In his new book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, German author and journalist Norman Ohler documents a compelling facet of Nazi Germany — the regime's systematic drug abuse. Drawing on a wealth of archival research that Norman conducted in Germany and the United States, the book is a gripping look at how the Third Reich used everything from cocaine, heroin, morphine and methamphetamine to boost their soldiers' resilience and keep Hitler himself in a state of dangerous euphoria.
Ahead of his Sydney Writers' Festival appearance, we caught up with Norman to find out more about his work, and what he looks to for refuge in an uncertain world.
SWF: Your book looks at the history of Nazi Germany from the angle of its drug use — what was it about the topic that first drew you in?
Norman Ohler: Reading the notes of Dr. Theo Morell, Hitler’s personal physician, at the Federal Archives of Germany was like sitting in a time capsule, going back, and sneaking into the innermost secret room of the regime. I was hooked from the start.
It's an area that hasn't received all that much critical attention from historians and scholars. What’s the reaction been like from the academic community?
Ian Kershaw, the leading expert on Hitler, said he found Blitzed 'very good and extremely interesting, a serious piece of scholarship'. Antony Beevor praised Blitzed in his review for The New York Review of Books, and the late Hans Mommsen — perhaps the leading historian on National Socialism in Germany — said the book 'changes the over-all picture.'
What was the most interesting or unexpected fact you discovered in the course of your research?
That the Nazis worked on brainwashing techniques that US intelligence later adopted, and expanded on.
'Non-fiction is a tighter genre, and therefore it might be easier to handle. Then again, what is easy in writing a book?'
Who was the most interesting person you spoke to in the course of your research?
I enjoyed talking with Dr. Peter Steinkamp who is a leading expert on meth abuse in the Wehrmacht, and also to Dr. Volker Hartmann from the Bundeswehr, who taught me that the German Navy was also involved in war crimes. And he let me know what drugs the special forces of the current German Army took in Afghanistan.
You started your career writing fiction, and then moved onto non-fiction — which process do you prefer?
Non-fiction is a tighter genre, and therefore it might be easier to handle. Then again, what is easy in writing a book? The novel opens its own vast field — one can get lost. But it can also be very rewarding, and offers fruits a non-fiction book can never yield.
Which writers do you most admire and why?
I love certain books, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I would love to find out how the latter was researched.
Complete this sentence: For me, refuge is…
…finding peace and quiet.
Is there book (or piece of writing) that you consider to be your sanctuary?
The work of Shakespeare.
What physical environment is your favourite place to read?
The beach, of course.