The inexplicable, superhuman speed with which Nazi Germany conquered continental Europe in 1940 shocked and stunned the world. Mighty France, which fielded one of the world’s largest armies, watched in numb horror as German tanks sped across the country, fighting for days on end without sleep.
One German general later boasted that his men were able to stay up for 17 days without rest. Against this machine-like onslaught, France capitulated quickly; a “dumbfounded” England, as Winston Churchill later wrote, was left to speculate what fueled “blitzkrieg’s” stupefying speed.
According to Berlin novelist Norman Ohler, it was speed.
Before invading France, the German army was issued 35 million doses of Pervitin, a name-brand methamphetamine that was popular with factory workers, housewives and students prior to the war. In combat, it became as necessary as beans and bullets. And, as Ohler wrote in Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, the Nazis’ drug habit extended all the way to the top.
Adolf Hitler, Ohler asserts, was a bona-fide hophead who, as the war started to go badly for Germany, developed a serious speedball habit. The notorious delusions of ultimate victory that gripped an increasingly detached Hitler, even as Russian shells exploded overhead and enemy soldiers approached the door of his bunker? Drug-induced paranoia, Ohler asserts.
As Antony Beevor observed in the New York Review of Books, drug use was commonplace in pre-war Germany. The nation was already home to some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. A German firm first trademarked “heroin,” and cocaine was popular with upper-class youth.
After Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I, instead of seeking solace in alcohol, shell-shocked and bereft survivors found solace in cocaine and morphine. By the mid-1920s, German companies dominated the worldwide markets for cocaine and opiates.
But what does any of this have to do with Hitler, a self-styled teetotaler who won over vulnerable minds with populist oratory and nationalist propaganda before consolidating power through a combination of murder, intrigue and genocidal fury?
According to Ohler, Hitler sought help from a doctor for unexplained abdominal pain. The doctor, Theodor Morell, was able to cure him via an injection. Convinced Morell was a miracle-worker, Hitler insisted he become his personal physician—and it’s within Morell’s diary, in which his treatments for Hitler are detailed and on which Ohler’s book is based.
Morell didn’t have anything special in the syringes he offered Hitler or the other patients who sought help at his popular Berlin medical practice before the war—just common everyday stimulants. Soon, Hitler was requesting multiple injections a day, and depending on his state of mind, Morell administered a cocktail that could include “glucose, cocaine, morphine, and essence of pig’s liver and heart.”
Speed-fueled armies of German “supermen” roared across Poland and France—with “double-vision” and “seeing colors” the only negative side-effects that Nazi officials observed—before grinding to a halt in Russia in 1941. (The Germans did employ at least 30 million more doses of pharmaceutical-grade speed against the Soviets, but not even meth can keep out the cold of a Russian winter.)
With Hitler ensconced in a series of bunkers as the war turned, he sought more and more help from Morell, who appeared to have no qualms about throwing anything and everything into his “injections.”
Some 89 different compounds were used to dose Hitler. By 1943, Morell was injecting the Fuhrer with an oxycodone called Eukodal—later described by veteran junkie William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, as “truly awful.” Later, after a 1944 assassination attempt, Hitler was treated with cocaine, which he appeared to love. Soon, he was receiving doses of cocaine, as well as Eukodal—the Nazi speedball.
So Hitler had a drug habit, as many of us do. So what?
Here’s where some scholars believe Ohler is both sloppy in his scholarship, and guilty of gifting Germans, eager for anything that would absolve them of the guilt of having actually carried out Hitler’s mad campaign of mass murder, a convenient cop-out.
Hitler developed his hateful and murderous ideology well before he became drug-dependent, and the millions of people who followed him and executed the Holocaust were of sound mind—if not vulnerable to the tricks of a gifted orator who had ready excuses and scapegoats for all of society’s problems.
Writing in the Guardian, Richard J. Evans takes Ohler to task for some very unscientific assumptions, such as asserting that every time Morell injected Hitler with a mysterious substance called “X,” Hitler was receiving an opiate.
Since Morell did take careful note when he did inject Hitler with opiates—and since Hitler also spoke ill of top Nazi Hermann Göring’s own well-known morphine addiction—Evans declares this is unlikely. And the “tremors” that afflicted Hitler late in life, which Ohler ascribed to withdrawal symptoms, were more likely symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Methamphetamine may have helped the Nazis along, but it wasn’t by itself responsible for their early successes. Nor was it the root cause of the ideology’s fundamental evils.
Hitler was blaming Jews, socialists and other enemies of a nationalist, military-first state with no dissent well before he met Dr. Morell—back when he was still just a failed artist who couldn’t get over once being in the military.
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