Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28)
Maybe we don’t already know all there is to know about the Nazis, said Antony Beevor in The New York Review of Books. Normal Ohler’s new book doesn’t fundamentally change the history of the Third Reich, but its eye-opening portrait of a culture blitzed on narcotics “makes us look at this densely studied period rather differently.” Ohler, a German journalist and novelist, underscores the astonishing hypocrisy of the Nazis’ public demands for purity of mind, blood, and body. Though we’ve long known that Adolf Hitler was a drug addict late in life, we’ve never had such detail on the cocktails of mind-altering drugs he was being injected with. Nor did we know a methamphetamine pill swept the country in 1938—which may explain how German soldiers stayed awake for days as they stormed into France.
Germany’s drug problem didn’t begin with the Nazis, said Roger Boyes in The Times (U.K.). Unlike France and Britain, post–World War I Germany had no colonies that could provide the citizenry with natural stimulants like coffee or tea. It did, though, have many first-rate chemists, which explains why up to 40 percent of Berlin’s doctors were hooked on synthesized heroin in the 1920s. The Nazis blamed Jewish dealers for the scourge and began jailing and sterilizing addicts. But they also wished to bolster the national mood, and when the meth pill Pervitin arrived, it was gobbled up by students, nurses, housewives, truck drivers—and the military. Ohler’s account of World War II is told through the prism of that pill, and though the telling oversimplifies reality, “it has an uncanny ability to disturb.”
History, alas, is “not quite as simple as we’d like it to be,” said Tim Smith-Laing in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Maybe Pervitin was keeping Germany’s soldiers upright, but “the good guys were getting high, too,” popping Benzedrine, the same amphetamine that helped U.S. athletes triumph at the 1936 Olympics. Scholars have griped about Ohler’s shortcomings as an amateur historian since his book became a German best-seller, and “for all of Blitzed’s serious research, the charge sticks.” The book should be read with a skeptical eye even as its case for a rethink of Hitler’s regime deserves genuine attention. Meanwhile, a juicier story would be hard to find. From start to finish, Blitzed “more than lives up to its promise of upgrading the Third Reich from an empire of hatred, corrupt to its core, to a kind of dope-sick leviathan, one missed fix away from implosion.” ■