Was Hitler a Junkie?

And why it doesn't matter, according to historian Jonathan Lewy, a scholar of Nazi drug use

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Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler.Credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbe
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

What made you decide to study the history of drugs?

It was by chance. I’m not a pothead. The world of drugs intrigued me, possibly because it’s alien to me. Doing my master’s degree, I found myself in Munich on a particularly generous scholarship. I was looking for a thesis subject and realized that drugs and Nazis could be quite an interesting connection. Subsequently, my doctorate dealt with the history of drugs in Germany and the United States, from the beginning of the 19th century until 1945, the end of World War II. Afterward, I did a postdoc at Harvard and also decided to leave the academic world. A few years ago, I published my book, “Drugs in Germany and the United States, 1819-1945: The Birth of Two Addictions” [published in English in 2017].

So, was Hitler a junkie?

Really, now.

I’m kidding. In the first sentence of your book, you say that everyone who hears about your area of research immediately asks whether Hitler was an addict.

That claim is older than I am. Every few years some historian or journalist tries to hitch a ride on that allegation.

Let’s first try to understand the broader context. What sort of narcotic drugs were rampant in the period you studied?

The drug of drugs then was morphine, both in Germany and in the United States.

Hard to believe that it was legal, that in Germany you could buy narcotics at any pharmacy, that Bayer, the pharmaceuticals company, manufactured and sold heroin.

There was a tremendous demand for them. Over and above their function as painkillers, drugs also relieved other problems, such as coughing, digestive difficulties and so on. However crazy it may sound today, in the 19th century you could buy top-quality cocaine in drugstores very inexpensively. For a long time, you didn’t even need a doctor’s prescription.

The profile of the addicts was also completely different: physicians, nurses, upper-middle and upper classes.

You know, that’s one of the most interesting points. Despite the permissive policy, the consumption of drugs in Germany wasn’t high, compared to the United States, as far as the comparison can be made. The Germans report an almost negligible proportion of addicts.

We also know about a stimulant called Pervitin, a methamphetamine – like crystal meth in our time, say. It’s known that it was widely sold and that it was so prevalent that it became known as the “housewives’ drug.”

Yes. It was legal. “Housewives’ drug” was just a marketing term. Look, in Germany, drugs weren’t perceived as something so awful. The Nazis, too, didn’t change that attitude.

To the best of your knowledge, is it true that every social class used Pervitin?

I know that it existed, that it was widespread. How widespread? I don’t know. There are data: how much was manufactured, how much of that was earmarked for civilian consumption and how much for military consumption.

It’s known for certain that 38 million Pervitin tablets were sent to the front for the invasion of France [in 1940].

It’s known that the army bought 38 million Pervitin tablets. I find it difficult to be impressed by that number. How many Wehrmacht soldiers were sent to the front? Two million. Let’s assume they took the tablets during the invasion itself, which lasted six weeks. Thirty-eight million tablets divided by two million soldiers for six weeks. How many tablets is that per soldier? Not many.

Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trial, in 1946. The one top Nazi who was a drug addict. Credit: Getty Images

What about all the stories regarding drug consumption among the Nazis’ top ranks?

I’m not interested in stories. I only know what I read, in archives or in studies. At the dry factual level, only one top Nazi was a drug addict.

Hermann Goering.

Yes. And we also know why. [Luftwaffe chief and leading political figure Goering was wounded in the Nazis’ attempted putsch of 1923, was treated with morphine and developed an addiction.]

Three years ago, the German journalist Norman Ohler published a book, “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich.” The book made a lot of noise, in part because Ohler claims that Hitler was a junkie. I would guess that you don’t buy that theory.

I think his argument is esoteric.

You know that he did in-depth historical research. That he examined, for example, the prescriptions of Hitler’s private doctor, Theodor Morell, and that his finding was accepted by leading historians, such as Anthony Beevor and Ian Kershaw.

I knew about Beevor, but regarding Kershaw – you surprise me. Most German historians maintained publicly that Ohler is a liar. In my view, he truly is a liar. There is something very important to notice about this book: There’s a difference between the English version and the German version. In the German version, Ohler writes, in the introduction, that he fills in the lacunae in the prescriptions to the best of his understanding.

What do we know for certain?

We know that Hitler met with Dr. Theodor Morell.

Met? Morell treated him on a daily basis.

He was his close personal physician, like many leaders have. Unfortunately for us, Morell was not a very meticulous physician and did not keep an orderly record of the many and varied substances that were administered to Hitler. One of the substances he gave him was Pervitin. How much? I don’t know. In what dosage? I don’t know. Norman Ohler doesn’t know, either.

We know that Hitler received injections.

That’s true.

Many. Hundreds, actually, and those are only the documented ones.


We don’t know what the injections contained. There’s a host of accounts – about stimulants, vitamins, probiotics, hormones, steroids.

Adolf Hitler and his staff in June 1940. His private doctor, Theodor Morell, is fourth from the right.Credit: Das Bundesarchiv

Only in some of the cases does documentation of the substances themselves exist. Morell didn’t bother to record what exactly he gave. There is an absolute consensus that Hitler took many medications for gas.

And they say that Germans don’t have a sense of humor. Have you seen Morell’s prescriptions?

Yes, but they didn’t interest me. It’s just a curiosity to me. It’s not important.

What is important?

Hitler was an important person. An important person, but one person. He is not the main thing. There is a whole apparatus that is doing things. There’s a general staff, generals, divisions, soldiers. There are countless people and countless processes that are taking place in parallel. So it’s true that he exerted an influence – and, by the way, toward the end, even that’s not so true, because he was ignored or was lied to, etc. But never mind, let’s say Hitler was addicted to drugs. What then? It’s a curiosity. It’s nice. It helps sell books. What does it tell me about the history? And if I told you that Churchill took drugs, too? His personal physician gave him stimulants. Does that change your perception of him now?

Some draw a connection between the drugs that Hitler received or took and his decision-making.

As Kershaw writes in his biography of Hitler, Hitler’s personality did not change after he met Morell, so it’s difficult to prove that the drugs actually influenced his personality. He was always an aggressive person. He was anti-Semitic years before he came to power. Moreover, let’s say he really was a drug addict. What does that contribute to our knowledge? Every military historian will tell you that to link his military failures to his drug habits is simply unfounded and ridiculous. Would he have behaved differently if he hadn’t taken drugs? That’s doubtful. He believed that another world war was inevitable and he believed that he would lead Germany to victory in that war.

Let’s say it really isn’t important. What do you think? Was he addicted?

Define “addicted.” Define “addiction.” I’ve been preoccupied with this subject for many years and I’ve read innumerable studies. To begin with, the concept of addiction is relatively new. If you’d gone to a doctor 200 years ago and told him that you were addicted to alcohol, or to opium, he wouldn’t have understood what you were talking about. He’d have advised you to talk to a priest about it.

In other words, the concept was that addiction did not belong to the realm of the clinical but to the moral or ethical realm.

What kind of sickness is it, if the only indication you have for it is the patient’s testimony?

What do you mean? Heroin addiction has physical symptoms.

Why? Let’s say you’re addicted to heroin and I lock you in a room for two weeks. You will experience withdrawal symptoms and then they’ll stop. What kind of sickness is that?

So you refer only to the physical dependence on drugs. What about all the psychological mechanisms of addiction? What about the mental dependence?

That too is a relative question. I have no understanding of psychology. I understand history. Historically, addiction is a new phenomenon. More than that – what is a drug, actually? I used to ask my students what an illicit drug is. In the end, somehow, they would all arrive at one definition: A drug is something that affects the brain. Well? Sugar also affects the brain. So does alcohol. In the end, it’s the law that determines what a drug is. And the law is enacted by people for political reasons. I take pseudoephedrine [Sudafed], because I have allergies. Why is that legal, but Ecstasy isn’t? There’s no clinical or scientific tool that decides for us and says: This is a drug and this isn’t. I suggest not opening the new D.S.M. [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] or searching the World Health Organization’s website to find out what addiction is. You’ll emerge very confused.

Jonathan Lewy. “I began this research with the prevalent assumption that the Nazis persecuted drug addicts. I discovered that it just wasn’t so.” Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

What about the destruction of the body caused by the use of hard drugs? What about overdosing? Isn’t that an indication that the drug is a drug?

No. It’s poisoning. And you can also become poisoned from taking a lot of Acamol [paracetamol]. That’s no indicator. I understand that this sounds very peculiar, and the reason it sounds very peculiar is that for a great many years we’ve been told a tale about drugs and about what drugs are, and it’s an American story. It didn’t exist elsewhere.

Such as in Germany, for example.

Indeed. The American narrative, which is also our narrative now, draws a link between morality and drug use. Long before the invention of political correctness, addiction to drugs or alcohol was considered a moral disease. The Americans invented that term: “moral disease.” In 19th-century America, physicians refused to treat drug addicts who came to them for help. Furthermore, drugs were identified with race – the Chinese with opium, blacks with cocaine and later with crack cocaine, Hispanics with marijuana. Who entered that vacuum? The law. Anyone who dealt with drugs went to jail. In Germany, which in the 19th century was at the vanguard of the medical sciences, addiction was considered a sickness. If an addict came to a physician, the physician would say: I will treat you.

Is that a threat or a promise?

Yes, today it sounds a bit cruel. It was cold-turkey treatment: The individual was locked in a room for a week and allowed to go berserk while the body excreted all the toxins, and then he emerged a new person. As far as the Germans were concerned, he was healthy. We aren’t mentioning the word “mental,” because they didn’t mention it, either. It simply didn’t exist.

How convenient.

By the way, to be able to do this, the Nazis took the trouble to change the law. Until they came to power, the law, which was enacted in 1872, stipulated that a sick person did not bear criminal responsibility. A sick person, for this purpose, is also one who’s sick with conditions relating to the use of morphine or alcohol, and the like. That was a problematic clause, and many attempts were made to amend it, but the German governments, until the Nazi regime, simply weren’t strong enough. In the winter of 1933, the Nazis passed a law allowing them to place drug addicts in coercive hospitalization, at the public’s expense. I think that even today there aren’t many countries that are willing to treat drug addicts with such generosity.

Hats off.

I wasn’t being facetious. Think about it: Doctors treated addicts, and the state prosecution followed the progress of the treatment. That was so rare at the time. Maybe it still is. In my eyes, it changes something about our perception of the Nazis.

Because they treated drug addicts? I’m not sure I understand.

In my opinion, they truly thought they were going to make the world a better place – if you examine their actions, in the mirror of their understanding of humanity in biological terms only, in the mirror of their ambition to carry our purification in order to enhance the nation.

The race.

It’s one and the same to them. The race is the nation. Take note of which diseases they chose to treat, and how they treated them. For example, they chose to treat drug addicts, and at public expense, whereas people with other diseases – including alcoholics, by the way – were castrated or coercively sterilized.

Because the tendency to alcoholism is genetic?

Yes. But at the time it wasn’t called that, it was called a hereditary disease. The treatment is actually a derivation of the disease. Hereditary diseases, from their point of view, are not treatable. Only by extinction. In contrast, they do want to treat nonhereditary diseases, and are even willing to invest public funds for that. So, through the biological spectacles of inheritability, it’s possible to understand why some groups were perceived as enemies, while others were left alone. Let’s take a moment to make a list of all the Nazis’ enemies.


What’s the problem there? What makes you a Jew?

Heredity. Ditto for Gypsies, let’s say. What about communists? That’s not hereditary, as far as I know.

True, but the communists aspire to equality. That’s their ideal.

Equality between all the races. Heaven forbid. What about gays?

Homosexuality is actually an interesting point, because homosexuals weren’t really considered a serious enemy of the Reich. The legislation against them was enacted long before the Nazis were in power. Ernst Roehm [leader of the SA Storm Troopers] was Hitler’s good friend, and Hitler had no problem with his being an open homosexual. The problem started when he needed to get rid of him. And then, after the Night of the Long Knives [June 30, 1934], persecution of homosexuals began, but again, relative to their proportion of the population, the numbers of homosexuals who were executed weren’t all that great. But the persecution of homosexuals also has a simple biological explanation: They don’t reproduce.

And that’s something the Nazis didn’t like.

Cocaine (Illustrative)Credit: Volodimir Khomiakov / Getty Image

Absolutely not. There are two more small and negligible groups that were persecuted because of loyalty problems – Freemasons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – but that’s a problem evident in many dictatorships, which don’t like secret societies. By the way, after the Jehovah’s Witnesses swore allegiance to Hitler, there was no longer any problem with them. Hereditary or not hereditary – that’s the story. If it’s hereditary, we’ll kill them; if it’s not hereditary, we’ll treat them. Drugs were never a big deal for the Germans. All the drug laws in Germany are the result of outside pressure.

I think the first policy revisions occurred in the wake of World War I.

That war is of vast importance in regard to drugs. Cocaine was needed as an anesthetic for performing surgery in the field. Morphine was also needed, of course. So there were immense quantities of drugs, and the countries [at war] were apprehensive that civilian consumption would deny soldiers access to the reserves of drugs. As a result, England, France and Germany passed laws to prevent the diversion of drugs to the civilian market – but the usage itself wasn’t considered criminal, at least not in Germany. In 1912, a first international agreement against drugs was signed at The Hague. Germany saw to it that without its ratification the agreement would not come into effect, and of course did not ratify it. Germany was forced to ratify it retroactively, as part of the Versailles Treaty, when the Americans and the British took advantage of Germany’s defeat to force it to diminish its role in the international drug trade.

Germany, as the world’s largest drug manufacturer at the time, clearly had no interest in being part of these agreements. By the way, I found a letter in a German archive in which the country’s interior minister, Wilhelm Frick, simply reproaches Hitler and explains to him that Germany must go along with the international agreements against drugs, in order to placate the surrounding countries.

So there was a certain awareness that their policy on drugs was exceptional.

Yes. Of course. Look, from my point of view, one of the most jolting findings of my research is that all the drug addicts who were treated by the Nazis or by the German health authorities during the period of the Third Reich, survived.

Define “survived.”

The accepted method was to place addicts in a six-month treatment regimen and then release them. Everyone who underwent cold-turkey treatment remained alive at least until 1945. They survived the war and remained alive at a time when the mortality rate was particularly high. I examined a very large number of cases. In fact, all the records in Bavaria, Berlin and Brandenburg survived the war, and with the exception of one case, which wasn’t documented properly, I found no instance in which an addict was put to death by his physicians as part of the plan [Aktion T4, the Reich’s euthanasia program]. Effectively, the addicts had a higher chance of survival than any other Germans. The authorities really didn’t persecute them and didn’t kill them, but treated them.

You know, even if we accept your argument that Hitler’s drug consumption was of no significance, there’s a certain importance attributable to the fact that a person who preached clean living so ardently was actually a drug addict.

Hitler was an ascetic. He was proud that he stopped smoking by his own willpower, as can be read in the conversations recorded by his private secretary, Martin Bormann. Nazi Germany tried to reduce tobacco consumption among its citizens and in fact was the first modern state to begin enacting laws restricting smoking among young people. But Hitler didn’t think of imposing a total ban and he also expressed his desire to import tobacco from abroad after the war. Naturally, Nazi propaganda made use of that, juxtaposing the strong, modern, nonsmoking leaders, such as Mussolini, Hitler and Hirohito, to the obsolete, fat leaders who smoked endlessly – like Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. That’s propaganda, not a program. During the war, Germany even supplied cigarettes to its soldiers.

We in the 21st century, having been brought up on American ideology, think of drugs as something dirty, used by people on the fringes of society. That American perception was simply nonexistent in Germany. Drug addicts weren’t considered “antisocial,” not even under the Nazi regime, though [security chief Reinhard] Heydrich made a brief, unsuccessful attempt to categorize them that way. The important point is that drugs were never considered a dirty substance in Germany, so that whole question is really out of place.

You know, you chose to study a very specific question, one with sensational potential. What did you learn from that question about the big picture, about German society and the processes that unfolded in it?

When a comparison is drawn between the drug policy of Nazi Germany, which by any account was an appalling dictatorship, and the drug policy of the United States, the model of liberal democracy, we see that the Germans, during all periods, treated addicts better than the Americans did. Whereas the Americans simply incarcerated them, and in large numbers, the Germans chose to treat them. That stems from their different worldview. The Americans viewed addicts as immoral people who had to be imprisoned; the Germans viewed them as sick people who could be cured.

Again, because the source of the addiction isn’t biological or hereditary, [the Germans felt] it should be treated. If it had been biological or hereditary, it would have been the Reich’s obligation to destroy it. Effectively, it was the Nazis’ worldview that spared the addicts’ from being exterminated. I began this research with the prevalent assumption that the Nazis persecuted drug addicts. I discovered that it just wasn’t so. For me, that sharpened the distinction between those whom we wish to help and those whom we wish to isolate and at a certain stage possibly also eliminate. That’s the key.

As a result, I started to look at them a little more seriously. It’s very easy to say that the Nazis were crazy. They were not. Tens of millions of people don’t get up one morning and decide to go crazy. They were not crazy. They were human beings. This was their worldview, and appalling as it was, they believed in it.

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