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The Very Drugged Nazis

Adolf Hitler presenting Theodor Morell, his personal physician, with the Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross at his headquarters, 1944
Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild/Getty Images
Adolf Hitler presenting Theodor Morell, his personal physician, with the Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross at his headquarters, 1944

Norman Ohler, a German journalist, novelist, and filmmaker, was intrigued when a disc jockey in Berlin told him that the Third Reich was riddled with drugs and suggested that somebody should make a film about it. Ohler began to study the subject, thinking at first to write a novel, but then decided not to treat it as fiction, even though he lacked historical training. After his research in German and American archives had progressed, Ohler approached one of the leading German historians of the Nazi era, the late Hans Mommsen. Mommsen was impressed by his findings and became his unofficial supervisor.

At the core of Ohler’s book lie the fundamental paradox and shameless hypocrisy of Nazism. Its ideology demanded purity of body, blood, and mind. Adolf Hitler was portrayed as a vegetarian teetotaler who would allow nothing to corrupt him. Drugs were depicted as part of a Jewish plot to poison and weaken the nation—Jews were said to “play a supreme part” in the international drug trade—and yet nobody became more dependent on cocktails of drugs than Hitler, and no armed forces did more to enhance their troops’ performance than the Wehrmacht did by using a version of methamphetamine. Although Ohler’s book 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.

In the nineteenth century, Germany led the world in chemical and pharmaceutical research. In 1805, while Goethe was writing Faust in Weimar, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner was experimenting with opium poppies in Paderborn and eventually isolated morphine. In 1827, the pharmaceutical industry began with Heinrich Emanuel Merck, an apothecary in Darmstadt who, Ohler writes, had a “business model of supplying alkaloids and other medications in unvarying quality.” A quarter of a century later, morphine became available for pain relief in military surgery.

Germany maintained its lead over the world mainly because the country had so many well-educated chemists. One from the Bayer Company in 1897 synthesized aspirin from willow bark. Eleven days later, the same man, Felix Hoffmann, created diacetyl morphine, which was trademarked as Heroin. Bayer advertised and sold it as a cure for headaches, for cough relief, and to help babies sleep. Profits were enormous. Political and social upheaval only seemed to increase the market. Even in revolutionary Petrograd, the consumption of cocaine soared among young commissars and their mistresses from noble families, as memorably depicted in M. Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine.

In bankrupt Germany after World War I, the psychic and physical trauma of the conflict made Germans desperate for the industry’s products. Opiates were preferred to alcohol, as popular songs in Berlin cabarets revealed:

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!

In 1925 the immensely powerful chemical and pharmaceutical corporation I.G. Farben was created out of an amalgamation of many different companies. In the following year German exports of opium accounted for 40 percent of the global market, while just three German companies controlled 80 percent of the worldwide cocaine market.

The drug-fueled escapism of the Weimar years helped turn Berlin into what Alfred Döblin called the “Whore of Babylon,” while the collapse of the currency in 1923 contributed to the collapse of liberal and conservative institutions and values. For both Communists and Nazis, the impression of total dissolution offered an obvious target. The Nazis seized the opportunity to imply that Jews were behind every aspect of the Weimar Republic, which they called the “Jewish Republic.” Jews were equated with toxins, bacilli, and pathogens.

Having falsely accused Jews of being organizers of the drug trade as well as its main clients, the Nazis, through the Reich Health Office, introduced laws and regulations to control drugs and the lives of addicts. They were termed “psychopathic personalities” and forbidden to marry. Compulsory sterilization was introduced. “For reasons of racial hygeine,” the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring stated, “we must therefore see to it that severe addicts are prevented from reproducing.” The parallel with anti-Semitic legislation, particularly the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, was entirely clear.

In deliberate contrast, the Nazis portrayed Hitler as the archetypal clean-living man, sacrificing himself for his country through overwork. “He is,” the Nazi official Gregor Strasser wrote, “all genius and body. 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.” Rather as Soviet Communists were at one time expected to forswear bourgeois love to focus their emotions on their great leader Stalin, Germans were encouraged to indulge in a collective ecstasy over Hitler. And yet already in the spring of 1936, Hitler started on the path to becoming a drug addict himself, of the very sort that the Nazis wanted to prevent from reproducing.

Dr. Theodor Morell, a specialist in skin conditions and sexually transmitted diseases, had become a member of the Nazi Party in 1933 after someone smeared the word “jew” outside his office (though he wasn’t Jewish). Using his wife’s money, he set up a medical practice on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin and became increasingly fashionable. He prescribed “vitamins” to his growing clientele, but they were often enhanced with testosterone and anabolic steroids for men or an extract of nightshade for women, which gave their eyes a hypnotic effect. He became famous for his dexterity with injections.

In the spring of 1936, a telephone call from Nazi Party headquarters in Munich summoned him to cure Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, of gonorrhea. A plane was sent for him and afterward Morell and his wife were given a holiday in Venice. At a dinner party arranged by Hoffmann, Morell was introduced to Hitler, who talked of his intestinal pains. Morell suggested he might have a cure, and soon the Führer became known in the doctor’s notebooks as “Patient A.”

Morell’s success, according to Ohler, lay in not questioning or touching Hitler too much. Instead he simply provided short-term stimulants with his apparently painless injections. On some occasions he was injecting Hitler several times a day. Depending on his patient’s state of mind and body, the shots could include glucose, cocaine, morphine, and essence of pig’s liver and heart. Hitler, the dedicated vegetarian and teetotaler, saw his intravenous diet of animal extracts and hard drugs as medicine. He furiously rejected any doubts expressed by his entourage about Morell’s treatments. In order to ward off criticism, he even made his doctor an honorary professor. Morell prospered and acquired a handsome villa next door to Dr. Josef Goebbels on Schwanenwerder Island in Berlin, but he had little time to enjoy it.

During this pre-war period, the reviving German economy concentrated on synthetic alternatives for many products—among them Buna to replace rubber and gasoline made from coal. The British naval blockade of Germany in World War I had caused serious shortages of many raw materials, and Hitler was determined that when he next took Germany to war, the country would be fully prepared. Even drugs were synthesized by the major pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer and Merck.

The use of Benzedrine by American athletes in the 1936 Berlin Olympics prompted the Temmler company on the edge of Berlin to focus on creating a more powerful version. By the autumn of 1937, its chief chemist, Dr. Fritz Hauschild (in postwar years the drug provider for East German athletes), created a synthesized version of methamphetamine. This was patented as Pervitin. It produced intense sensations of energy and self-confidence.

In pill form Pervitin was marketed as a general stimulant, equally useful for factory workers and housewives. It promised to overcome narcolepsy, depression, low energy levels, frigidity in women, and weak circulation. The assurance that it would increase performance attracted the Nazi Party’s approval, and amphetamine use was quietly omitted from any anti-drug propaganda. By 1938, large parts of the population were using Pervitin on an almost regular basis, including students preparing for exams, nurses on night duty, businessmen under pressure, and mothers dealing with the pressures of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church—to which the Nazis thought women should be relegated). Ohler quotes from letters written by the future Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, then serving in the German army, begging his parents to send him more Pervitin. Its consumption came to be seen as entirely normal.

Not surprisingly, the military advantages of Pervitin soon became apparent. Professor Dr. Otto F. Ranke, the director of the Research Institute of Defense Physiology, believed that it was the solution to an army’s most critical weakness—fatigue. He began to carry out comparative trials, using Pervitin, Benzedrine, caffeine, and placebos on four separate groups of soldiers performing a range of tasks, both physical and mental. Those given Pervitin increased their output and stamina much more than the other groups, but they made far more mistakes in tests requiring calculation or other intellectual activities. Ranke was not dismayed by this. As far as he was concerned, the most important effect of drugs was the artificially stimulated ability to keep going when enemy troops had collapsed from exhaustion. Ranke was aware of side effects such as sleeplessness and protracted exhaustion afterward, but enthusiasm for the drug spread from the doctors and others who had been involved in the trials.

During the invasion of Poland in September 1939, medical officers reported back enthusiastically to Ranke on the effects of the Pervitin distributed in their units:

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.

Double vision was hardly a beneficial effect for tank gunners, and yet panzer divisions were uniformly excited by the drug’s possibilities. Apart from banishing hunger and stimulating physical and mental activity, it also seemed to reduce inhibitions and fear.

Back in the Reich, however, the minister of health, Leo Conti, became concerned at the way the entire nation seemed to be addicted. Conti made Pervitin available only by prescription starting in November 1939. But the Wehrmacht high command saw no disadvantages, especially for the strategy being developed for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940. This plan consisted of an attack on neutral Holland and Belgium to force the French and British to come to their aid, followed immediately by a deep panzer penetration from the Ardennes in Belgium all the way across northern France to the Somme estuary, thus cutting off the British and French formations. Even Hitler was shaken by its daring, but as the army’s commander in chief recognized, the Germans would have a much higher chance of success if their leading troops could keep going without stopping to rest. Ohler found that the Temmler factory went into overdrive, manufacturing 833,000 pills a day to meet the Wehrmacht requirement for 35 million pills.

General Heinz Guderian told his troops before the attack: “I demand that you do not sleep for at least three days and nights, if that is required.” The speed of the German advance through the Ardennes to the Meuse River took the French army completely by surprise. General Ewald von Kleist’s panzer group was across the river before French divisions reached their positions. The arrogance of victory was of course heightened by the effects of Pervitin. Colonel Charles de Gaulle was enraged when he heard of the enemy panzer crews refusing to accept surrender from French units. They told surrendering French soldiers to throw away their weapons and march to the rear. The German panzer divisions, having outstripped their own supply columns, simply filled up at roadside gas stations or abandoned military barracks.

These panzer troops appeared to the British and French alike to be armored supermen, even though German ground forces were in fact far less mechanized than their own. It was the Wehrmacht’s speed and ruthlessness that defeated the French and British armies, which still acted as if it were 1918. They had no idea how the Germans managed to advance day and night without sleep. The official French report on their defeat described it as a “phénomène d’hallucination collective.”

Ohler is on less certain ground when he ascribes Hitler’s famous order to halt the tanks short of Dunkirk to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s morphine dependency. It is certainly true that Hitler was persuaded by Göring that the Luftwaffe could deal with the British forces cornered there, but there were practical reasons for this advice. The terrain in front of the German forces was criss-crossed with waterways and the ground was too soft for tanks. Their crews were exhausted and the vehicles themselves were desperately in need of maintenance before they were turned around to attack the French and British defensive positions south of the Somme River.

Morell, meanwhile, had ambitious plans. He created a preparation called “Vitamultin” and had it manufactured by a company in which he owned half the shares. The plan was to persuade Hitler to take it regularly as his own personal brand, and then repackage it under different names for consumption by individuals and organizations, from the German Labor Front to the SS. The head of Luftwaffe medical services refused to accept this plan and Morell had him fired. His position as the Führer’s physician was by then unassailable. But Ranke, as head of the military research initiative, rejected Vitamultin for the army and stood firm, although with the approach of the invasion of the Soviet Union he did nothing to reduce the use of Pervitin.

Unlike the invasion of France, Germany’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union could not be won with the Wehrmacht’s secret chemical weapon. The distances were simply too vast. One of the three army groups alone consumed 30 million tablets of Pervitin in the first few months of the campaign, yet it failed to produce a decisive result.

Hitler, now based in his East Prussian bunker headquarters, needed constant attention. From August 1941 to April 1945, Morell was with Hitler 885 out of 1,349 days. He kept very detailed—although chaotic—notes, out of fear that if Hitler died, the Gestapo would punish him particularly. In a desperate attempt to cure “Patient A” of a sudden illness in August 1941, Morell tried everything he could, starting with Vitamultin, as well as the usual stimulants. Soon afterward he began injecting Hitler with other substances, including by-products of uterine blood, the sexual hormone Testoviron, and even Orchikrin, a derivative of bulls’ testicles. The stress of setbacks on the eastern front made Hitler demand more and more of Morell’s drug cocktails.

Morell’s notebooks provided Ohler with a terrifying list of eighty-nine remedies, of which seventeen were psychoactive, consciousness-changing drugs. Day after day, Morell noted “injection as always,” without specifying its contents. What Ohler calls this “polytoxicomania” certainly contributed to Hitler’s fantasies about maps showing German progress as he lost all touch with the reality on the battlefield.

In mid-1943, after the Battle of Kursk, a major disaster for the Germans on the eastern front, and the collapse of Italy, Morell, fearing that he could not cope with Hitler’s deteriorating condition, resorted to an even stronger drug, Eukodal, a synthesized form of opium. But the Wehrmacht’s retreats and defeats, especially in North Africa, meant that Germany could no longer obtain supplies of raw opium. Morell, by now a very rich man with all the different factories and pharmaceutical enterprises he had been acquiring through the shameless exploitation of his position, combed occupied Europe to obtain the supplies he needed to keep the Führer happy.

In the attempt to assassinate Hitler at his East Prussian headquarters on July 20, 1944, his eardrums were perforated by the bomb explosion. He was treated by the specialist Dr. Erwin Giesing with cocaine on fifty occasions in seventy-five days. Hitler loved the effect of cocaine and badgered Giesing for more, but in October, Morell put him back onto Eukodal. Not surprisingly, a doctor’s war developed between the two men. Giesing accused Morell of poisoning the Führer, but he chose the wrong drug to attack, and Hitler refused to abandon his personal physician. All of this coincided with planning the attack that, in Hitler’s fantasy, would be a turning point in the war: the Ardennes offensive. (In the month before the start of the campaign, Ohler writes, high doses of cocaine and Pervitin had been administered to a unit of prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who for four days were sent on long forced marches “to establish the tolerability and effectiveness” of the drugs in great volume.)

Whether Hitler’s trembling hands were the result of Parkinson’s or the direct consequence of excessive drug use is impossible to say, but the deterioration in his appearance toward the end of 1944 shocked many who had not seen him since earlier in the year. By February 1945, supplies of Eukodal had begun to run out, and Hitler was soon suffering withdrawal symptoms as the end approached in the Führerbunker in Berlin. Albert Speer complained that history always emphasized terminal events, and thus overlooked the early achievements of Nazism. He could not have been more wrong. The ghastly and grotesque end of the Third Reich revealed its true basis of lies, hypocrisy, futile slaughter, and pointless cruelty.

It is not hard to see why Hans Mommsen was fascinated by Ohler’s research. He was the leader of the functionalist school, which believed in the chaotic nature of the Nazi regime and that Hitler was a “weak dictator.”* Nothing seems to demonstrate this better than Hitler’s drug addiction. Ohler’s book may well irritate some historians; he makes flippant remarks and uses chapter titles such as “Sieg High!” and “High Hitler.” But as Ian Kershaw, the great biographer of Hitler, has recognized, he has written “a serious piece of scholarship,” and one that is very well researched.

  1. *

    Ian Kershaw, “Hans Mommsen Obituary,” The Guardian, November 12, 2015.