Hitler and His Drugs: Inside the Nazis' Secret Speed Craze

Author Norman Ohler on his new book 'Blitzed' and how methamphetamine, oxycodone and morphine fueled the Third Reich

Norman Ohler's 'Blitzed' looks at all the drugs Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich used during the Second World War. Credit: Bettman/Getty

The citizens of the Third Reich were taking speed on a national scale; the German Army's Blitzkreig attack through France was only made possible through the widespread use of Methamphetamine by Wehrmacht soldiers; the Marshal of the Luftwaffe air force, Herman Goring, was a morphine addict; and Adolf Hitler, famous teetotaler and vegetarian, was in truth a hopeless junkie, his final days spent in trembling and sweating withdrawal, his arms covered in track marks, begging for another injection of the haphazard melange of vitamins, hormones, methamphetamine, oxycodone and sometimes morphine which had kept him functioning throughout the war.

It sounds like fantasy, a surreal alternate history from a novel. But this is a true, untold story, uncovered through five years of research by Norman Ohler and published in his book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich this month. Blitzed is the first work of nonfiction for Ohler, a German fiction writer who originally started researching the project with a historical novel in mind. As archival research turned up more and more explosive revelations about the filthy hidden habit of Nazis, Ohler decided the full history – so long ignored or avoided by mainstream historians – needed to be told.

"Historians are too square," says Ohler. "Historians don't know what drugs are. In the Seventies and Eighties, when some of the groundbreaking historical work was being conducted, it might have been politically incorrect to use such a pop cultural angle to explain something so severe. No one dared to rewrite history in such a crazy manner, I suppose."

The substance at the center of Blitzed is Pervitin, a brand-name methamphetamine produced in staggering quantities by the German pharmaceutical industry, then the most advanced in the world. Unlike cocaine, marijuana and morphine, which were seen by the Nazis as decadent foreign bodies polluting the Aryan immune system – just as they saw the Jews polluting the Aryan nation – Pervitin was promoted as the people's drug, a wonder chemical available as a pill, injectable solution, chewing gum or even in chocolates for the fatigued housewife. High on speed, the members of the master race worked, produced and sang the glories of the Fuhrer as never before.

The military application was obvious, and Ohler describes the chemical ignition of the first assault on the Western front with a novelist's flair:

Thousands of soldiers took the substance out of their field caps or were given it by their medical officers. It was laid on their tongues and gulped down with a swig of water. Twenty minutes later the nerve cells in their brains started releasing the neurotransmitters. All of a sudden dopamine and noradrenaline intensified perception and put the soldiers in a state of absolute alertness. The night brightened: no one would sleep, lights were turned on, and the "Lindworm" of the Wehrmacht started eating its way tirelessly toward Belgium… There were no more breaks – an uninterrupted chemical bombardment had broken out in the cerebrum.

Back in the occupied territories, Nazi doctors performed characteristically cruel scientific experiments on Jewish inmates at Dachau and Auschwitz, forcing groups to march in circles without sleep for days to determine whether cocaine or meth was a better stimulant for soldiers, or dosing unwitting prisoners with the psychedelic mescaline to see if it would enhance interrogations – a program later adapted by the United States using LSD.

The widespread use of drugs to get an edge by the numerically-outmatched Nazi army set a precedent that continues to this day. In 2014, the outnumbered and outgunned forces of the Islamic State staged their own blitzkrieg attack across Syria and Iraq, professional armies melting away before them in retreat. It was later discovered that many fighters had been taking a methamphetamine called Captagon. "It's a good drug for a fighter," says Ohler. "It reduces your fear level. Also for suicide missions, which are crazy to carry out because you must be so afraid. The ideology can be strong – but I think an amphetamine would help."

Ohler's most stunning revelations, perhaps, are those about the Fuhrer himself. Hitler was the symbolic apotheosis of the Nazi obsession with health, says Ohler: "I think you can see the Hitler body representing the people's body, the Volkskorper. The Nazi's ideology is all about purity of the blood. This was the strength of the whole movement, this purity of the blood. Blitzed looks into the bloodstream and sees something completely different, that's the big joke of the book."

Ohler enters this bloodstream through the needle of Hitler's personal physician Theodor Morell, the corpulent, sycophantic, rather pathetic quack who was loathed by almost everyone but Hitler himself. Ohler portrays Morell as Hitler's pusher, consistently upping the doses, building up a dependency to ever-stronger drugs – from mere vitamins up to Eukodal, the oxycodone-based "wonder drug" that once earned the highest praise of junk aficionado William Burroughs.

Oiler was surprised during his research to learn of the current oxycodone epidemic in America. "In Germany it's not such a big deal," he says. "I had just learned that Hitler used it so much and then I looked it up and it said something like 'seventh most popular medicine in the United States.' I was quite surprised by that. But then in America you don't mainline it, you swallow it, which is very different. I tried one oxycodone pill from an American friend, and I hardly felt anything. It was I think five milligrams. Hitler had 20 milligrams injected into his bloodstream intravenously."

Asked about a certain current head-of-state whose drug of choice is said to be Diet Coke and whose personal doctor recently admitted to regularly administering hair-loss prevention drugs, Ohler says, "Everyone's drawing these comparisons between Hitler and Donald Trump." But he compares the new American leader to Hiter's drug of choice, instead. "These former industrial zones in the so-called Meth Belt are now broken-down areas where underprivileged white people live, who support Trump and who take a lot of meth and depend on that anticipation that meth creates. You take meth, you think something's gonna happen, something exciting. That's the kind of energy that Trump creates. People get excited and I think that cheap excitement, that fake hope that meth creates is also something that Trump creates. I think Trump is a kind of a personified meth."

Similarly, in Blitzed, Ohler makes it clear that, for most Germans, Nazism itself was the most potent and addictive drug. "The Nazi movement was this intoxicating rebel movement that changed the rules and said: 'We couldn't give a fuck about democracy. We just do it differently,'" he writes. "They didn't convince people with rational arguments, they convinced people with irrational behavior. They had this drug-quality, and they were very effective with dealing with the media. Maybe the Nazis were like the Eukodal of movements."