German writer Norman Ohler’s astonishing account of methamphetamine addiction in the Third Reich changes what we know about the second world war
he German writer Norman Ohler lives on the top floor of a 19th-century apartment building on the south bank of the river Spree in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Visiting him there is a vertiginous experience. For one thing, he works – and likes to entertain visitors – in what he calls his “writing tower”, a flimsy-seeming, glass-walled turret perched right on the very edge of the roof. (Look down, if you dare, and you will see his little boat moored far below.) For another, there is the fact that from this vantage point it is possible to discern two Berlins, one thrusting and breezy, the other spectral and grey. To our left, busy with traffic, is the Oberbaum Bridge, where there was once a cold war checkpoint, and beyond it the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, its doleful length rudely interrupted by the block of luxury flats that went up in 2013. As for the large building immediately opposite, these days it’s the home of Universal Music. Not so very long ago, however, it was the GDR’s egg storage facility.
Does all this press on Ohler as he sits at his desk, the light bouncing off the screen of his laptop? Is it ghostly sometimes? “Yes, it is strange,” he says, smiling at my giddiness. But then he has long believed in a certain kind of time travel. “I remember the 90s. The wall had just come down, and I was experimenting with party drugs like ecstasy and LSD. The techno scene had started up, and there were all these empty buildings in the east where the youth [from east and west] would meet for the first time. They were hardcore, some of those guys from the east – they didn’t understand foreigners at all – and the ecstasy helped them to lose some of their hatred and suspicion. Sometimes, then, you could step into a room, and you could just see the past. Of course, it’s not like that now. I don’t take drugs any more. But I can remember it, and maybe that was why I was able to write this book.”
The book in question is The Total Rush– or, to use its superior English title,Blitzed – which reveals the astonishing and hitherto largely untold story of the Third Reich’s relationship with drugs, including cocaine, heroin, morphine and, above all, methamphetamines (aka crystal meth), and of their effect not only on Hitler’s final days – the Führer, by Ohler’s account, was an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers – but on the Wehrmacht’s successful invasion of France in 1940. Published in Germany last year, where it became a bestseller, it has since been translated into 18 languages, a fact that delights Ohler, but also amazes him.
It’s not only that he is – as Der Spiegelhelpfully pointed out – a non-historian (the author of three novels and the co-writer of the Wim Wenders film Palermo Shooting, this is his first work of nonfiction). It’s that there was anything new to be said at all. Arrange all the books that have been written about the Nazis end to end and they’d be longer than the Spree.
“I guess drugs weren’t a priority for the historians,” he says. “A crazy guy like me had to come along.” Still, crazy or not, he has done a remarkable job. If Blitzed is gripping, it is also convincing. Ian Kershaw, the British historian who is probably the world’s leading authority on Hitler and Nazi Germany, has described it as “a serious piece of scholarship”.
Unlikely as it sounds, it was Ohler’s friend, the Berlin DJ Alexander Kramer, who first put him on to the idea. “He’s like a medium for that time,” says Ohler. “He has this huge library, and he knows all the music from the 20s. One night he said to me: ‘Do you know the massive role drugs played in National Socialism?’ I told him that I didn’t, but that it sounded true – and I knew immediately it would be the subject of my next book.”
His plan was to write a novel, but with his first visit to the archives that changed completely. There he found the papers of Dr Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician, previously only a minor character in most studies of the Führer. “I knew then that this was already better than fiction.” In the months that followed, supported by the late, great German historian of the Third Reich Hans Mommsen, Ohler travelled from archive to archive, carefully gathering his material – and how much of it there was! He didn’t use half of what he found. “Look at this,” he says, jumping up. When he returns, in his hand is a copy of a letter from Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, in which he suggests that the “medication” Morell is giving the Führer needs to be regulated for the sake of his increasingly wobbly health.
The story Ohler tells begins in the days of the Weimar Republic, when Germany’s pharmaceutical industry was thriving – the country was a leading exporter both of opiates, such as morphine, and of cocaine – and drugs were available on every street corner. It was during this period that Hitler’s inner circle established an image of him as an unassailable figure who was willing to work tirelessly on behalf of his country, and who would permit no toxins – not even coffee – to enter his body.
“He is all genius and body,” reported one of his allies in 1930. “And he mortifies that body in a way that would shock people like us! He doesn’t drink, he practically only eats vegetables, and he doesn’t touch women.” No wonder that when the Nazis seized power in 1933, “seductive poisons” were immediately outlawed. In the years that followed, drug users would be deemed “criminally insane”; some would be killed by the state using a lethal injection; others would be sent to concentration camps. Drug use also began to be associated with Jews. The Nazi party’s office of racial purity claimed that the Jewish character was essentially drug-dependent. Both needed to be eradicated from Germany.
Some drugs, however, had their uses, particularly in a society hell bent on keeping up with the energetic Hitler (“Germany awake!” the Nazis ordered, and the nation had no choice but to snap to attention). A substance that could “integrate shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into the labour market might even be sanctioned. At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug – and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers (initially, it could be bought without prescription). It even made its way into confectionery. “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight,” went the slogan. Women were recommended to eat two or three, after which they would be able to get through their housework in no time at all – with the added bonus that they would also lose weight, given the deleterious effect Pervitin had on the appetite. Ohler describes it as National Socialism in pill form.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before soldiers were relying on it too. In Blitzed, Ohler reproduces a letter sent in 1939 by Heinrich Böll, the future Nobel laureate, from the frontline to his parents back at home, in which he begs them for Pervitin, the only way he knew to fight the great enemy – sleep. In Berlin, it was the job of Dr Otto Ranke, the director of the Institute for General and Defence Physiology, to protect the Wehrmacht’s “animated machines” – ie its soldiers – from wear, and after conducting some tests he concluded that Pervitin was indeed excellent medicine for exhausted soldiers. Not only did it make sleep unnecessary (Ranke, who would himself become addicted to the drug, observed that he could work for 50 hours on Pervitin without feeling fatigued), it also switched off inhibitions, making fighting easier, or at any rate less terrifying.
In 1940, as plans were made to invade France through the Ardennes mountains, a “stimulant decree” was sent out to army doctors, recommending that soldiers take one tablet per day, two at night in short sequence, and another one or two tablets after two or three hours if necessary. The Wehrmacht ordered 35m tablets for the army and Luftwaffe, and the Temmler factory increased production. The likes of Böll, it’s fair to say, wouldn’t need to ask their parents for Pervitin again.
Was Blitzkrieg, then, largely the result of the Wehrmacht’s reliance on crystal meth? How far is Ohler willing to go with this? He smiles. “Well, Mommsen always told me not to be mono-causal. But the invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it [the allies were massed in northern Belgium]. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel [who then led one of the panzer divisions] and all those tank commanders were high – and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.”
Thereafter, drugs were regarded as an effective weapon by high command, one that could be deployed against the greatest odds. In 1944-45, for instance, when it was increasingly clear that victory against the allies was all but impossible, the German navy developed a range of one-man U-boats; the fantastical idea was that these pint-sized submarines would make their way up the Thames estuary. But since they could only be used if the lone marines piloting them could stay awake for days at a time, Dr Gerhard Orzechowski, the head pharmacologist of the naval supreme command on the Baltic, had no choice but to begin working on the development of a new super-medication – a cocaine chewing gum that would be the hardest drug German soldiers had ever taken. It was tested at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, on a track used to trial new shoe soles for German factories; prisoners were required to walk – and walk – until they dropped.
“It was crazy, horrifying,” says Ohler, quietly. “Even Mommsen was shocked by this. He had never heard about it before.” The young marines, strapped in their metal boxes, unable to move at all and cut off from the outside world, suffered psychotic episodes as the drugs took hold, and frequently got lost, at which point the fact that they could stay awake for up to seven days became irrelevant. “It was unreal,” says Ohler. “This wasn’t reality. But if you’re fighting an enemy bigger than yourself, you have no choice. You must, somehow, exceed your own strength. That’s why terrorists use suicide bombers. It’s an unfair weapon. If you’re going to send a bomb into a crowd of civilians, of course you’re going to have a success.”
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Hitler was experiencing his own unreality, with his only ally in the world his podgy, insecure personal physician, Dr Morell. In the late 20s, Morell had grown a thriving private practice in Berlin, his reputation built on the modish vitamin injections he liked to give his patients. He met Hitler after he treated Heinrich Hoffman, the official Reich photographer, and sensing an opportunity quickly ingratiated himself with the Führer, who had long suffered from severe intestinal pains. Morell prescribed Mutaflor, a preparation based on bacteria, and when his patient’s condition – Patient A, as Hitler was thereafter known – began to improve, their codependent relationship began. Both were isolated. Hitler increasingly trusted no one but his doctor, while Morell relied solely on the Führer for his position.
When Hitler fell seriously ill in 1941, however, the vitamin injections that Morell had counted on no longer had any effect – and so he began to ramp things up. First, there were injections of animal hormones for this most notorious of vegetarians, and then a whole series of ever stronger medications until, at last, he began giving him a “wonder drug” called Eukodal, a designer opiate and close cousin of heroin whose chief characteristic was its potential to induce a euphoric state in the patient (today it is known as oxycodone). It wasn’t long before Hitler was receiving injections of Eukodal several times a day. Eventually he would combine it with twice daily doses of the high grade cocaine he had originally been prescribed for a problem with his ears, following an explosion in the Wolf’s Lair, his bunker on the eastern front.
Did Morell deliberately turn Hitler into an addict? Or was he simply powerless to resist the Führer’s addictive personality? “I don’t think it was deliberate,” says Ohler. “But Hitler trusted him. When those around him tried to remove Morell in the fall of 1944, Hitler stood up for him – though by then, he knew that if he was to go, he [Hitler] would be finished. They got along very well. Morell loved to give injections, and Hitler liked to have them. He didn’t like pills because of his weak stomach and he wanted a quick effect. He was time-pressed; he thought he was going to die young.” When did Hitler realise he was an addict? “Quite late. Someone quotes him as saying to Morell: you’ve been giving me opiates all the time. But mostly, they talked about it in oblique terms. Hitler didn’t like to refer to the Eukodal. Maybe he was trying to block it off from his mind. And like any dealer, Morell was never going to say: yeah, you’re addicted, and I have something to feed that for you.” So he talked in terms of health rather than addiction? “Yes, exactly.”
The effect of the drugs could appear to onlookers to be little short of miraculous. One minute the Führer was so frail he could barely stand up. The next, he would be ranting unstoppably at Mussolini. Ah, yes: Mussolini. In Italy, Blitzed will come with an extra chapter. “I found out that Mussolini – patient D, for Il Duce – was another of Morell’s patients. After the Germans installed him as the puppet leader of the Republic of Italy in 1943, they ordered him to be put under the eyes of the doctor.” Again, Ohler springs up. Again, he returns with a document in his hand. “There’s not enough material to say he was an addict. But he was being given the same drugs as Hitler. Every week there was a doctorly report.” He runs his finger along the typewritten lines, translating for me as he goes. “He has improved, he is playing tennis again, the swelling of his liver is normal… It’s like he’s a racehorse.”
For Hitler, though, a crisis was coming. When the factories where Pervitin and Eukodal were made were bombed by the allies, supplies of his favourite drugs began to run out, and by February 1945 he was suffering withdrawal. Bowed and drooling and stabbing at his skin with a pair of golden tweezers, he cut a pitiful sight. “Everyone describes the bad health of Hitler in those final days [in the Führerbunker in Berlin],” says Ohler. “But there’s no clear explanation for it. It has been suggested that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. To me, though, it’s pretty clear that it was partly withdrawal.” He grins. “Yeah, it must have been pretty awful. He’s losing a world war, and he’s coming off drugs.”
Two months later, Hitler and his new wife, Eva Braun (like Leni Riefenstahl, another of Morell’s patients), killed themselves, as the world knows. What happened to Morell? We know he survived, but did he get away unscathed?
“I think a lot of Nazis did get away with it,” says Ohler. “But not him. He wasn’t able to shed his skin, make a new career, get rich on his memoirs – even though he could have said, truly, that he hadn’t committed any war crimes. He lost his mind. He disintegrated. He’s a tragic figure. He wasn’t evil. He was only an opportunist.”
In 1947, the Americans, having tried and failed to extract useful information from him, deposited Morell in Munich. There he was picked up by a half-Jewish Red Cross nurse who took pity on this dishevelled, shoeless figure. She delivered him to the hospital in Tegernsee, where he died a year later.
Blitzed looks set to reframe the way certain aspects of the Third Reich will be viewed in the future. But Ohler’s thesis doesn’t, of course, make National Socialism any more fathomable, and for him, perhaps, there is an element of disappointment in this, for he has been seeking to understand it ever since he was a boy (the son of a judge, he grew up close to the border with France). “It was the whole reason why I wanted to write,” he says. “I thought with writing that you could counter propaganda.”
His maternal grandfather worked as a railway engineer during the war, the head of a small station in occupied Bohemia. “One day at school we watched a film of the liberation of a concentration camp, and it was so shocking to me. That same day, I asked him about the trains going to the camps. He told me that he saw one in the winter coming from the west, and that he said to himself: these are Russian POWs. But since it came from the west, and he heard children, and it was a cattle train, he kind of realised something weird was happening.
“I wasn’t much older than 10, and I was trying to understand: what kind of person is this, my grandfather? Because he continued being a railway engineer. He didn’t join the resistance. He said the SS was guarding the train, and he was afraid, and so he just went back into his little office to continue with his drawings. He always said Hitler wasn’t so bad. In the 80s, you used to hear that a lot: that it was all exaggerated, that Hitler didn’t know about the bad things, that he created order.”
He pauses. “You think it [nazism] was orderly. But it was complete chaos. I suppose working on Blitzed has helped me understand that at least. Meth kept people in the system without their having to think about it.” His hope is that his book will be read by a younger generation of Germans who would rather look to the future than dwell on the past. Is the right rising again? Is that why he wants them to read it? “It is quite a dangerous time. I hate these attacks on foreigners, but then our governments do it, too, in Iraq and places. Our democracies haven’t done a very good job in this globalised world.” That said, he doesn’t think the new party of the right, Alternative for Germany, may be the threat it appears (in elections earlier this month, it outperformed Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats). “The right wing always had so little purchase here [after the war] because of our history,” he says. “When I was young, you would never even see a German flag. The first time I did was in 1990, when Germany won the World Cup. So perhaps this is just a correction.”
Before I head to the airport, Ohler agrees to take me to see what remains of the Temmler factory – which last time he looked still stood in Berlin-Johannisthal, a part of the city that used to be in the east – and so it is that we set off on a bright blue day (in the movies, the east seems always to be grey and cold) in search of what remains of Dr Hauschild’s white-tiled laboratory. Twenty minutes later, we pull up in a residential street, all window boxes and net curtains, as quiet as the grave. “Oh, my God,” he says, unfolding his long, thin legs from the car. “Wow. It’s completely gone.”
For a few moments, we peer wonderingly through a chain link fence at the barren expanse of dust and concrete, and the neat white and red houses beyond it. But there’s nothing to be done: try as I might, I can’t superimpose the eery monochrome photographs I’ve seen of the factory in Blitzed on to this Technicolor suburban scene. What was almost tangible to me on Ohler’s roof, only half an hour ago, now takes on the unreal quality of a dream – or, perhaps, just a very bad trip.
Blitzed is published by Penguin on 6 October