After last weekend's adventure in shutting down fascism I was reminded that I have a big old stack of World War II-related books on the TBR Shelf o' Doom, and after a bit of waffling about which one to pick up first, I decided on Norman Ohler's Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which was translated into English earlier this year.
I knew sort of vaguely that modern militaries (and not-so-modern militaries) have a long and not-frequently-talked about history of experimenting with performance-enhancing substances for maximum soldiering, and that much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries were awash in un- or under-regulated drugs that we now consider to be OMG VERY HARD DRUGS. The most recent episode of Sawbones, which discusses the opioid epidemic, talks about the development of various opiates and opioids, a shocking number of which were developed for the purpose of being less addictive ways to wean people off of the earlier drugs. It's fairly well known at this point that Freud was on ALL THE COCAINE and if you kick around in Weird History enough you've probably heard that Bayer got its start making aspirin, which you can still buy over-the-counter in any pharmacy, and heroin, which, not so much anymore.
Weimar Germany was known to be full of drugs of the recreational variety, because of the economy imploding and fun stuff like that, and Berlin in particular was known as a center of culture and decadently out-of-control nightlife. In response to all this decadence and what they saw as cultural decay and all that stuff, the Nazi regime set itself up as being very anti-drug. Hitler moralized at people about how he was a vegetarian and didn't smoke or drink coffee or alcohol. Basically, they were big on the idea of bodily purity, which should probably make people stop and think twice about any modern "health" fads that appear to be going on a bit too hard about bodily purity, even though the "Hitler was a vegetarian" thing is pretty much the go-to example for Godwin's Law.
But the Nazis weren't big on bodily purity so that everyone could sleep soundly eight hours a day and enjoy a leisurely and wholesome work-life balance. They wanted people to be able to PERFORM and to SHOW THE WORLD the UNPARALLELED VIGOR AND VITALITY OF THE ARYAN RACE and some other stuff that I can't help but imagine being only in all-caps from both its zealousness and from being in German. Also they were trying to take over half the world which is not a restful endeavor. To that end, while drugs were bad, medicine was clearly very important, as were vitamins and supplements and other things that basically mean "drugs, but healthy." Stop me if this sounds familiar at all.
Anyway, Five-Hour Energy hadn't been invented yet, but what had been invented was SEVENTEEN-HOUR ENERGY, otherwise known as Pervitin, otherwise known as methamphetamine. Pervitin was first synthesized in 1938 by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, which still exists (side note: It's really appalling how many brands you run across reading about Nazi Germany that still exist. Especially all the drug companies). After a few really half-assed medical experiments that showed that Pervitin use made medical students REALLY AWAKE for a long period of time but not any focused or smarter (and actually less focused), the doctor working on it had the bright idea that it'd be really good for soldiers, who have to keep going for a long time but don't need to be geniuses, I guess. Thus was Pervitin dispensed in massive quantities to the Wehrmacht, where it was apparently instrumental in keeping them up long enough to drive tanks through the supposedly impassable mountains in the Ardennes and invade France, and was supposedly also instrumental in helping them Blitz through France all the way to Dunkirk, whereupon they inexplicably stopped. As the war dragged on, the drugs got harder and the side effects got worse — Pervitin is apparently a bad thing to be on when you're trying to invade Russia in the snow (even considering that you're clearly not using your good-judgment faculties in the first place if you're even trying to do such a thing); by the very end of the war, the Nazis were doing things like drugging up 15-year-old Hitlerjugend fanatics on cocaine chewing gum, stuffing them in tiny submarines, and pointing them vaguely in the direction of the Thames. This did not work out well, and Ohler's descriptions of the fates awaiting these untrained submarine recruits constitutes the only time I've ever reacted to a report of violence against Nazis with anything other than uncomplicated glee. Stuffing drugged-up children into shoddily made submarines that they've got no idea how to navigate is some fucked-up Nazi bullshit even if the children in question are also Nazis.
Guess what else is fucked up? When the Navy was moving on from Pervitin and trying to develop even harder drugs — terrifying combinations of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and oxycodone — to find out what were the most effective combinations, they tested them out on concentration camp inmates on the shoe-walking track at Sachsenhausen.
A good third of Blitzed is given over to discussion of Hitler's personal drug regimen, developed and overseen by his sycophantic, greedy, and not especially medically ethical personal physician, Herr Doktor Theodor Morell. Morell was basically an opportunist quack who sold whatever was fashionable to fashionable people in Berlin, and wound up treating Hitler for some sort of stomach problem, and got him hooked on a whole experimental regimen of quack nonsense that ranged from benign stuff like chamomile, through a whole range of dodgy animal extracts and hormones and stuff, all the way through to methamphetamine injections. Toward the end, Morell got Hitler hooked on Eukodal, a type of oxycodone. Unsurprisingly, becoming a giant junkie did not do anything to make Hitler and less of a craptastic tactician, and the descriptions of him shooting up in a bunker while all his grand military plans go to shit around him and fighting with anyone who knows what they're talking about are kind of satisfying.
Overall, while the subject matter is fascinating, the book is organized a little weird — it feels more like several long articles smooshed together than one cohesive work — and it's certainly not a masterpiece of prose styling. I don't know how much of that has to do with the translation and what's because the author isn't a historian and sometimes creative writers trying to write history works really well (see: China Mieville's October) but sometimes it just means they try to get fancy when it doesn't need to be fancy. There are a lot of really bad drug puns that I want to like better than I do; perhaps they work better in German.
Like a lot of nonfiction books that take a specific angle or look at events through the lens of a highly specific topic, Blitzed runs the risk of overstating its case by virtue of it being the only case it's dedicated to stating. Ohler takes pains to point out that being a raging junkie does nothing to absolve Hitler of culpability for his actions, his horrific prejudices, and his inability to see other people as important or real. But it definitely gets a bit "THE THIRD REICH RAN ENTIRELY ON DRUGS" a bit at times and it was probably not as all-encompassing as it sounds. But it's definitely an interesting subject, and I'm sure it'll be an interesting load of information to have floating around in my brain when I read other stuff on Nazi Germany from now on. (I'm also really tempted to rewatch Downfall...)
In conclusion, drugs are bad and always punch Nazis, 'K?