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Out of control: drugs in Nazi Germany

April 7, 2017

Open the lid on Nazi Germany and you're bound to be shocked. The level of abuse against humanity was devastating. But as German author Norman Ohler describes in "Blitzed," the Nazis were self-abusers too.

Architekt Albert Speer & Adolf Hitler 1936
Image: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

DW: In your book "Blitzed," you paint a drug-drenched image of Deutschland during the Nazi-era. It's as if everyone was at it. What was the extent of drug use in Nazi Germany - are we talking solely about party members, high ranking officials and the army, or the general public too?

Norman Ohler: We are talking about a society that prohibited the use of drugs. It was the first society on German soil and one of the first societies in the world that had a very strict anti-drugs policy, which the Nazis called "Rauschgiftbekämpfung." When they took power in 1933, they completely changed the government's stance on drugs. So this was not a drug-drenched system at all. It was very clean, sober, just like my grandfather would portray it to me in the 1980s when he said, "Under Hitler, everything was in order." So drugs played no role in that society. At first.

Was that a reaction to the Weimar Republic?

Well, that is the era that has a reputation for drugs, and part of the rhetoric used by the National Socialists during Weimar times was that they would agitate against the liberal spirit of that republic. And early on the chaos of the Weimar Republic was connected to the Jewish influence which was still strong. Jews were connected to drugs early on in the Nazi propaganda.

Buchcover Blitzed von Norman Ohler

So what changed when the drug "Pervitin" arrives on the scene?

In this anti-drug climate, where drugs are the worst thing in the world because they are poison, and the Nazi propaganda is working for a clean system, the big irony is then that the Temmler company in Berlin develops methamphetamine in the mid-30s and brings it onto the market in '38, and it's not even on prescription. It's not conceived as a drug, it's conceived as something that lifts your mood and that lets you be a little more alert and happy. Methamphetamine was even mixed into chocolates. So it wasn't considered a drug; it wasn't like, "Oh, no, the Nazis are running Germany, let's all take drugs!" It was the total opposite. But no one realised that methamphetamine was an addictive substance in the beginning - until the German "Gesundheitsführer," the Health Führer, Leo Conti, realized that Pervitin was causing a problem in the German civilian population. And he actually started to fight against Pervitin; he tried to curb it.

He started a fight but then as you show in the book there are all these tests being conducted within military settings…

Yes, but first these tests were being undertaken in civil German universities, which is even more surprising because universities are supposed to be places of neutral research. But I found quite a few studies done at German universities, especially in 1938 and 1939, when Pervitin became a sensation in a sense. And I describe this in Blitzed as a bottom up development. It was something that the population discovered - no one told them to use it - but then certain psychologists said, there's one I quote in Blitzed, he says: "This is the perfect drug for our time."

Norman Ohler - Autor
Norman Ohler, a journalist by training, researched "Blitzed" for five yearsImage: Joachim Gern

But then there's this other side of it and that is a kind of free experimentation with all kinds of hard drugs, but also softer things as seen through your protagonist, Theo Morell, the Führer's personal physician, his Vitamultin bars and all sorts of concoctions…

I think they were pretty free and also inexperienced compared to today. We know much more about medicine and we're much more careful about which medicines we allow on the market. So I guess then it was a much more naive approach, and Morell just loved to experiment and probably what he gave to his patients, no doctor would do that today. But then again, maybe there are doctors who work in similar ways to Morell. If we look at Michael Jackson's doctor, or what happened to Elvis Presley, and there's this famous Dr. Feelgood in Manhattan, who treated John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. So there is this type of Dr. Feelgood doctor, who is not really there to treat diseases but to help his patients feel good. But this is a little bit different from the Pervitin issue …

Sure. But I suppose the reason I'm trying to bridge the two is because I'm wondering whether drugs are an indicator for how this society, this particular society, lost control.

Hmmm, yes,…

I mean, you describe how Hitler was very straight-edge, didn't want any injections, nothing alien in his body, and then all of a sudden, he wanted it more and more from Morell. He was a junkie for his Morell, his dealer. So is that an indication of how the Nazis lost control?

It's like a mirror, and I would say, yes, it is an indicator. It's a very complex subject. On the one hand you have this strict prohibitionist ideology and on the other hand you have a modern rat-race between individuals within a society, but also between societies, and then once the war starts, obviously this modern competition gets into the highest gear possible, so the Nazis being overwhelmed by their ideology to conquer the whole world then start to use methamphetamine. They give it to their troops - 35 million doses before France is attacked - they push themselves over their limits and this leads to a society going off the rails and a really hard crash in the end. And I think it's similar to what we see today … perhaps not similar … but in the United States today we see heavy opioid and methamphetamine abuse, and I think you're right, it's an indicator that a society is coping in very strange ways with the stress it has within the global society, the stress it creates itself by being a competitive capitalist system. So, yes, I think it is an indicator.

Norman Ohler is the author of "Blitzed - Drugs in the Third Reich," which he spent five years researching. It's his first book of non-fiction. His other writing has been journalism, fiction, and for film. Originally published as "Der totale Rausch" in Germany, the translation has just come out in paperback by Allen Lane / Penguin Random House.

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people