Tuesday 25 April 2017

High Hitler: Meth in the Nazi madness

History: Blitzed, Norman Ohler, Allen Lane, hdbk, 348 pages, €19

Breaking bad: Adolf Hitler became increasingly dependent on drugs from 1941 onwards
Breaking bad: Adolf Hitler became increasingly dependent on drugs from 1941 onwards
Blitzed by Norman Ohler
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Adolf Hitler, a fanatic in so many ways, was also - as a sort of historical addendum - a health fanatic. One of the worst monsters in history, the personification of evil, responsible for the torture and deaths of millions… and a prissy, sanctimonious moraliser when it came to people's personal choices about what they put in their bodies.

As everyone knows, he was a strict vegetarian. But he was also dogmatically anti-drugs, alcohol and even cigarettes. (This book quotes Hitler being quite - ahem - dictatorial to his lover Eva Braun: "Either you give up smoking or you give up me.")

Early in the Nazis' hideous regime, illegal drug-users were included among the other "social undesirables" being peremptorily rounded up for imprisonment and worse. Drugs were seen as morally degenerate, a sign of mental weakness, and of course - worst of all - imports from "inferior" cultures and races.

They were also associated with the licentious previous regime, the Weimar Republic, and especially anything-goes party city Berlin. Most pertinently, as Norman Ohler points out in this fascinating history, the Nazis were opposed to drugs because they themselves were the only drug allowed.

There was always something pharmacological about that period in German history, psychologically speaking. For the bones of two decades, one of the most civilised nations in the world went insane.

The hysteria, delusion, grandiosity, wild mood swings, unpredictable behaviour, paranoia and sheer operatic madness of it all: in essence, the German people were off their heads. And their fix was Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.

As is common with totalitarian dictatorships, however, there were fundamental hypocrisies. For one thing, a fully legal drug called Pervitin, invented by German chemists, was rampant throughout the Third Reich, to the point where the government had to crack down on its usage. I should add that Pervitin is better known nowadays as methamphetamine, or crystal meth. Yes, the toxic little molecule made famous by Walter White and Breaking Bad was being passed out like sweeties in 1930s Germany. Literally so: you could buy meth-infused chocolates.

And while the Nazis eventually restricted Pervitin for the hoi polloi - and, rather harshly, threw addicts straight into prison cold-turkey - the German army continued to use it. They reasoned, logically if unethically, that a soldier can march further, go without sleep for longer and fight harder if their natural, all-conquering, Aryan super-race excellence is getting a little top-up from the pharmaceutical labs.

Ohler argues persuasively that Germany's Blitzkrieg campaign of early 1940 was made possible by the fact that tank-drivers and infantry were hopped-up to the gills. And they weren't the only ones.

Old Adolf, that self-righteous little weasel, became increasingly dependent on drugs from 1941 onwards. They were administered by Theo Morell, an ambitious and unscrupulous Munich doctor who became Hitler's most trusted aide.

It began with seemingly innocuous stuff: injections of vitamins, plant extracts and so on. This graduated to Eukodal, a semi-synthetic opioid (also invented in Germany, then home of the world's best chemists) - in other words, a cousin of heroin.

Soon, Hitler couldn't do without drugs, though this was never admitted publicly or privately. By the end of his dismal reign, he was hooked on meth and cocaine, too. (Ohler also notes wryly that the strident vegetarian consumed as many animal parts, in medicinal form, as any carnivore.)

So that famous shaking of the hand was probably due to withdrawal as well as Parkinson's. Hitler's increasingly unhinged and irrational - even by his own standards - behaviour and decisions can also be partly attributed to his drug use.

There's much more to this excellent book, which offers a genuinely new perspective on the Nazi horror. Ohler uses the metaphor of drugs to capture the nightmarish mania of that era, but they were more than just metaphor, they were an active agent in the totalitarian nervous system. High Hitler, indeed.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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