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, the English translation of which is due to hit shelves in March.
Much of the material in Blitzed isn’t new to academic historians, but the book has been making waves because it offers an accessible, English-language synthesis of a story previously told piecemeal in places like Werner Pieper’s edited collection Nazis on Speed: Drogen im 3. Reich.
Drogen im 3. Reich is a collection of essays by German doctors and other academics who lived during the 1920s and ’30s, along with government memoranda and prescription notes from medical doctors treating Nazi Party functionaries such as Adolf Hitler and leading Nazi party member Hermann Goring. Ohler studied this material and did some archival digging of his own during the five years he spent writing Blitzed. Unfortunately, despite his thoroughness, Ohler misses an opportunity to insightfully connect his research with more recent stories about warfare and performance-enhancing drug use.
Blitzed serves as a welcome addition to the sizeable amount of literature about drug development and drug use during the 1930s that has mostly focused on products, countries, and individual researchers, as well as the role drugs played in sports. German pharmaceutical firms such as Temmler, Merck, and Bayer ruled the global market in that era. Ohler connects the dots between civilian and military applications of their products, particularly the methamphetamine used to great effect during the rapid-fire blitzkrieg assault on France in 1940. By the time German soldiers began using the drug to speed up the conquest of continental Europe, Temmler’s Pervitin methamphetamine tablet — which was legal to purchase and advertised extensively — had secured a large chunk of the domestic market, helping German students pass their exams, German doctors make their rounds, and, in the form of Hildebrand boxed chocolates laced with meth, German housewives complete their chores. Its use was already normalized in the country, in other words, by the time Germany went to war — which is why soldiers wrote home to ask their families to send it in packages and believed it to be similar to coffee even after Leonardo Conti, the Reich Health leader, made it nominally subject to the German Opium Act of 1929 in June 1941.
Drug warfare continues to this day.
Ohler pairs the story of how meth took over Germany and its armed forces with a more intimate look at Hitler’s relationship with his personal physician, Theodor Morell, who kept the Fuhrer upright and feisty with injections of morphine, muscle relaxants, cocaine, methamphetamine, various primitive testosterone compounds, and many other substances of dubious efficacy. Other biographers, like Ian Kershaw, have minimized the role that drugs played in Hitler’s erratic behavior, limiting discussion of his addictions to a few pages of their lengthy, often multi-volume, works. Ohler sets this record straight by devoting several chapters to the Fuhrer’s drug use, though he stops short of attributing Hitler’s ever-stranger strategic decisions to his many addictions. Rather, Ohler writes, Hitler was “anything but insane” and “could go on taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes.”
Hitler’s dependence on drugs was exacerbated by the injuries he sustained from a failed assassination attempt against him with a briefcase bomb in 1944. His ability to initially shrug off the serious injuries he sustained can be attributed to his use of Eukodal, more commonly known today as Oxycodone. Hitler’s physical deterioration after 1944, during which time the German leader found it increasingly difficult to stand up or steady his shaking hands, was likely due to the increasingly high doses of opioids and muscle relaxants he had to take following that assassination attempt, which his personal physician tried to counterbalance with higher doses of cocaine and methamphetamine. Ohler argues that this made Hitler physically weaker and not any more delusional than he already was.
It’s tempting to think that the Nazis committed atrocities because they were under the influence of meth. Ohler strongly asserts the opposite: German aggression, he writes, cannot be attributed to the widespread use of heavy-duty stimulants. Instead, according to Ohler, drugs were merely one of many modern tools used to fulfill a blueprint for expansion and conquest. Stimulants certainly increased the ability of the German military to carry out its operations, but most aspects of those operations had been planned long in advance by an experienced corps of officers and civil servants deeply resentful of the country’s defeat in the First World War.
Nor, for that matter, was Germany alone in using drugs to fuel this worldwide conflict. Likely because he was narrowly focused on the German example, Ohler doesn’t mention it, but historian Nicolas Rasmussen’s research has shown how stimulant use, particularly benzedrine, was widespread on the Allied side as well. Rasmussen has described how Americans and British soldiers took amphetamines before bombing missions and long-range commando operations to raise morale and aggression.
Drug warfare continues to this day. Some ISIS combatants have been reported to use a methamphetamine-like psychostimulant; fighters in Syria are known to take a drug called Captagon (fenethylline) . The goal of drug use in war remains the same as it did during WWII: staying awake and remaining aggressive. “Sometimes you don’t sleep for 24 or 48 hours, depending on how many pills you take,” one distributor of Captagon told New York magazine. “If you shoot someone on Captagon, they don’t feel it. If someone takes many pills, like 30 or so, they become violent and crazy, paranoid, unafraid of anything.”
Drug use is also not limited to outgunned, outmanned rebel forces such as ISIS or the child soldiers who fought for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front while doped with a mixture of marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogenic drugs. The United States military dispensed amphetamines to and tested steroids on soldiers fighting in Vietnam, leaving 3 to 5 percent of the veterans who served in that conflict addicted to stimulants. The U.S. military today dispenses the powerful anti-tiredness drug modafinil to pilots conducting long missions in jet airplanes. The insistence on performance enhancement while completing missions and defeating enemies has created a culture of substance abuse in the military that, according to some reports, has contributed to 2 percent of armed forces personnel using steroids illegally, and many more abusing stimulants.
For scientifically minded readers, the most disappointing aspect of Blitzed is how little we learn about the effect of the drugs used by Nazis on their bodies and minds. Aside from a section that looks at how Fritz Hauschild, a chemist at Temmler, synthesized a form of methamphetamine packaged and sold in tablet form as Pervitin, Ohler doesn’t delve deeply into pharmacology. He does not discuss how cocaine and methamphetamine affect the brain in different ways, which would increase our understanding of how soldiers were affected by each drug.
When taken together by a first-time user, cocaine and methamphetamine can sometimes cause an immediate overdose or uncontrollable convulsions, but Ohler doesn’t say if any Nazi soldiers experienced that. He does provide a brief quotation from a Nazi laboratory report about one particular combination of cocaine and methamphetamine, labeled “D IX,” noting that a patient who had taken it suffered from “shaky hands” and “weak knees.” Other references to D IX mention generalized dizziness and fatigue among the soldiers and sailors who used it, but that would be the case for all the stimulants soldiers were reported to have used.
This is, of course, one of the challenges of writing about stimulants: While they are all “stimulating” in a generic sense, each works on the body in a radically different way, in terms of absorption in the bloodstream, duration of its positive effects, and the speed at which tolerance develops. Cocaine, for example, produces an extremely short-lived elevation of the user’s mood and energy level, while the effects of methamphetamine last for up to 12 hours and are accompanied by a far more intense “crash” afterward. When users combine drugs and take them for a week or more, they may wind up behaving in a frightened, desperate manner. Ohler limits himself to soldiers’ accounts and Nazi doctors’ records, but inclusion of modern work on drug interactions might have allowed him to engage in some educated speculation about how nasty the impact of something like D IX actually could be.
A related discussion of the use of mescaline, a naturally occurring psychedelic drug, for Nazi doctor Kurt Plotner’s brainwashing operations on prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp is also truncated; one never learns how effective the drugs actually were at wringing secret information from unwilling subjects. The hallucinogenic effects of that drug are described only as they relate to the later use of Plotner’s research by American government scientists to create lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). A powerful synthetic alternative to mescaline, LSD was developed for use by the secret MKUltra program, in which CIA agents administered these mind-altering drugs as a way of extracting confessions from enemy spies and other national security threats.
Ohler also does not address how effective the testosterone extracts Hitler took might have been. According to historian John Hoberman, the use of testosterone injections to reverse menopause, “convert” gay men, and cure impotence all failed miserably during the 1930s and 1940s — and no serious longitudinal studies were done during that period about how the drug might influence athletic performance. In fact, reliable, efficacious testosterone and anabolic steroids didn’t appear until the early 1950s, when the USSR used them to dominate the Olympics. East Germany, whose sports physiology and pharmacology programs were overseen by former Temmler researcher Fritz Hauschild, followed suit not long thereafter. The first oral steroid, Dianabol, entered the American market in 1959; all sorts of heretofore sacrosanct sports records would be broken not long thereafter.
All of this, I suppose, is outside the scope of Ohler’s account, but the author is perhaps a bit too unscientific in his analysis. He notes that Hauschild and Plotner, two Nazi scientists discussed throughout Blitzed, were never prosecuted for war crimes and continued to make advances in the fields of performance enhancement and hallucinogenic brainwashing, respectively. (Plotner ran East Germany’s extremely successful Olympic sports program, and Hauschild worked for the CIA before becoming a professor at the University of Freiburg.) However, Ohler highlights the fact of their freedom from prosecution without emphasizing that the postwar research they conducted is a direct link between past and present experimentation with dangerous performance-enhancing drugs. As we ponder the modern world’s obsession with discovering that special chemical advantage that might spell the difference between victory and defeat and between life and death, these elements of the story seem essential.
Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.