Were the Nazis on drugs?

Ben Ray reviews Norman Ohler's bestselling book 'Blitzed'

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Norman Ohler

The Nazi regime was permeated with drugs, from morphine to heroin, taken by almost everyone in the Reich, from soldiers to housewives. This shocking premise is more than enough enough to make Norman Ohler’s bestselling book Blitzed leap out at you, even without the fascinating biography of the author that sits beneath the image of a man with deep, piercing eyes on the back cover.

Norman has written, amongst other things, scripts for film and the world’s first hypertext novel, and has now plunged into archives in Germany and America to unearth new, ground-breaking sources that reveal a dark secret at the heart of Nazi Germany (if that phrase can be used with as little irony as possible).

Taking the reader swiftly through the murky history of narcotics production through to its use in the Third Reich, Ohler’s subject matter is as gripping and engaging as is his accessible writing style. Claiming that large sections of the German public, the army, high ranking Nazis and even the Fuhrer himself were all engaging in a ‘potentially lethal cocktail of stimulants’, and that these drugs were purposefully used to drive the Nazi war machine on to its utter defeat in April 1945, Ohler argues that the ‘wonder drug’ methamphetamine played a major and hitherto undiscussed part in the everyday lives of millions of Germans.

However, there is a twist in this story. This incredible tale of undiscovered drug use in (as every GCSE and A Level student knows) what must be the most studied portion of German history has been called out as being just that — incredible. Certain readers (here I must reference Richard Evans writing in the Guardian) have claimed that Ohler’s historical results are inconclusive and hyperbolised: that, for example, the 35 million tablets of Pervitin (a high-functioning drug inducing crazed energy) ordered for the Western Campaign of 1940 made little difference to the 2.5 million soldiers, as it levels out as 15 tablets per soldier for the entire period. In a similar vein, some onlookers have accused Ohler of going some way to morally absolving the German people, and even Hitler himself, of the actions of the Nazi state: if everyone, as Ohler claims, was almost constantly drugged then they cannot be held entirely responsible for their actions.

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These historical and moral accusations are valid, given the book’s rather sensationalist tone and despite endorsements from historians such as Ian Kershaw — but I must say that this only serves to heighten the reader’s fascination with Ohler’s argument. His consummate skill as a novelist more than makes up for the possible inaccuracies in his work, as shown by the book’s bestseller status in Germany and its choice as Radio 2’s Book Club read. Regardless, and perhaps even partly because of the controversies surrounding ‘Blitzed’, this book is a gripping and exhilarating read. Whether it be the desire to read Ohler’s argument and make your own mind up on this fascinating topic, or even just to be swept away in this rip-roaring adventure that seems to have stepped off a big screen, I would recommend ‘Blitzed’ — it makes for intoxicating reading.