Recommendation: It sounds zany, but I’m about it
Where to read: In public is fine, just maybe stifle the giggles … looks a bit weird when Hitler is on the cover
Read with: Beer, good old German beer. Or maybe nothing, might be a safer bet
In brief: I have no idea how or why Ohler got into this topic, but the result is a fascinating piece of revisionist/alternative history. Revisionist is probably not the right word given there is not really an established “history of drug use in Nazi Germany” to revise but it is fascinating when new scholarship provides an entirely different lens on historical events. I also respect the hell out of Ohler’s methodology and his description of that methodology throughout the book – fucking love a bit of dirty archive diving.
I am such a fan of books like these – they tickle the (very large) part of me that was obsessed with Horrible Histories growing up and it is fascinating to read different perspectives on history. There is a certain set of assumptions we make about the past and it is glorious having that challenged, particularly when based on solid, old school archival research. I also quite enjoy niche pharmacological explanations for historical phenomena, think “the Salem witch trials were caused by mouldy rye bread”. In this case, it turns out the Nazis were all meth addicts and Hitler was basically a walking pill mill. It’s probably evidence of a personality defect, but there is something deeply funny about a bunch of Panzers tripping balls in the Ardennes.
There are two narratives being teased out here, one being the story of addiction and hypocrisy in the upper echelons of the Nazi Party and German society, and the other being the use of methamphetamines and other stimulants in war. The two do not always mesh, and one seems to stand on far firmer historical ground than the other. Ohler can and does point to a veritable mountain of evidence about drug use and drug development with the German army. I might not be entirely willing to go with the implication that the invasion of the USSR was a failure in part because German soldiers were starting to experience the side effects of long term meth use, but I’m also not willing to discount it as a contributory factor.
There is also a fair amount of evidence about Hitler’s drug use, but the details are more speculative, partly due by the rather idiosyncratic record keeping of his personal physician. That said, I think we can accept at minimum semi-regular use of some pretty heavy-duty drugs and daily use of supplements and some other deeply weird shit. Hazier still are the ways in which this drug use affected Hitler and by extension the course of the war. Most of the assertions make perfect sense and I’m very willing to accept that drug use, particularly opioids, probably affected Hitler’s conduct but there is a fair amount of hypothesising going on.
That said, as I have said many times on this blog, nothing irritates me quite as much as non-historians writing history while ignoring or actively discarding historical methodology and academic standards entirely (cough, Pinker and Diamond, cough). Ohler is a journalist and author by training rather than a historian, but he researched the hell out of this and I have nothing but praise for that. To my mind, some of the most compelling parts of the book are where he talks about his research methods, going through archives looking for primary sources and some of the difficulties involved in studying them, particularly for non-native German speakers. He is also very honest about the shortcomings and gaps in the sources and where he has made assumptions or assertions based on typical drug abuse patterns.
I should note that the translation is …. let’s say blunt. I don’t know if it’s deliberately playing into stereotypes about the German language, but it is quite remarkable. It might be off-putting to some readers but I smashed through it in less than a day.