Tuesday, 11 October 2016

"Blitzed" by Norman Ohler - a historian's review

Hitler - cynics say - is the gift that keeps on giving.  He still holds us all, it seems, in his awful thrall.  We are fascinated and appalled by him in equal measure.  But we should perhaps also be grateful - grateful that, where once he inspired genocide and war, now he just inspires occasionally dodgy history.

This last week saw the publication in the UK of "Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany" by German author Norman Ohler.  The PR campaign here in the UK was immense.  Perhaps it was the book's heady combination of "Hitler" and "drugs" that did it; catnip to the media - but it received prominent reviews in the press, alongside a "news" item on the BBC website, which amounted to little more than a breathless extended plug by the author.  Nonetheless, after the book's success when published in Germany last year, I was keen to see it, hoping for a treatment of the subject that would be typically 'Germanic' and thorough.

Ohler's thesis is twofold.  Firstly, he suggests that Hitler himself was addicted to the cocktail of drugs supplied to him by his personal physician; Theodor Morell, which included cocaine, the morphine-derivative Eukodal, and Pervitin; a form of methamphetamine.  This addiction, he says, had political and military consequences, as Hitler's sense of invincibility and his inability to see reason grew unchecked, and - in 1945, when he struggled with the consequences of withdrawal.

The second strand of the book is that - despite Nazism's official disapproval - drug use was actually rather commonplace during the Third Reich and in particular that the use and abuse of Pervitin was widespread, especially in the military.  Pervitin - which induced feelings of euphoria, alertness and diminished inhibitions - was certainly exploited by the German armed forces, and Ohler says, seems to have played a key role in the early successes that are so often attributed to the tactical genius of the Blitzkrieg.

Both these subjects are well worthy of historical examination, yet - for all the hyperbole - neither is entirely new.  Hitler's drug habits have often been discussed in detail - in (for instance) Leonard Heston's "Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler" from 1979 or Ernst-Gunther Schenck's "Patient Hitler" from 1989.  In addition, it is a subject that has been discussed - at least in passing - in all the Hitler biographies, including Alan Bullock's "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" from 1952.  Hitler's drug use has even been the subject of a couple of low-rent TV documentaries in recent years. Ohler's claim to novelty on this therefore, should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.

Where Ohler is rather more novel is in his claims that Hitler was addicted to the cocktail of drugs that he received.  Of course, the honest answer is that we can't know for sure as there is not enough evidence to be had - but I think it is telling that more circumspect commentators - such as Schenck, who was an SS doctor - have concluded that, as far as the evidence allows a conclusion to be drawn, Hitler was most probably not addicted to any of the substances that he was given.  Nonetheless that doesn't stop Ohler from jumping to his sensational conclusion not only that Hitler was addicted, but that the addiction had political and military consequences.

The material on the use of Pervitin - though less spectacular than the tales of Hitler's supposed addictions - is rather more interesting.  Certainly Pervitin use appears to have been widespread before and during the war, particularly in the military - and this has also been written about before - but again Ohler overplays his hand by making some claims for pharmacological explanations for military events that are scarcely sustainable in the sober light of day.

Stylistically, "Blitzed" is very readable; Ohler has written novels previously, and it shows.  But, while his story rattles along well, he rather struggles with the requirements of serious non-fiction.  The twin strands of his narrative are imperfectly spliced, and he undermines his own credibility by adding a smattering of contemporary drug-related words "junkies", "high", "doped up" throughout his narrative.

In sum, there is some engaging and enlightening material here - but very little that has not been said before elsewhere.  All that is provable isn't new; and all that is new isn't provable.  "Blitzed" is certainly sensational - but whether it is good history or not is another matter.


Bootie said...

Thanks... your review is exactly how I imagined it would be. I think I will pass on buying this book as I to was underwhelmed by the 'shock' factor of Hitler and drugs. Its all been said before and to see it embellished further is of no interest.

FalkeEins said...

of course Pervitin was also handed out (massively) to Allied military, especially pilots and aircrew. Of rather more interest - and which may or may not be covered in Oehler's treatise - is the widespread use and abuse of alcohol in the Wehrmacht. Copious supplies of booze appear to have been available and many must have taken refuge in drink, especially considering the pressures they were under. That drunken party in the Reichskanzlei in "Downfall" comes to mind .. Also you don't know how far phrases like "nervous exhaustion" were simply euphemisms or whether they covered 'drying out'. I'm looking at memoirs that feature booze in my Luftwaffe blog soon http://falkeeins.blogspot.co.uk

historian at large said...

I agree entirely - and part of the problem with Ohler's book is that it is rather "unscientifically" done - unusually for a German history book - so it is not at all thorough or comprehensive, just very selective, tendentious even, in its presentation of information. There is a fascinating book to be written about this - including alcohol abuse, as you say - but this is not it.

skin.side.down said...

I'm rather surprised, considering Ian Kershaw's endorsement of the book as a serious piece of scholarship. Moreover, it was my understanding that the author's research into primary sources—including the documents of Martin Bormann and Theodor Morrel—was performed under the direction of Hans Mommsen.

Of course I understand that Norman Ohler is no historian himself—but surely being a non-academic read does not disqualify Blitzed as a work of non-fiction?

Tim said...

As a mental health professional with experience in the substance abuse field, I think it is too easy to dismiss the possibility that Hitler developed an addiction to these substances. Using Morrell's records of drug administration to Hitler and comparing that to what is known to be addiction causing amounts in the general literature, it is quite plausible that Hitler had developed a tolerance and addiction. It may be inconclusive at this point, but from Ohler's book, it appears to be quite thorough investigated. Ian Kershaw, the pre-eminent author who wrote the most lengthy treatise on Hitler finds Ohler's work to be valuable and worth further inquiry.

Unknown said...

Well said.