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Book Review: Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (Norman Ohler)

This book failed in the two goals I set for it, either of which I would have accepted.  It did not teach me anything new about drugs, and it did not teach me anything new about Nazis.  Sad!

Blitzed is a serviceable summary of known facts about both drugs and Nazis, combined with some dubious and unsupported, but sweeping, allegations about the effects of drugs on Nazi military actions and political decisions.  But the dividing line between known facts and allegations is deliberately blurred.  The book is given added flavor, and not a good flavor, by a constant series of strained analogies and ham-handed lectures.  And it does not help that chapters have cringeworthy titles such as “Sieg High!” and “High Hitler!”

The author, Norman Ohler, a German novelist, sets out to prove that both the mass and the leadership of Nazi Germany, up to and including Adolf Hitler, were drug addicts.  Primarily this means the masses and the soldiers were addicted to methamphetamine and that Hitler himself used all types of drugs and became addicted to opiates, resulting ultimately in physical decline and the final collapse of withdrawal in the last days of the war.  Ohler seems to have done a fair bit of original research in archives of German military papers, or so he claims.  But his standard approach is to tell an anecdote or a piece of isolated data, wave his hands and muse a bit, and then declare some mostly or wholly unsupported broad new insight or vision, such as that Hitler invaded Russia solely because of a drug-fueled feeling of invincibility and megalomania.  The reader is not left with a feeling of confidence in the historical analysis.

The book focuses first on German civilian society and the German military; then on Hitler.  In the latter section it places enormous emphasis on the activities of Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal doctor, to the extent that the book is practically a nutshell biography of Morell.  Ohler begins with a hopscotching tour through Weimar and pre-war Nazi Germany, with a bit of travelogue here, a bit of chemistry there, and a bit of vague social commentary on the side.  Strained analogies and metaphors abound.  For example, Ohler thinks the primary goal of Reich drug policy, which was officially anti-drug, was as “a vehicle for the exclusion and suppression, even the destruction, of marginal groups and minorities,” though he offers not a single piece of evidence of this.  Then he extends this baseless idea to compare Nazi treatment of Jews to our modern treatment of drug dealers, which is alleged to be because the dealers “are now said to be part of different cultural circles.”  Just like the Jews!  Uh huh.  It’s just like that.

But Ohler never actually develops or defends these allegations or strained analogies; he just throws them out there and moves on to another loosely related topic, usually seemingly chosen at random.   In between he creates atrocious metaphors and tortures them until they scream, usually involving drugs and bombs.  The net effect is sometimes modestly interesting, but scattered, and the reader is never sure how much is fact and how much is Ohler’s interpretation or musings masquerading as fact.  So, when Ohler titles a sub-chapter on Rommel “The Crystal Fox,” and claims that everything Rommel did, and his personality and leadership traits, were all the result of massive stimulant use, the careful reader will note that not a single piece of actual evidence, not even an anecdote, is produced to support this astounding and important claim.  And the reader’s confidence will sink a little bit more, until, by the end of the book, it’s pretty much gone.

Ohler puts tremendous weight on the importance of Morell, who traditionally has been regarded as the quack and buffoon all the Nazis except Hitler thought he was.  Not that Ohler likes him—he exhausts the dictionary for personally insulting terms, including repeatedly calling him “fat” (no size acceptance for Ohler!) and narrating numerous turgid imaginary scenes in which, for example, Morell’s “hairy hands reached for his syringe.”  Ohler relies a great deal on Morell’s notes of near-daily treatment of Hitler, including making the assumption that the frequent notation “x” means opiate injection, not the glucose Morell wrote down, despite that, as others have pointed out, in other places Morell does record opiate usage, and it was in his interest to be accurate in case there was ever an accidental overdose.  Morell therefore becomes not a historical focus but an empty vessel through which Ohler conveys his vision of the importance of supposed Nazi drug usage to the reader.

Of course, it is well known that the Nazis issued stimulants for soldiers.  Ohler tries to characterize this as both unique and ubiquitous, but he totally ignores that this practice has been known for a long time and, in fact, continues today.  Amphetamines are prescribed to American fighter and bomber pilots, and doubtless the practice is more common among modern militaries than they are likely to admit.  ISIS fighters are also notorious users of stimulants, and if the US ever became engaged in a grinding infantry war, you can be sure that pharmaceuticals would be used.  Probably not by the Germans, though.  In a passage that unintentionally says much about modern Germany, Ohler quotes the military head of Germany’s Medical Corps, “The Germans can’t fight properly any more anyhow—and perhaps they shouldn’t.  Our strengths lie elsewhere.”  Presumably that “elsewhere” is in managing the transfer of resources and power from actual Germans to the flood of alien immigrants the Germans have encouraged to invade their country.

Anyway, all of Ohler’s proof of the supposed ubiquity of Nazi drug usage is anecdotal, and as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data.  He does cite a few statistics about the capacity to manufacture amphetamines, without any overall figures, but the numbers he mentions, spread over millions of soldiers, along with the millions of civilians he also claims were taking methamphetamines, don’t amount to more than a few pills per person.  Without more evidence, Ohler’s claims of a new discovery that explains something new and critically important about Nazi Germany fall just as flat as all such claims, and are one grade above claims that the Nazis raised up pagan spirits to serve them.

As far as the facts of the effects of methamphetamine, Ohler tries to have it both ways.  Supposedly millions took amphetamines, both as soldiers and civilians, in order to accomplish more, better.  But he repeatedly cites studies, both at the time and today, that show, in effect, that most improvement in ability is subjective and that at any higher doses amphetamines dramatically decrease both physical and mental competence (not to mention their addictive and physiologically destructive effects).  Therefore, even if the scale of drug usage was as great in Germany as Ohler claims, it’s pretty obvious that it was not a net help to the Germans, and that there were no consequences of particular matter in any case.

At the end, we are left with no new knowledge.  Frankly, for the most part, a reader wastes his time with his book.  I suppose the casual reader who knows little about the Third Reich might learn something, but on balance, so much of what he would learn is unreliable that I cannot recommend this book at all.

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Published in Book Reviews Charles European History Military History Science Totalitarian Socialism War

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