Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Hitler and Elvis 1A couple or three things before I get into the review of this book. First, it was originally published as The Total Rush: Drugs In the Third Reich, but for the publication of the English translation was retitled as Blitzed. I don’t like this retitling, possibly because it’s too on-the-nose, though “on-the-nose” is not a phrase I’ve got much time for.

Second, Ohler is a novelist and not an historian, which probably means he’s played up his angle for, you know, the narrative. Which is not to say that he hasn’t somehow come across something that mainstream historians have underplayed.

Third, I don’t like the cover. They obviously wanted a picture of Hitler looking deranged, but to me Hitler looks deranged in every photo of him. Aside from that, I dislike the graphic design aesthetic. I get that the black and red colour scheme is meant to evoke the Third Reich, but I just hate the way the subtitle is placed in relation to the author’s name, and the overall effect is just tacky.

514QN3Fg-2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_All of which means it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re in the hands of a marketing department, reading something sensationalist and exploitative, designed to garner headlines and promote sales. Which is of course the job of the marketing department, but my emotional response to all this is pure Generation X. I’m reading this because I’m interested in spite of not because of your attempts to market it to me. To clarify: I heard this mentioned on a podcast, without knowing the title, author’s name, cover design, typography, or anything else about it. So, holding my nose, here goes:

This is fascinating. Not just because it explains how the Nazis were able to roll so quickly into France and Belgium without waiting for logistical support or allowing the troops to rest, but because of the ways in which the secret sauce of doping up combat troops for a fight has clearly been picked up by every fuckhead with a pip on his collar ever since. Short version: German soldiers and Luftwaffe pilots were consuming mind-boggling quantities of methamphetamine, marketed under the name of Pervitin. At first, they were obtaining it privately (Ohler refers to letters home by one soldier, whose ulterior motive for staying in touch with his family seems to have been drug seeking to feed his addiction); but after a while, the pills were being issued.

As a non-historian, I grew interested in the power dynamics at play here. Hitler wasn’t giving the instruction for soldiers to be given crystal meth, although he may have been insisting on otherwise-impossible outcomes, which seems to have been his stock in trade. There were powerful figures in the army who were competing either for his favour or to be seen as the architects of victory. Or maybe they were competing with the Luftwaffe. The culmination of all this was the bizarre halt order which was enough of a pause to allow the British to escape at Dunkirk. Strategic error, or power play, or whatever it was, it meant that the retreat was less of a disaster than it might have been.

The use of performance enhancing drugs by the army, navy, and airforce was widespread and ongoing. Crystal meth helped the Nazis to defeat the French, but it also allowed them to retreat from Moscow, the drugs allowing soldiers who were dead on their feet to keep marching through the snow. Towards the end of the war, when the Germans were wildly experimenting with technologies that allowed them to keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, the navy were trying various drug combinations to keep mini submarine pilots awake for 4 days at a stretch. The ultimate outcome was a dismal failure, but along the way, drugs were tested on concentration camp inmates in typically inhuman ways. Needless to say, I’ll never look at the marketing around Bata Toughees shoes (designed to walk long distances) in the same way again.

Behind all this is the history of drug development in Germany, which is really an incredible thing. Did you know that the scientist who invented aspirin also invented heroin? Eleven days later? The Germans were popping pills like nothing else, and securing supplies of narcotics during the war seems to have been as important as securing supplies of oil. And, after the war, it seems as if the Americans and the Russians (and everybody else, probably) continued to experiment with drugs for military and sporting performance, as well as “truth serums” and psychological experiments, using the same Nazi scientists in many cases. For example, the CIA’s MKUltra programme was a continuation of one of those horrific concentration camp experiments.

Meanwhile, back in his various bunkers, Hitler was being injected with “vitamins”, steroids, pain killers, and anything else that might help him through the day by his personal quack doctor, Theodor Gilbert Morell. I was reminded of nothing so much as Albert Goldman’s exploitative follow-up to his Elvis biography: Elvis: the Last 24 Hours. According to Goldman, Elvis needed drugs to help him wake up in the morning, to help him sleep at night, to help him shit, stop shitting, and so on, all of which were prescribed by his personal quack doctor, George Constantine Nichopoulos, also known as Dr. Nick.

Elvis was constipated, up in the middle of the night trying to take a shit and reading a book about the Turin shroud when he died of heart failure. Like Hitler, he convinced himself that he wasn’t a drug addict because his doctor was his enabler, and these were on prescription. Morell seems to have been dismissed when he ran out of Oxycodone, the opioid marketed in Germany as Eukodal. Ohler suggests that Morell was dosing Hitler with Oxy more or less every other day, especially as the Reich shrieked towards defeat and after the bunker bomb that left Hitler trembling uncontrollably. It’s usually suggested that Hitler’s shaking might have been Parkinson’s, but Ohler more straightforwardly suggests that he was just an addict.

Talking of impossible-to-prove-by-now diagnoses, as someone who has recently been diagnosed with a food intolerance, I couldn’t help thinking as I read that Hitler’s bowel spasms, uncontrollable farting and various other digestive symptoms might have been signs of lactose intolerance, or something. Who knows? Either way, it seems that Hitler couldn’t function without Morell’s injections.

Some historians have reacted against Ohler’s work, saying that it appears to be offering an excuse for Hitler’s actions, but Ohler is clear on that point in the book: Hitler needed drugs because he was a drug addict, and the drugs that enabled him to function were not behind his atrocities but simply gave him the ability to go on committing them.

As repelled as I was by the marketing, I did find this a fascinating read, and Ohler’s research is exhaustively documented. The Hitler section became repetitive, but I guess that’s the nature of addiction.

Anyway, do what I did: borrow from your local library.


SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 21.32.28I’m not big on watching modern documentaries. I always make an exception for the music ones, but I won’t give time to the mainstream popular history or nature documentaries, simply because I cannot bear the padding of the content with the recaps and the previewing of information. Journalist Robert Hutton tweeted a brilliant parody of this structure a while ago:


Which is all by way of saying that I haven’t watched any of Mary Beard’s history docs on the telly, but I do have an abiding interest in the history of Rome, so when I saw this book on an Amazon Lightning Deal, I snapped up a hardback copy for a tenner.

Origin of this interest? Not sure. Almost certainly related to reading Rosemary Sutcliffe when younger, but also because I did (I actually did!) Latin at ‘O’ Level, which involved the study of the Cambridge Classics (Caecilius in Pompeii, just like in Doctor Who), the Aeneid, and Pliny’s letters.

I had Michael Grant’s The History of Rome on my shelf for years, but found it very dry and unengaging. As a popular historian, Mary Beard’s style is far more accessible, and the footnotes are deliberately in the format where you don’t even know there are footnotes unless you look in the back.

Beard’s tone is skeptical throughout: skeptical of founding myths, of anything written about the early and fabled Roman Republic by self-serving politicians from later eras who are always scoring points. She does her best, in fact, to produce a history of Rome that doesn’t focus on emperors and conquest but tries to concern herself with everyday life for ordinary people: hence her enduring interest in inscriptions, graffiti, and the contents of ancient rubbish dumps. What did they eat? How long did they live? How did they earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage was the condition of slavery?

Many of us were raised on the idea that history is about Emperors, Kings, and occasional Queens. This is the version of history that Gove and co. wanted to force back into the curriculum. Dates and battles, and Great Men. This is a far cry from the liberal days of the late 70s, when my own History ‘O’ Level included study of the Chinese revolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Beard refutes the conservative view. She laughs at the notion that anything much before what we now call Common Era can be dated. She gives us some detail on the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, then more detail on the first of the emperors, Augustus (who really seems like a completely different person once he changes his name – I could well believe a version of this story that argues that the person called Octavian/Augustus was actually two different people), but then goes on to argue that for the next 180 years, under various dynasties, life for ordinary romans was pretty much the same, whoever was in charge. It seems to have been a fairly stable period, when most of the monumental building work was completed. And after that, things become less stable and the Empire fragments, and even the monuments are remixes of previous work.

(Isn’t that always the way? You know, how rock music was invented in the 1950-1979 era, and then everything afterwards was a remix, a mashup, a sample, or a simulacrum of the origin music.)

Beard’s approach will be frustrating for anyone who dives in looking for a narrative, Grand or otherwise. The surviving materials are both too fragmented and too often self-serving for any one narrative thread to hold for long. Which suits me. Narratives are weapons, after all, and we live surrounded by political and media narratives that support and prolong preposterous levels of inequality. Why, it’s almost as if we, the voiceless ordinary people, are ruled by a super-rich class with no visible means of support (other than plunder and exploitation), who surround us with the evidence of their greatness while leaving us to live hand-to-mouth. What do we eat? How long do we live? How do we earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage is the condition of zero hours contract?

Yes, the parallels are there, and so is the hope. The Emperors lost their influence, the centre couldn’t hold, the old Empire crumbled away. Looking back, that 180-year period of stability, the period of Augustus and Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian and the rest, was a brief interlude, and maybe our own epoch of vast inequality will also be a brief interlude. One day historians will look at the ruins of London’s glass towers and wonder how ordinary people lived.

One note on my copy: I obviously got one from the first print run. The imposition of the pages was a bit off (page margins varied a lot, rather than being uniform), and there were a couple of typos, one involving text going missing from the main body and apparently being incorporated into a picture caption (or it was already repeated there). Anyway, I tweeted this with a mention of the author herself, and she was kind enough to reply and offer to arrange for a replacement to be sent. I declined the offer. I prefer to own one of the first print run.

To scab or not to scab? (Spoiler alert: not to)

As someone who came of age during the Thatcher Apocalypse, I can hardly profess surprise that many of my colleagues aren’t supporting the strike today. Disappointed, of course. Ashamed, yes. Surprised, no.

I was talking to a colleague about this not long ago, and we had the same conversation before the last strike. Here we are – teachers who are “well over 30” striking in support of our profession, which is being deskilled, undermined, fucked around – while younger colleagues, especially those “well under 30” lower their heads and come in to work, complaining that they “can’t afford” to lose a day’s pay, or that striking “won’t do any good.”

Well, here’s a big fuck you from me to both of those statements. I can’t afford to lose a day pay, any more than I could afford not to have a pay rise for the past three years, or to increase my pension contributions, or to work for longer before I can retire. I can’t afford any of those things. I can’t afford to fuck around with admin instead of, you know, teaching. I can’t afford to keep up with Gove’s little announcements, the ever-moving goalposts, and the weasel announcements sneaked out in the middle of Olympic ceremonies, because he actually does know that what he’s doing is actually evil.

And you know what really won’t do any good? Doing nothing. Apart from the obvious fact that this weak government has U-turned about 65 times under pressure from various professions and protesters, doing nothing opens up a path to a very dark future for younger teachers. A future in which their pay and hours are set arbitrarily, locally. You may dig your head teacher now, but what happens when s/he is replaced with a complete cunt? What happens if your school converts to an academy, and some Friend of Gove’s comes in with his management qualification, and starts to try to skim money for his/her own £200,000 salary? What happens when a school declares that, because your class of drongoes didn’t pass their GCSEs, your pay increase won’t be happening?

A day’s pay is insignificant when compared to 25 years of being underpaid.

And if you really can’t see that, then you probably deserve the future that’s coming down the tracks at you.

As for the protection your union gives, wave it goodbye. The endgame for Gove and co is to smash the teaching unions, just as Thatcher smashed the miners’ union and the car workers’ unions. Smashing, right? And when a student makes a false accusation against you because they don’t want to do their homework, good luck dealing with that, with no union. When your classroom is too cold to teach in, or the roof leaks, or they tell you you have to (a) stay at work till 5 p.m., and (b) work Saturday mornings because (c) parents want free babysitting, good luck dealing with that without a union. Good luck dealing with a head teacher who doesn’t like your face.

I’m 51 this year, and I’ve got just 10 years or so of this shit to put up with. But you? You’re 25, you’ve got a young  family, a big mortgage; or you’re still living at home and can’t afford a mortgage, or to get married, or to have kids, not yet.

Good luck with your career.

And, I tell you this. When the OFSTED are in, or when the pressure is on, don’t imagine that we’re all in this together. Solidarnosc, comrade.

  • Scabs (

Popmusicology, Volumes 1 and 2


After creating some iPad film study guides for my GCSE students using iBooks Author, I wanted to do another project just for fun.

I decided to repurpose some of the material I’d accrued in teaching my “Musicology” 6th Form enrichment course, which was a survey of popular music from its origins. I’d done a lot of research and created presentations with embedded audio and video. Rather than just embed the presentations into an iBook, I decided to create a book from scratch, with both graphical elements and embedded sound files. Because I wasn’t happy with the included Apple templates and didn’t have time to create my own, I downloaded a template from iBooksAuthorTemplates.

The first volume (Origins) appeared on the iBooks store a couple of weeks ago, but will hopefully start to make more sense now that Volume 2 (Boom!) has appeared. Both of them are free of charge, and require an iPad and iBooks.

Volume 1 is concerned with where popular music came from: the regional folk musics that existed in the United States prior to the invention of the phonograph, which started to blend together due to proximity (especially in the Southern states), and later due to new media such as the radio and the phonograph. It’s fair to say that the horrors of the South (slave plantations, the Civil War, Reconstruction) were instrumental in creating popular music as we know it. Poor white people living alongside slaves and (later) poor black people had a shared love of music.


Popmusicology Volume 1: Origins (THE RED ONE) looks at the impact of new media (particularly radio), the ethnographic work of the Lomaxes, and has sections on the Blues, Jazz, and Country music. There are illustrative sound samples – either out of copyright, or limited to a 30-second length for illustrative purposes.

Volume 2 is concerned with what happened in the wake of Jazz. It was hard to decide upon an order. In the end I went for rock-soul-country, but it could have been in any sequence and made as much sense. There are longer books about the first rock record, but there’s a brief discussion of that and samples of the few of the main candidates. My conclusion is that the first rock record is a bit like a tree falling in a forest. What really matters is when were (most) people aware that there was this thing called rock? 

Popmusicology Volume 2: Boom! (THE YELLOW ONE) looks at the explosion in popular music across multiple genres in the 1950s. After the section on early rock, there’s another looking at how gospel and rhythm and blues turned into soul music. Finally, there’s a section on the horrors of the Nashville Sound in country and the reasons it came about.

So the next step is to write Volume 3, which will look at the 60s beat boom and the changes in the industry wrought by the new generation of artists who wrote their own songs. This will be the hardest volume to write for me, because there is so much to cover and yet I need to be aware of keeping the file size down to a reasonable level. The reason there are already two volumes is that it became clear that even with a 30-second limit on most of the samples, the file size soon balloons.


Would be great if you download and enjoy the Popmusicology books (or any of the film studies ones), if you would leave some feedback.

My next project is an updated electronic version of my MA dissertation on typography – this will be on the Kindle store.