16 April 2018

Book Review - Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi German - Norman Ohler (2016)


Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler (cover from Amazon)
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
by Norman Ohler
(cover from Amazon)
The Book
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. Norman Ohler. Penguin Books. 2016.

Summary
This book was originally published in German in 2015, translated into English for 2016, and I got my hands on a copy a few weeks ago. It's been translated into 25 languages and received rave reviews by numerous journalists. On the other hand, a fair degree of controversy has also swirled around the book. Some argue that the author, a novelist by trade, has taken some liberties with history and fictionalized it to such an extent that it is no longer accurate.

The book examines the use of opioids, methamphetamines and other stimulants by the Germans during the Second World War. Pervitin, a methamphetamine, has a starring role, particularly during the Blitzkrieg invasion of France and the Lowland Countries in May 1940. Most of the author's focus lies with Hitler and his personal physician, Theo Morrell. Was Hitler a drug addict? Did Morrell prescribe him a potent cocktail that included cocaine, oxycodone, methamphetamines and others? There is no doubt that Hitler did receive all of these drugs, but the question seems to be "how much". The author notes that some researchers believe Hitler was a victim of Parkinson's disease but critics have noted that he fails to really engage with the other literature. His sole focus is on the drugs that were administered to Hitler.

The main concern of critics is that Ohler lets Germans and Hitler off the hook for the crimes of the Second World War. Ohler does note in one paragraph that "[Hitler's] drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his senses and he knew exactly what he was doing.... He was anything but insane." Critics note that this one paragraph does not negate the general trend of the rest of the book, in which Hitler can be seen as being a victim of drug addiction and his drug dealer (Morrell). Some go so far as to dismiss Ohler's book as "revisionist" history. Given that history is generally written by the victors, and is therefore necessarily one-sided, I wonder if there isn't a lot more to be uncovered that will rewrite the history books. Maybe history isn't as black and white as we like to think? I sometimes wonder if the "serious" historians have a tendency to dismiss the "amateurs" and their theories. Ohler's book gives us a new lens through which to view the events of the Second World War. Is it accurate? Only time will tell.

Review
I found this book eminently readable, despite some of the pharmaceutical language. Ohler writes in a style that is very approachable. It helps that the story is quite fascinating. I was initially interested in reading the book because Josef Jakobs had a capsule of Pervitin (methamphetamine) in his pocket when he was captured by the British. I wanted to know more about the use of Pervitin in the German system, and this book has definitely answered a lot of my questions.

As for the whole Hitler issue - I would say that the issue is a complex one. Some researchers have concluded that Hitler suffered from Parkinsons Disease. Ohler suggests that Hitler was a drug addict. Perhaps both are true. New theories are always helpful, to my mind. Whether they stand the test of time is another thing.

Review Score
4.5 out of 5 - this book sheds a different light on some aspects of the Second World War

Other Reviews
The Guardian - Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler review – a crass and dangerously inaccurate account
The Guardian - Interview with Norman Ohler
New York Times - High on Hitler and Meth: Book says Nazis were fueled by Drugs
National Post - Hitler was on cocaine and his troops were on meth: Author reveals deep influence of drugs in Nazi Germany

No comments: