The War, On Drugs: a review of ‘Blitzed’ by Norman Ohler

Truth might well be stranger than fiction. But as Ohler’s study of the Nazis shows us, humans need fiction to bear reality: in forging our own version, and then enduring it. Hitler’s ideological fiction, built on ideals of Aryan purity and Antisemitism, was insidious enough to enrapture a fractured nation. Donning a pharmaceutical lens, history now reveals the Fuhrer’s need for psycho-active substances (drugs, for short) to hold his interior fictions in place. Ohler also dramatically documents how widespread drug use in Nazi Germany facilitated some of the nation’s greatest victories, while also contributing to the population’s collective euphoria.

Ohler’s Blitzed frequently beggars belief. How historians have made do without such a central jigsaw piece of Hitler’s psyche is equally baffling. The list of revelations is shocking but also cathartic – they help de-mythologise the hyperbolically evil Nazis.

To understand the preponderance of drugs in Nazi Germany, Ohler traces a huge influx of synthetic research post World War I. In a landscape ravaged of natural resources by reparations, German scientists turned to synthetic substances that could be manufactured chemically. Through necessity then, German pharmaceutical companies created a smorgasbord of substances: from methamphetamine to cocaine, from aspirin to heroine (this last pair within one week of each other). From this fruitful study, drugs began making their way into military testing, medical prescriptions, and eventually, Hitler’s personal bunker.

‘High Hitler’ 

From the early 1940s until the end of the war, Hitler was routinely injected with an eclectic cocktail of hard drugs. These included methamphetamine (Crystal Meth), Eukodal (Heroin’s more potent cousin), cocaine, and various animal stimulants (including bull prostate and porcine adrenal glands). This array was steadily built up by his personal physician Theo Morell, a figure largely overlooked by World War II history. Morell’s remedies started out as treatments for Hitler’s physical ailments. But as the war dragged on, and the Nazi dream of victory retreated, Hitler’s psyche demanded more and more attention. The Fuhrer needed the same level of conviction of his early speeches, perhaps even more so, to mobilise his flagging army and troubled government around his ultimate aim.

So we get the disturbing situations that Ohler outlines in the war’s climax. Hitler, spending months in his damp underground bunker, barely seeing daylight, yet coaxed into euphoria by Morell’s magic needle. It helps explain Hitler’s unaccountable switches of mood, which fellow Nazis assumed was down to a secret weapon he had discovered. There was nothing up his sleeve but track-marked veins.

Hitler’s war train literally stopped for injections: Morrel rolling up the Fuhrer’s sleeve beside steaming carriages, unable to administer the dose on a moving vehicle. Hitler badly needed his pick-me-up before meeting Mussolini, near the end of the war, when the morning of the meeting saw him doubled over with gastric pain and dizziness. A quick shot of Morell’s euphoric cocktail, and Hitler talked Mussolini out of the room, not halting his verbal tirade for four straight hours. This inner conviction held off the Axis collapse, and Mussolini returned to Italy with renewed vigour.

Ohler frames Hitler’s battle as an inner one. If he could convince himself all is well, then his psychology could spread like a virus-blanket across army and government. There is a Shakespearean quality to this, where a head of state rages against inner demons, turning to addiction and abuse, in a fatal and tragic quest for power. Hitler is revealed not as the anti-christ, but a fatally flawed man whose poisoned, vengeful mind was propped up by artificial stimulants.

He was willing to live with the stark cognitive dissonance, for instance, of upholding ‘purity’ but routinely injecting his body with drugs. Of espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, freshly after being injected with countless animal hormones. Then, more concretely, insisting that increasingly outlandish tactics would grant the Germans imminent victory.


Head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, in the throes of Morphine addiction

The War, on Drugs

Hitler’s reliance on ideology and conviction alone was not without reason. Earlier in the war, surprise attacks and unorthodox manoeuvres had helped conquer almost all of Europe. These too, Ohler reveals, were augmented by drug use. The Blitzkrieg conquest of the Ardennes mountains, which Churchill described as the ‘sickle cut’, was impossible without soldiers staying up for four days straight. Healthy doses of methamphetamine allowed tank commanders to do just this: indeed, they stayed awake for 17 days. Such superhuman feats – which ape Hannibal’s mythic, elephantine crossing of the Alps – were previously put down to sheer tyranny of ideological will. Hard drugs, it seems, bring impossible tasks within reach.

Alongside Hitler’s inner demons, and the Blitzkrieg’s mythic conquest, Rommel and Ranke’s ‘war on fatigue’ sounds straight from Greek mythology. They sought to vanquish age old enemies, sleep and tiredness, to gain vital strategic advantages in battle. And like some deific reckoning, the Nazi’s disregard for human fixities, their frolic on the shores of the river Styx, came with a hefty and damned price. Such drug use could only work in the short term. Users soon built a tolerance, and needed higher dosages to perform at the same levels. Side effects like heart attacks, muscle weakness and uncontrollable shakes abounded. Mental fatigue, if not physical, became rife. Turns out you can’t unfetteredly jack up on neurotransmitters and get away with it.  The German public suffered too. From housewives that ate methamphetamine in chocolates, to workers using it to stay awake, drug use was widespread, indoctrinating and harmful.

Blitzed confirms what filmmakers Powell, Pressburger and Renoir tried to tell their viewing public at the time: the Nazis do not play by ‘the rules of the game’. Hitler was prepared to sully his own body, and those of his fighting populace, to extend his destructive ideological path. Neurological enhancements, still nowhere near understood today, were put into reckless use by the Nazi war machine. It was deranged, irresponsible, and veered from extremely effective to psychologically shattering. When I asked Ohler if he thought other periods of history would benefit from a pharmaceutical analysis, he didn’t seem to see the relevance. But surely psycho-active substances might have been used by other societies for progress and advantage? The Delphic oracles, for instance, were said to inhale natural gas from rocky gas plumes, then make prophecies from their hallucinations. JFK is often rumoured to have taken a litany of drugs to neutralise his body’s many ailments. It seems like a fruitful and largely untapped undercurrent of history.

Ohler has laid the groundwork, whether he sees it as such or not, for further psycho-active historical study. This seminal book helps us understand one of the most feared human societies.  The Nazis manufactured their superhuman will, euphoric mindsets in dire circumstances, and disregard for fatigue. Their monster is now explainable – without recourse for mystified and depth-less malice. Evil understood is evil halved.

You can buy Blitzed here.