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4 November 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 5:39am

Nazis on drugs: how the kick of crystal meth powered the Blitzkrieg

From doping at the 1936 Olympic Games to giving soldiers methamphetamine, two new books reveal the drugs that fuelled the Third Reich.

By Gavin Jacobson

Germany has an impressive pharmacological history. Chemists such as Friedrich Sertürner, who discovered morphine in 1804, and Felix Hoffmann, who synthesised aspirin and heroin in 1897, helped to reduce man’s servitude to pain. In 1827, Heinrich Emanuel Merck’s factory in Darmstadt supplied the blueprint for the modern pharmaceutical industry, as first-rate laboratories and chemical plants made the country a global centre of drug manufacturing. Yet it was after the First World War, when Germany was stripped of its colonial possessions in Africa, China and the Pacific, that its opiate production vastly increased. Unlike Britain and France, which could mainline natural highs such as coffee and tobacco from their overseas territories, Germany had to formulate its own artificial tonics. The country needed them, too.

As Norman Ohler writes in his book on the history of drugs in the Third Reich (translated by Shaun Whiteside), the First World War inflicted deep “psychic” pain on the population. People sought chemical flight from the agony of defeat, which opened the way for “a thriving pharmaceutical industry”. By 1926, Germany was the largest morphine-producing state and “a global dealer” in heroin and cocaine.

Berlin quickly became the experimental capital of Europe, with everyone from film stars to doctors snorting themselves into narco-fantasias. The poet Fritz von Ostini captured this saturnalia:

Once not so very long ago
Sweet alcohol, that beast,
Brought warmth and sweetness to our lives,
But then the price increased.
And so cocaine and morphine
Berliners now select.
Let lightning flashes rage outside,
We snort and we inject!

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On coming to power in 1933 the National Socialists agitated against this urban blowout. They weren’t concerned about the harmful effects of drugs; rather, they wanted to replace the nation’s chemical redemption with another kind of social high. “For them,” Ohler writes, “there could be only one legitimate form of inebriation: the swastika.” By placing its rise against the drug culture in Germany, Ohler’s fascinating book illuminates the darkest recesses of the Nazi mind and how the ideology was viewed as the means to national ecstasy. The Nazis “hated drugs because they wanted to be like a drug themselves”.

In the 1930s, doping agents such as Ben­zedrine – the effects of which were on display at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin – compelled German scientists to develop performance-enhancing drugs such as Pervitin, a methamphetamine that produced a superior boost. This became the chemical crutch on which many social circles depended. Secretaries, doctors, businessmen, lorry drivers, writers, nightwatchmen and SS members – all pepped themselves up with the little blue-and-red Volksdroge.

Though they stigmatised drug-takers as degenerate, and often incarcerated them in concentration camps, it wasn’t long before the Nazis began to consider pharmacology as “politics by other means”. Pervitin was soon mass-produced for the army. Ohler’s book is in part a study of chemical warfare. The Wehrmacht used Pervitin to switch off inhibitors and increase a soldier’s energy and awareness. The drug transformed tank commanders into “Teutonic Easy Riders” who could drive all day and night. The Blitzkrieg across Europe was fuelled less by an iron will than by the kick of crystal meth.

When the Nazis invaded France in the summer of 1940, it was more than a military catastrophe for Europe. Intellectuals across the continent recognised it as the demise of a civilisation after the Third Reich began to supplant the liberal-democratic order with the soft power of Nazi-fascist imperialism. As Benjamin G Martin shows in his bold and impressive book, Germany, in close collaboration with Mussolini’s Italy, tried to recast European culture in accordance with their ideological aims. German and Italian economists, legal scholars and political theorists had conceived plans for an integrated European economy, as well as a matrix of transnational laws. But any “new European order” (Neuordnung Europas) required an overriding cultural hegemony.

This cultural alliance was forged in the mid-1930s. With the emergence of the partnership between Mussolini and Hitler, marked by the announcement of the “Rome-Berlin Axis” in 1936, there was a significant rise in intellectual and artistic ­co-operation. Exchange programmes were arranged for musicians, film-makers, artists, scientists and students, and organisations established to appeal to conservatives across Europe. These included the Union of National Writers (founded in 1934), the Permanent Council for International Co-operation Among Composers (1934), the International Film Chamber (1935) and the European Writers’ Union (1941) – fascist counterparts of institutions associated with the League of Nations, such as the International Committee on Intellectual Co-operation.

There were aesthetic and ideological differences between the two countries. While fascism in Italy tolerated modernist art forms such as futurist painting and twelve-tone music, Nazi Germany rejected these as degenerate. A prominent victim of the Nazi drive to “purify” music was the modernist Jewish composer Arnold Schoen­berg, who was forced out of his post at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. His great crime was that he, along with Paul Hindemith and others who were associated with the International Society for Contemporary Music, had incorporated foreign styles and atonal rhythms into the spiritual body of German music.

Another difference was that Italy was slower to purge its cultural life of Jews, whereas the Nazis made this a priority. Although Italy’s representative on the Permanent Council for International Co-operation Among Composers was Adriano Lualdi, whose critique of innovation was spiked with anti-Semitism, Mussolini’s regime initially gave its support to various styles of composition and embraced a strategy of “aesthetic pluralism”. It was only after
1938 and the German-Italian Cultural Accord – a sort of Magna Carta for a new type of cultural relations, according to the Frankfurter Zeitung – that a deeper radicalisation of Italians against their country’s Jewish population occurred.

Yet the crucial philosophical difference between Germany and Italy was over which country possessed the true claim to modernity. Italian fascist intellectuals insisted on the primacy of the Roman and Renaissance traditions, whereas Nazis pointed to their legacy of Kultur. Martin offers keen insights into how the latter rejected the European significance that had long been ascribed to Goethe and recast him as the embodiment of national rootedness and anti-materialist idealism. But, for the most part, these aesthetic and ideological quarrels were overridden by the shared “desire to smash the existing international order”, as well as the superficial, US-hued materialism that dominated European culture.

Martin’s book is a work of great originality because it does not focus on the art, nor on individual artists, film-makers and writers, but instead draws our attention to the policies enacted by the Nazi-fascist regimes to transform the cultural market. Martin shows how even the reform of ­entertainment taxes, royalty payments and artists’ contracts was charged with ideology. Copyright laws, for example, were not just about protecting creative authorship. They reflected the Nazi cult of genius and the notion that all artistic expression must be rooted in the Volk. It was “part of the broader struggle against the commodification of culture”, and a way in which Nazism distinguished itself from the liberal notion of individual moral rights and the com­munist belief in subjugating the individual to the collective.

Of the two books, Ohler’s is the more accessible and makes the most shocking revelations (it was a bestseller in Germany last year). His background as a novelist is especially apparent when he describes the messy psychodrama of Hitler’s creeping drug addiction. Between the autumn of 1941, when he started having hormone and steroid injections, and the second half of 1944, when he became hooked on cocaine and ­Eukodal, he “hardly enjoyed a sober day”.

Ohler captures the close and mutually destructive relationship between Hitler (referred to in the medical records as ­“Patient A”) and Theodor Morell, his personal physician, whose repeated injections ensured the “biochemical entrenchment of the Führer”. With brilliant perceptiveness, he makes parallels between Hitler’s drug abuse and increasing isolation in his Wolf’s Lair military headquarters, and the collapse of the Reich around him.

Yet if Ohler’s book is more attention-grabbing, Martin’s is more urgent. The irony behind the efforts of the Nazis and the fascists to remake the international structures of European cultural life is that they employed internationalist methods. Establishing multilingual journals, conferences, committees and organisations, they offered an image of transnational co-operation. The reason for this was that the Nazis and the fascists tried to resolve the tension between ultra-nationalism and internationalism – to create “an international cultural coalition in defence of nationalist values”. As such, the interwar period was not a ­violent contest between the nationalism of the right and the internationalism of the left, as is commonly thought, but a struggle among rival visions of internationalism and the future of Europe.

The lessons for now are clear. Martin reminds those of us on the left that the likes of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage, as well as right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, desire to reshape the European order in their own image as much as we socialists like to shape it in ours. Ensuring that Europe becomes what Thomas Mann described as “an idea of freedom, of the honour of nations, of sympathy and human co-operation”, is once more the definitive battle of our time. 

“The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture” by Benjamin G Martin is published by Harvard University Press (370pp, £29.95)

“Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany” by Norman Ohler, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is published by Allen Lane (360pp, £20)

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind