Drugs as an Engine of War in BLITZED

A bright yellow cover adorned with a jarring title, fuzzy drug-smeared lettering, and an image of a very familiar hairline immediately signals that to the reader that Norman Ohler’s BLITZED: DRUGS IN THE THIRD REICH (Houghton Mifflin Harcour, 2017) this not a regular historical text. Indeed, it is an interesting and unorthodox book that examine Germany’s role in World War II from a pharmacological perspective. Ohler, a German whose grandfather was actually a Nazi soldier (see this Newsweek interview for more background), went through voluminous historical records in order to understand the role that drugs played in the German war effort. His conclusion: an array of drugs ranging from methamphetamine to cocaine to opiates to steroids played a huge role in everything from keeping the country’s leaders alive to literally accelerating the invasions of Poland and France. As one might expect, there is a particular focus on Hitler whose drug use has been covered in endless books and articles. Here, Ohler actually dug into the records of Hitler’s personal doctor Theodor Morell, who kept extremely detailed notes about what he gave his most troublesome client (“Patient A”). Near the end of his life, Hitler was running on an laundry list of drugs and his body was so toxic that is blood thickened like jelly and immediately clotted whenever Morell tried to inject him with drugs.

BLITZED is written in a fluid fast-paced style that is generally unexpected for a historical text. The text is rife with black humor (chapter titles include Sieg High and High Hitler) and references to pop culture, including some cringe-inducing BREAKING BAD references. Ohler open speculates in some areas, but it is mostly clear when he is doing it. Despite the kind of popular nods, there is little doubt that Ohler’s research is strong (the book is heavily footnoted and Ohler gives detailed insight into where he obtained his information).

One of the most interesting aspects of BLITZED is how it exposes a larger historical arc that reaches into current world. As Ohler says in the book, “The development of modern societies is bound as tightly with the creation and distribution of drugs as the economy is with advances in technology.” Numerous manufacturing giants with pharmaceutical operations — Merck, Bayer, Boehringer, Knoll, IG Farben, et al. — started up during the late 19th-early 20th century, which made Germany the birth place of the modern drug industry. Many of these companies still exist in some form or another and their actions during-the-war are extremely suspect (IG Farben was famously broken up and its directors were later tried for war crimes). Their drugs and the problems they cause (most obviously, addiction) still hover over many aspects of modern life. It also seems clear from Ohler’s text that Anti-Semitic racially-targeted drug laws of Nazi Germany mirror present drug laws of the United States and elsewhere. BLITZED shows the sad and brutal hypocrisy of how societies built on foundations of drug use and abuse can use drug laws to punish people that it deems unworthy. Ohler comments that: “The extremely political question of whether our bodies belong to use or to a legal-social network of social health-related interests remains a virulent one event today.”

Many historians have questioned Ohler’s style and methods, that is a topic that is far too elaborate to investigate here. Needless to say, BLITZED is a fascinating book that puts an entirely new spin on an historical era that has been examined to the point of total exhaustion.