Hitler's Doctor Said the Dictator Almost Died from a Cocaine Overdose
An assassination attempt got Hitler addicted to "that cocaine thing," according to a new book.
The following is an excerpt from Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler. Ohler spent five years researching the book, examining medical records, diary entries, letters from Nazi officials, and military briefs housed in the national archives in Berlin and Washington, DC. Despite this significant legwork, the book's veracity has been called into question by some critics, and, in the preface to the bestselling German edition of the book Ohler himself admits to employing a "distorted perspective." Still, renowned Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw called the book "a serious piece of scholarship," and a starred review in Kirkus concludes it "adds significantly to our understanding of the Third Reich." This story appeared in the March Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
Operation Valkyrie and Its Pharmacological Consequences
The park around the Wolf's Lair was resplendent with lush green, the summer was hot, the forest shimmered, and Theo Morell fastened a facial mosquito net over the visor of his fantastical uniform cap. The wooden barracks of the führer's headquarters had been given a splinter shield of strong reinforcing walls, Goebbels was smoking again, and on July 20, 1944: "Patient A 11:14 injection as always." On the file card the procedure is recorded as "x."
Pharmacologically pepped up, Hitler ran to the ground-floor building in which the military briefing was being held on this fateful day. Some officers were already waiting outside the door. The dictator drew his strong eyebrows together so that the ridge above them became more defined, and shook hands with everyone around him. He then stepped into the interior of the barrack, whose windows were open against the oppressive heat. While the remaining 24 participants were grouped around a long oak table, he alone sat down on a stool and began to play with a magnifying glass. Lieutenant General Adolf Heusinger, who stood on his right, morbidly described the desolate situation on the Eastern Front. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who had arrived a little late, shook hands with Hitler and shoved his brown briefcase under the table, as close to his target as possible. A little later he left the room again inconspicuously. At 12:41 PM an admiral walked to one of the windows to get fresh air. Hitler bent low over the table so that he could get a better view of the map, resting his chin on his hand, his elbow on the tabletop. It was 12:42 PM. The general was explaining: "If the army group doesn't come back from Lake Peipus at last, there will be a catastrophe"—There was a terrible explosion.
"I saw a bright, clear, jetting infernal flame, and thought to myself that it could only be an English explosive. German explosives do not have such an intense bright-yellow flame." Hitler's own description of events sounds strangely detached, as if spoken from behind a veil. The blast sent him flying from the middle of the room to the door. Wired on "x," the dictator may have experienced the explosion as if wrapped up in cotton wool, and felt as invulnerable as Wagner's Siegfried—while all around him the seriously wounded officers fought for their lives, their hair in flames. As if he were just a bystander, he reported that a moment later, "I couldn't see anything clearly through the thick smoke. I saw only a few figures lying in the haze and moving. I was lying in the barrack, near the left doorpost; on top of me a few slats and beams. But I was able to get up and go on my own. I was just a little dizzy and slightly dazed."
Morell heard the explosion from his workspace and immediately assumed it must be a bomb. Moments later Hitler's valet, Heinz Linge, came rushing in: The professor had to come quickly to the führer. The physician hastily picked up his black case and lumbered heavily out into the sultry summer air. A general lay on the floor with one leg torn off and one eye lost. Morell wanted to stop and tend to him, but Linge dragged him on: The führer was more important.
It didn't take them long to reach Hitler, who presented a grotesque picture, smiling blithely and sitting on his bed even though his forehead was bloody, his hair was burnt off at the back of his scalp, and there was a saucer-size burn on his calf: "Keitel and Warlimont led me to my bunker," the dictator reported with a lively, almost cheerful expression: "On the way I saw that my trousers were badly torn, and that bare flesh was visible everywhere. Then I washed, because my face looked like a Moor's—and then changed my clothes."
On the medical file for Patient A, Morell recorded that Hitler hadn't been agitated in the slightest. In reality, Hitler had been more severely affected.
When Hitler pointed out that Mussolini was coming for an important state visit in two hours, Morell took out his tools and injected "x" again. That it was just glucose and not an effective painkiller seems hardly likely. Patient A had dozens of splinters in his body, and these now had to be removed individually—a painful procedure. But Hitler wasn't bothered. His two burst eardrums were bleeding, but even that didn't trouble him, and he impressed everyone with his apparent courage.
On the medical file for Patient A, Morell recorded that Hitler hadn't been agitated in the slightest. His pulse was normal, as always. Nonetheless the physician recommended that he stay in bed. But Hitler, full of beans from his injection, was already standing in freshly polished boots and announced that it was ridiculous for a healthy man to receive guests in bed. Wrapped in a bulging black cloak, he went to the Wolf's Lair railway station and waited impatiently for Mussolini, who said, dumbfounded by Hitler's apparent physical integrity: "That was a sign from heaven!"
In reality Hitler had been more severely affected than it at first appeared. He had lost his hearing almost entirely, and he began to have severe pains in his arms and legs as the effects of "x" abated in the evening. Blood was still flowing uninterruptedly from both ears. Psychologically the attack had devastating consequences. In the traditional day-on/day-off rhythm, Patient A now received his "x" against the pain and the shock to his nerves. In this critical phase after the attempted coup, he couldn't afford to miss a dose. However, the presentation of Hitler as an invincible, even invulnerable hero didn't always work. When he welcomed a group of army officers a week later, their excited cries of "Heil Hitler!" died away when they laid eyes on him as he entered the room. All of a sudden the gap between the fiction of the führer and the real-life Hitler was all too apparent.
At Last, Cocaine!
O night! I took some cocaine and blood dispersion is underway, hair turns gray, the years flee, I must, I must in ardor blossom once again before I decay.—Gottfried Benn
Because of the injury to both eardrums, word was sent to the nearby reserve field hospital to bring Dr. Erwin Giesing, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, to the Wolf's Lair. He, too, quickly realized what was happening in the senior echelons. Although he had been told, before their first meeting, that Hitler was a kind of "powerful, mystical Superman," it was a bent, halting figure whom he met, wearing a dark-blue striped dressing gown and slippers on his bare feet. Giesing described his impressions precisely:
The face was pale, slightly swollen, and there were large bags under both bloodshot eyes. The eyes did not make the fascinating impression so often ascribed to them in the press. I was particularly struck by the wrinkles from either side of the nose to the outer corner of the mouth, and by the dry, slightly cracked lips. His hair was already clearly mixed with gray and rather unkempt. The face was well shaven, but with somewhat withered skin, which I attributed to fatigue. The speech was unnaturally loud and tended toward a shout, and later became somewhat hoarse… An aged, almost depleted, and exhausted man, who had to make do with what was left of his strength.
In a neurological respect, the specialist diagnosed the patient as normal: no hallucinations, no incontinence, functioning memory, and sense of time and space. "Emotionally unstable, however—either love or hate. Constant flux of thoughts, his statements always relevant... the führer's psychological condition is very complex."
Examining Hitler's burst eardrums, Giesing found a marked sickle-shape tear in the right ear and a smaller injury in the left. When treating the sensitive tissue with acid, he admired Hitler's extraordinary impassivity. He felt no pain anymore, Patient A boasted. And, in any case, pain only existed to make people harder. Giesing couldn't have guessed that perhaps he didn't feel the pain because his personal physician had given him drugs shortly beforehand. There were no discussions between the two doctors. And while Giesing learned nothing from Morell about what he had administered, Morell had no idea what the new doctor was prescribing to the patient: "I was not briefed by ear specialist Dr. Giesing," Morell noted sourly. The two doctors disliked each other from the first moment. When Morell approached Giesing, on his arrival, with the words, "Who are you? Who called you? Why didn't you report to me?" Giesing fired back: "As an officer I only have to report to my military superiors, not to you, a civilian." After that the top dog refused to even look at the newly recruited specialist.
Giesing described the personal physician on another occasion with little sympathy and an acid pen:
Morell comes in, distinctly short of breath and panting. He shakes only Hitler's hand and asks agitatedly whether anything in particular happened during the night. Hitler says no. He slept well, and even digested the previous night's salad without any difficulty. Then, with the help of Linge, he takes off his coat, sits back down in his armchair, and pulls up his left sleeve. Morell gives Hitler the injections. He pulls the needle out again and wipes the puncture site with a handkerchief. Then he leaves the room and goes into the office, holding in his right hand the used syringe and in the left empty ampoules, one large and two small. He goes with the ampoules and a syringe into the adjacent orderlies' bathroom, rinses the syringe out himself, and destroys the empty ampoules by throwing them into the toilet. Then he washes his hands, comes back into the office, and says goodbye to everyone present.
But Giesing didn't come to his führer empty-handed either. His favorite remedy for treating pains in the ear, nose, and throat area was cocaine, the very substance the Nazis abhorred as a "Jewish degeneration drug." This choice is not as unusual as it might seem as not many alternatives for local anesthesia were available at the time, and cocaine was stocked as a medicine in every pharmacy. If we can believe Giesing, the only source in this case, between July 22 and October 7, 1944, on 75 days, he administered the substance more than 50 times in the form of nose and throat dabs, a highly effective surface application. This was pure, first-class stuff, the famous Merck cocaine, delivered from Berlin by courier train as an extremely psychoactive 10 percent "cocaine solution" in a sealed bottle, responsibly signed for by the SS pharmacist in line with the regulations of the Reich Security Main Office. In the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's valet kept it locked up under his personal care.
"Please don't turn me into a cocaine addict," Hitler said to his new favorite doctor, to which Giesing replied, reassuringly, "A real cocaine addict snorts dry cocaine."
Again, Hitler's biographers have barely noticed this obvious application of drugs, even though it is worth mentioning because of its strong euphorigenic potential for the critical phase after the assassination attempt. The procedure went like this: In the morning, assistant surgeon Karl Brandt brought his colleague Giesing to a tent behind the guest bunker, where they went through the strict security measures in place since July 20. Giesing's bags were emptied, every instrument was examined; even the lightbulbs of the otoscope were taken out and screwed back in again. Giesing had to hand over his uniform cap and his dagger, empty out the contents of his trouser and jacket pockets on to the table, and turn out his pockets. He got only his handkerchief and keys back, and his fountain pen and pencil were returned afterward. He was frisked from top to bottom. Cocaine was left out of these rigid controls; it was already inside. Now Linge, the valet, went into action, taking the bottle out of the drugs cabinet in the orderly room and inviting Giesing to make his examination.
Patient A expressed his gratitude for this variation in the menu. According to Giesing's report, he claimed that "on cocaine he felt considerably lighter and carefree, and that he could also think more clearly." The doctor explained to him that the psychotropic wave was the "medicinal effect on the swollen nasal mucous membrane, and that it was now easier to breathe through the nose. The effect usually lasted between four and six hours. He might have a slight cocaine sniff afterward, but it would stop after a short time." Hitler supposedly asked whether this swabbed application could not be made once or twice a day—even when the aural passages requiring treatment were healed again after September 10. Giesing, who saw his star in the ascendant, agreed, but claims to have pointed out to the patient that all cocaine was absorbed by the nasal mucous membrane and passed into the blood supply, so he had to warn against too high a dose. But Hitler went on requesting this application, and during the next few days, in spite of profuse perspiration, he confirmed the success: "It's a good thing you're here, doctor. This cocaine is wonderful, and I'm glad that you've found the right remedy. Free me from these headaches again for a while."
"Look in my nose again and put that cocaine thing in to get rid of the pressure in my head. I have important things to do today."
Those headaches had probably also been caused by the constant crashing and screeching that had been putting the nerves of the residents of the innermost restricted zone of the Wolf's Lair on edge for the last few days: The construction unit's jackhammers and heavy machinery were hastily erecting a new, even more strongly reinforced Führerbunker. Patient A could only bear the noise while on cocaine, and the restorative drug made him feel as if he wasn't ill at all: "Now my mind is freed again, and I feel very well." But one concern preyed on his mind: "Please don't turn me into a cocaine addict," he said to his new favorite doctor, to which Giesing replied, reassuringly, "A real cocaine addict snorts dry cocaine." Hitler was heartened: "I don't intend to become a cocaine addict."
So the führer had his nose swabbed and went to the military briefing full of artificial confidence. The matter was clear as far as he was concerned: The war against the Russians would somehow be won. When he received another dose from Giesing on September 16, 1944, he had a very special brainstorm: one of those feared, pseudo-genius führer ideas. He told his baffled entourage that despite their vast inferiority in terms of men and materials, he wanted to go back on the offensive on the Western Front. Immediately, he formulated an order demanding "fanatical determination from all soldiers fit for duty." Although everyone advised him against the hopeless enterprise of a second Ardennes offensive, the dictator refused to be deterred: Victory would be his!
In consequence, Giesing started to feel unsettled by Hitler's affinity for cocaine—which erases all feelings of self-doubt and encourages megalomania—and he wanted to stop administering the potent swabs. But Hitler wouldn't let him: "No, doctor, continue as before. This morning I have a terrible throbbing head that probably comes from the sniffing; concern for the future and the continued existence of Germany are consuming me more and more with each passing day." Still, Giesing's medical scruples outweighed his duty to obey, and he refused Hitler the drug. Defiantly, the supreme commander didn't appear at the military briefing that day, September 26, 1944, but announced huffily that he was no longer interested in the situation in the East, where the whole front threatened to collapse. Intimidated, Giesing came round and promised cocaine, but in return he demanded a full checkup of Hitler. Patient A, who had previously always forbidden such an examination, consented, and on October 1, 1944, he even appeared naked, as he had otherwise generally refused to do, solely to wheedle for himself some of that coveted blow: "Look in my nose again and put that cocaine thing in to get rid of the pressure in my head. I have important things to do today."
Giesing obeyed and administered the drug, this time in such a dose that Hitler is believed to have lost consciousness and for a short time there is supposed to have been a danger of respiratory paralysis. If the account given by Giesing is accurate, then the self-described abstainer almost died of an overdose.
Excerpted from Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in March 2017. Used by permission.
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