Drugs in Nazi Germany: Was Hitler a junkie?

by Jenny Nicholls / 20 April, 2018
Jenny Nicholls looks into Norman Ohler's bestseller on meth, Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler honouring his personal doctor – and class A drug dealer – Dr Theodor Morell with the Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross, on February 24, 1944. Photo/Getty.

Heroin, oxycodone and meth fuelled Hitler and the Third Reich


Throughout World War II, Adolf Hitler’s personal doctor followed him about like a portly shadow. Dr Theodor Morell, dubbed the “Reich Injection Master” by Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring, has until recently been seen as a footnote in Nazi history, an out-of-focus figure invariably hovering in the background of Führer photographs. That is, until the detailed medical notes he kept about the man he called “Patient A” were examined closely by writer Norman Ohler.

The German author of three novels and co-writer of a Wim Wenders film, Ohler makes an unlikely military historian. He was researching a novel when he came across Morell’s notes in an archive and discovered something amazing: “Patient A” was clearly Hitler.

“Once I immersed myself in the archives, I felt an immediate thrill,” he wrote in the Guardian. “I read extraordinary documents that detailed heavy drug use at all levels of the Nazi army and government, and realised this had not been widely discussed before.” 

The novel was set aside, and Ohler the novelist became Ohler the historian. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany is his first work of non-fiction. Originally published in German in 2015, it has since been translated into 18 languages, including last year’s release of an English edition now available here in New Zealand (Penguin, $28).

Although not every military historian has welcomed the work of this novelist upstart, Ohler’s discoveries have powerful defenders – notably Sir Antony Beevor, who called Blitzed “a remarkable scoop, demonstrating that Hitler was a far worse junkie than we had ever imagined”, and Hitler expert Sir Ian Kershaw, who called Ohler’s work “a serious piece of scholarship”.

Ohler’s book opens in the years before Hitler came to power, in a country with a long and lucrative history of chemical discovery. It was a German who first isolated morphine, and another who synthesised Aspirin and heroin. Opiates and cocaine underpinned the booming German pharmaceutical industry. In 1926, Germany accounted for 40% of world opium exports, including heroin, and three German companies controlled 80% of the global cocaine market.

Narcotics also gave Berlin nightlife of the era its famous decadence, as a cabaret song from that time recounts:

Once not so very long ago
Sweet alcohol, that beast,
Brought warmth and sweetness to our lives,
But then the price increased.
And so cocaine and morphine
Berliners now select.
Let lightning flashes rage outside
We snort and we inject!

The snorting and injecting supposedly came to an end after the Nazis seized power in 1933. Their “twin bogeymen”, according to Ohler, were Jews and drugs – and their language conflated the two. Jews were accused by the Nazis not only of masterminding the drug trade but of being a toxin themselves. A Nazi children’s book compared Jews to toadstools.

Addicts and dealers were packed off to ghoulish clinics, where they ran a reasonable chance of being murdered by lethal injection, especially if their “hereditary factors” were “negative”.

Meanwhile, Hitler was promoted as a teetotalling Aryan superman who abstained from all toxins, even coffee. “He is all genius and body,” reported a Nazi official 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.”

Although “Jewish” drugs such as cocaine and morphine were outlawed by the Nazis, a stimulant along the lines of Benzedrine – rumoured to have been used successfully by US athletes in the 1936 Olympics – might help, it was thought, in getting “shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” back to working maniacally for the Fatherland.

Impressed by Benzedrine’s performance-enhancing properties, a Berlin chemist, Dr Fritz Hauschild, went looking for a German version. He did this by adapting a chemical discovered in Japan. His “pep pill” was mass-produced by the Temmler company in 1937, with the sprightly name of Pervitin.

The state-sanctioned drug was an immediate hit. It produced intense feelings of energy and self-confidence, and banished fear, appetite and the need to sleep. No wonder. Each pill contained 3mg of methamphetamine.

Ordinary Germans took to this Volksdroge, or “people’s drug”, with alacrity. For the first two years, you didn’t even need a prescription. “Hildebrand chocolates – are always a delight,” chirruped the slogan for Pervitin-laced sweets. Women were advised that “two or three” of these chocs a day would help them gallop through their housework while remaining slim. Each chocolate contained 14mg of meth.

The applications for a drug that reduced the need for sleep was not lost on an army readying for war. Two years after Hauschild released Pervitin, army medical officers were sending ecstatic reports back to headquarters of the drug’s effects on the men:

 “Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors.”

In his book, Ohler recounts how the German army ordered the astounding amount of 35 million Pervitin tablets from Temmler for their blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) against France in 1940. For the attack to work, troops needed to remain fighting fit for two to three days and nights. A mass shipment of Pervitin was arranged, and meth-fuelled Panzer divisions duly crunched sleeplessly through the forested terrain of the Ardennes and Northern France – without stopping. The French were taken by surprise. The drug had worked, conquering fear, sleep, appetite... and pity.

At the head of the superhuman army was, supposedly, a superhuman leader. But Hitler was far from the toxin-free Übermensch he was marketed as. From late 1943, the despot who led the German war effort and its growing network of death-camps was hooked, not on meth like many of his soldiers, but on cocaine and a potent synthetic opiate known then as Eukodal, and now as oxycodone – hillbilly heroin.

By late 1944, Dr Morell’s medical notes for “Patient A” describe a shambling, constipated, itching junkie, his arms burning with infected track marks.

“At the core of Ohler’s book,” says Beevor, “lie the fundamental paradox and shameless hypocrisy of Nazism. Although it does not fundamentally change the history of the Third Reich, it is an account that makes us look at this densely studied period rather differently.”

According to Ohler, even Mussolini was Blitzed by Hitler:

“The Führer talked for three hours without a break to his beleaguered fellow dictator, who didn’t get a single opportunity to speak... Mussolini had actually planned to convince Hitler that it would be better for everyone if Italy came out of the war... The Duce was talked into the ground by the artificially pepped-up Führer.

“Morell felt vindicated. He seemed to have manoeuvred high-level politics with his injections, and he noted self-importantly: ‘Führer declared in the evening that the success of the day [July 18, 1943] was to my credit.’”

National Socialism (Nazism) was toxic, in the truest sense of the word, says Ohler. “It gave the world a chemical legacy that still affects us today: a poison that refuses to disappear.”

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.

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