High Hitler: how Nazi drug abuse steered the course of history
|Adolf Hitler awards the Merit Knight Cross to his private doctor, Theodor Morell, in February 1944. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images|
Telephost - German writer Norman Ohler’s astonishing account of methamphetamine addiction in the Third Reich changes what we know about the second world war.
The German writer Norman Ohler lives on the top floor of a 19th-century apartment building on the south bank of the river Spree in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Visiting him there is a vertiginous experience. For one thing, he works – and likes to entertain visitors – in what he calls his “writing tower”, a flimsy-seeming, glass-walled turret perched right on the very edge of the roof.
(Look down, if you dare, and you will see his little boat moored far below.)
For another, there is the fact that from this vantage point it is possible to discern two Berlins, one thrusting and breezy, the other spectral and grey. To our left, busy with traffic, is the Oberbaum Bridge, where there was once a cold war checkpoint, and beyond it the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, its doleful length rudely interrupted by the block of luxury flats that went up in 2013.
As for the large building immediately opposite, these days it’s the home of Universal Music. Not so very long ago, however, it was the GDR’s egg storage facility.
Does all this press on Ohler as he sits at his desk, the light bouncing off the screen of his laptop? Is it ghostly sometimes? “Yes, it is strange,” he says, smiling at my giddiness. But then he has long believed in a certain kind of time travel. “I remember the 90s.
The wall had just come down, and I was experimenting with party drugs like ecstasy and LSD. The techno scene had started up, and there were all these empty buildings in the east where the youth [from east and west] would meet for the first time. They were hardcore, some of those guys from the east – they didn’t understand foreigners at all – and the ecstasy helped them to lose some of their hatred and suspicion.
Sometimes, then, you could step into a room, and you could just see the past. Of course, it’s not like that now. I don’t take drugs any more. But I can remember it, and maybe that was why I was able to write this book.”
The book in question is The Total Rush – or, to use its superior English title, Blitzed – which reveals the astonishing and hitherto largely untold story of the Third Reich’s relationship with drugs, including cocaine, heroin, morphine and, above all, methamphetamines (aka crystal meth), and of their effect not only on Hitler’s final days – the Führer, by Ohler’s account, was an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers – but on the Wehrmacht’s successful invasion of France in 1940.
Published in Germany last year, where it became a bestseller, it has since been translated into 18 languages, a fact that delights Ohler, but also amazes him.
It’s not only that he is – as Der Spiegel helpfully pointed out – a non-historian (the author of three novels and the co-writer of the Wim Wenders film Palermo Shooting, this is his first work of nonfiction). It’s that there was anything new to be said at all. Arrange all the books that have been written about the Nazis end to end and they’d be longer than the Spree.
“I guess drugs weren’t a priority for the historians,” he says. “A crazy guy like me had to come along.” Still, crazy or not, he has done a remarkable job. If Blitzed is gripping, it is also convincing. Ian Kershaw, the British historian who is probably the world’s leading authority on Hitler and Nazi Germany, has described it as “a serious piece of scholarship”.