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.…

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