Winston Churchill was utterly flummoxed. The German Army’s unexpected Blitzkrieg through France was an astonishing act of audacity that drove the Allied armies to the brink of disaster at Dunkirk. German tanks and foot soldiers kept on charging forward as though they had no need to sleep and refresh what had to be their collective exhaustion. As a young man, Churchill had been in war. He knew that soldiers in battle eventually required rest. Something here was very different. Wrote the British Prime Minister: “I was dumbfounded. I admit that this was one of the greatest surprises of my life.” At the time, he and many others didn’t know that the enemy advance was powered not by Teutonic valor but by the methamphetamine Pervitin, “National Socialism in pill form.”
Another surprise unfolded at Dunkirk. A “Halt Order” was issued by Germany’s arrogant head Nazi, Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. German ground forces stopped their advance. Perplexed historians have speculated why this odd command was issued just as the German military was on the verge of crushing its opponents. In his splendid work of unique historical research, “Blitzed” author Norman Ohler has offered his take on this event “which cannot be explained rationally.”
As the allies were driven to the seacoast, the Fuhrer’s second-in-command, Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, told Hitler that his aerial Luftwaffe must be allowed to dramatically win the final encounter from the sky. Goering had flown fighter craft during World War I. As an early proponent of Nazism, he had participated in the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923. There, he suffered a gunshot to the groin. He was plagued by pain that he assuaged with morphine.
By the time the Nazis came to power, Goering was a practiced morphine addict. Before his fateful conversation with Hitler, he had given himself an injection and “had overestimated himself in his morphine dream.” Weather mitigated the Luftwaffe’s efficiency. Clouds, British planes and boats came to the rescue of the besieged Allies and enabled close to 350,000 troops to escape safely to England.
With this context, Ohler provides an intriguing pharmacological explanation for the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
A native of Germany, Ohler had written novels prior to undertaking his fascinating work of history. He relates how a friend, a Berlin DJ, informed him that the Nazis were awash in drug use. Intrigued, he thought the subject might make for an interesting piece of fiction. As he scoured scattered records, Ohler found himself in a vast, underexplored territory. Of the voluminous works detailing the rise of the Nazi Party and World War II and of the extensive biographies of Hitler, the intimate role of psychoactive drugs in this story had been largely ignored or misunderstood. In his book, Ohler penetrates some of this opaque history and provides a fresh perspective on a period thought to have been thoroughly examined.
In the 19th century, Germany had some of the most brilliant chemists in the world. In 1827 Emanuel Merck — whose company still bears his name — initiated the modern pharmaceutical industry. Another German company, Bayer, employed Felix Hoffmann who invented aspirin in 1897. Only 11 days later, Hoffmann concocted “the first designer drug,” trademarked as heroin. It was advertised “as a remedy for headaches, for general indisposition, and also as a cough syrup for children.” It was even recommended to babies for colic or sleeping problems.
After World War I, Germany’s defeated Weimar Republic became a “global dealer” in cocaine and heroin. Outrageous scenes unfolded in 1920’s Berlin, where many indulged in all manner of sexual gratification and drug abuse. Said writer Klaus Mann, “We used to have a great army, now we’ve got great perversities.” In 1937 another chemical elixir made its way into German society with the arrival of a new version of methamphetamine — Pervitin. Its use became ubiquitous, supposedly giving many citizens energy and stamina to rebuild the struggling country. It became an ingredient even in candy, the ad gushing: “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight.” Adds Ohler, “This so-called speedamin landed like a bomb, spread like a virus, sold like sliced bread, and was soon as much of a fixture as a cup of coffee.”
Of course, disciplined Nazis ostensibly looked down on any kind of debauchery and indiscipline. On assuming power, they put an end to the excesses and decadence of wild Weimar Berlin. But not quite. The military found a use for methamphetamine. Within the ranks it was no secret. A reluctant recruit in the war machine, young Heinrich Boll — who years later would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature — wrote to his family with this request: “Duty is strict, and you must understand if in the future I write only every 2-4 days. Today I’m mostly writing to ask for Pervitin!” German high command perceived the drug as integral to the war effort.
Ohler brings the opportunistic Dr. Theodor Morell to center stage. Although a genuine physician, there was a good dose of quackery in his brand of medicine. He had made a name for himself as a purveyor of vitamins, a novel subject at the time. His practice included various celebrities and people of means. Accused of being a Jew, Morell soon joined the Nazi Party as a precaution. Before long he became Hitler’s personal physician. The valetudinarian and vegetarian Fuhrer would become Morell’s “Patient A.” By war’s end, Hitler had for years been injected regularly with methamphetamine. That was not all. Hitler would also grow fond of Eukodal injections with its active ingredient, oxycodone. Cocaine would be added to this volatile mix, as well, along with various other substances, some derived from slaughtered animals.
Though a few close to the Nazi leader loathed Morell, the fat doctor was an almost constant presence in the Hitler court. He also plied other members of Hitler’s inner circle with a multiplicity of treatments. It became something of a status symbol to be a patient of the man whose most important charge was the Fuhrer. Until Ohler’s investigation, Morell had been a kind of marginal figure, an overweight curiosity. Ohler asserts that historians and scholars had not sufficiently weighed the critical implications of the relationship between Patient A and his physician. The author asks, “Can historical events and developments be linked to pharmacological preparations?” Ohler answers in the affirmative.
This is an important and revelatory book, a well-written story packed with disturbing information and startling insights.
When it comes to fascism combined with methamphetamine — or not — Just Say No!
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