Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler (Penguin, 2016)

In 1920s Germany cocaine and heroin were available to purchase in pharmacies without prescription, fuelling the hedonistic Weimar Republic. When the Nazis came to power they set about clamping down on such drugs and ushering in an era of sobriety. However, their place was replaced by methamphetamines, marketed as Pervitin, a wonder drug that offered energy and euphoria; today known as crystal meth. When the Nazis turned to war, Pervitin was issued to all troops, providing an upper that negated the need for sleep and providing fortitude – a contributor to blitzkrieg being the soldiers were blitzed. Also a factor in the war effort was drug taking among the Nazi elite. Goring was addicted to morphine, and Hitler had regular injections of vitamins, steroids and opiates. In fact, Hitler took over 80 different kinds of supplements and drugs and towards the end of the war became addicted to oxycodone and cocaine. Hitler’s personal doctor, Dr Theodor Morell was also treating other high ranking Nazi’s and Wehrmacht high command, as well as trying to build a pharmaceutical empire. 

Blitzed details the extent and effects of drug taking in Nazi Germany, focusing in particular on its use within the armed forces and by Hitler. Drawing of archival research, especially with respect to the documents left by Dr Morell, Ohler's thesis is that drugs played a more predominate role in armed combat, and were much more of a critical element in Hitler’s demeanour and decision-making, than previously acknowledged. Ohler makes a convincing case that a pharmacological reading of Nazi Germany helps cast light on some of the military actions and political decision-making. The narrative is engaging and the story told fascinating. However, there are a few issues that detract from the argument being made, namely context, balance, structure and conjecture. The book claims to be about drug use in Nazi Germany. In the main it is about Hitler’s use of drugs, with some but limited coverage of drug use in the armed forces. Drug use in the pre-Nazi era is rather quickly covered, and drug-use among the wider population is cursorily dealt with. There is no discussion about the immediate aftermath of the war, when presumably there were millions of methamphetamine addicts going cold turkey. In addition, there is quite a bit of conjecture and speculation in the analysis. The result is a skewed and partial analysis that overly concentrates on Hitler’s drug use, as interesting as that is. Nonetheless, Blitzed is an intriguing and engaging read that raises some interesting questions and speculation.

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