The Doctor Who Got Hitler Hooked on Drugs—And the Plot to Take Him Down
In Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, author Norman Ohler reveals that the Nazis doped their soldiers with a stimulant they called Pervitin—a.k.a. methamphetamine. The drug helped the Germans win key battles in the beginning of World War II.
But it wasn’t just low-level soldiers who were using during the Second World War. Drug use went all the way up the Nazi leadership to Hitler himself. The dictator’s personal physician, Theodor Morell, regularly injected “Patient A” with hormone preparations and steroids he had created using animal glands and other dubious ingredients—and as Hitler’s health worsened, Morell secretly began treating him with eukodal, otherwise known as oxycodone, in July 1943. Hitler received an injection every other day—which is, Ohler notes, “The typical rhythm of an addict and contradicts the idea of a purely medical application.” The Führer was hooked.
In July 1944, German senior military officials tried to kill Hitler with a bomb in the unsuccessful Operation Valkyrie. The explosion punctured both of Hitler’s eardrums. Ear, nose, and throat doctor Erwin Giesing was called to Hitler’s headquarters in Poland and began treating Hitler without consulting Morell, administering cocaine in the dictator's nasal passages with a cotton swab. Hitler quickly became addicted to cocaine, too.
Morell and Giesing hated and distrusted each other from the start. In fact, Giesing suspected Morell was poisoning Hitler—and he wasn't alone. In autumn 1944, the situation finally came to a head, as recounted in this excerpt from Blitzed.
THE DOCTORS’ WAR
You have all agreed that you want to turn me into a sick man. — Adolf Hitler
The power of the personal physician was approaching a high point during that autumn of 1944. Since the attempt on his life Patient A needed him more than ever, and with each new injection Morell gained further influence. The dictator was closer to him than he was to anyone else; there was no one he liked to talk to as much, no one he trusted more. At major meetings with the generals an armed SS man stood behind every chair to prevent any further attacks. Anyone who wanted to see Hitler had to hand over his briefcase. This regulation did not apply to Morell’s doctor’s bag.
Many people envied the self-styled “sole personal physician” his privileged position. Suspicion about him was growing. Morell still stubbornly refused to talk to anyone else about his methods of treatment. Right until the end he maintained the discretion with which he had initially approached the post. But in the stuffy atmosphere of the haunted realm of the bunker system, where the poisonous plants of paranoia sent their creepers over the thick concrete walls, this was not without its dangers. Morell even left the assistant doctors Karl Brandt and Hanskarl von Hasselbach, with whom he could have discussed the treatment of Hitler, consistently in the dark. He had mutated from outsider to diva. He told no one anything, wrapping himself in an aura of mystery and uniqueness. Even the Führer’s all-powerful secretary, Martin Bormann, who made it clear that he would have preferred a different kind of treatment for Hitler, one based more on biology, was banging his head against a wall when it came to the fat doctor.
As the war was being lost, guilty parties were sought. The forces hostile to Morell were assembling. For a long time Heinrich Himmler had been collecting information about the physician, to accuse him of having a morphine addiction and thus of being vulnerable to blackmail. Again and again the suspicion was voiced on the quiet: might he not be a foreign spy who was secretly poisoning the Führer? As early as 1943 the foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had invited Morell to lunch at his castle, Fuschl, near Salzburg, and launched an attack: while the conversation with von Ribbentrop’s wife initially revolved around trivial questions such as temporary marriages, state bonuses for children born out of wedlock, lining up for food and the concomitant waste of time, after the meal the minister stonily invited him “upstairs, to discuss something.”
Von Ribbentrop, arrogant, difficult, and blasé as always, tapped the ash off his Egyptian cigarette with long, aristocratic fingers, looked grimly around the room, then fired off a cannonade of questions at the miracle doctor: Was it good for the Führer to get so many injections? Was he given anything apart from glucose? Was it, generally speaking, not far too much? The doctor gave curt replies: he only injected “what was necessary.” But von Ribbentrop insisted that the Führer required “a complete transformation of his whole body, so that he became more resilient.” That was water off a duck’s back for Morell, and he left the castle rather unimpressed. “Laymen are often so blithe and simple in their medical judgments,” he wrote, concluding his record of the conversation.
But this was not the last assault Morell would bear. The first structured attack came from Bormann, who tried to guide Hitler’s treatment onto regular, or at least manageable, lines. A letter reached the doctor: “Secret Reich business!” In eight points “measures for the Führer’s security in terms of his medical treatment” were laid out, a sample examination of the medicines in the SS laboratories was scheduled, and, most importantly, Morell was ordered henceforth always “to inform the medical supply officer which and how many medications he plans to use monthly for the named purpose.”
In fact this remained a rather helpless approach from Bormann, who was not usually helpless. On the one hand his intervention turned Hitler’s medication into an official procedure, but on the other he wanted as little correspondence as possible on the subject, since it was important to maintain the healthful aura of the leader of the master race. Heil Hitler literally means “Health to Hitler,” after all. For that reason the drugs, as detailed in Bormann’s letter, were to be paid for in cash to leave no paper trail. Bormann added that the “monthly packets” should be stored ready for delivery at any time in an armored cupboard, and made “as identifiable as possible down to the ampoule by consecutive numbering (for example, for the first consignment: 1/44), while at the same time the external wrapping of the package should bear an inscription to be precisely established with the personal signature of the medical supply officer.”
Morell’s reaction to this bureaucratic attempt to make his activities transparent was as simple as it was startling. He ignored the instructions of the mighty security apparatus and simply didn’t comply, instead continuing as before. In the eye of the hurricane he felt invulnerable, banking on the assumption that Patient A would always protect him.
In late September 1944, in the pale light of the bunker, the ear doctor, Giesing, noted an unusual coloration in Hitler’s face and suspected jaundice. The same day, on the dinner table there was a plate holding “apple compote with glucose and green grapes” and a box of “Dr. Koester’s anti-gas pills,” a rather obscure product. Giesing was perplexed when he discovered that its pharmacological components included atropine, derived from belladonna or other nightshade plants, and strychnine, a highly toxic alkaloid of nux vomica, which paralyzes the neurons of the spinal column and is also used as rat poison. Giesing indeed smelled a rat. The side-effects of these anti-gas pills at too high a dose seemed to correspond to Hitler’s symptoms. Atropine initially has a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, then a paralyzing one, and a state of cheerfulness arises, with a lively flow of ideas, loquacity, and visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as delirium, which can mutate into violence and raving. Strychnine in turn is held responsible for increased light-sensitivity and even fear of light, as well as for states of flaccidity. For Giesing the case seemed clear: “Hitler constantly demonstrated a state of euphoria that could not be explained by anything, and I am certain his heightened mood when making decisions after major political or military defeats can be largely explained in this way.”
In the anti-gas pills Giesing thought he had discovered the causes of both Hitler’s megalomania and his physical decline. He decided to treat himself as a guinea pig: for a few days Giesing took the little round pills himself, promptly identified that he had the same symptoms, and decided to go on the offensive. His intention was to disempower Morell by accusing him of deliberately poisoning the Führer, so that Giesing could assume the position of personal physician himself. While the Allied troops were penetrating the borders of the Reich from all sides, the pharmacological lunacy in the claustrophobic Wolf’s Lair was becoming a doctors’ war.
As his ally in his plot, Giesing chose Hitler’s surgeon, who had been an adversary of Morell’s for a long time. Karl Brandt was in Berlin at the time, but when Giesing called he took the next plane to East Prussia without hesitation and immediately summoned the accused man. While the personal physician must have worried that he was being collared for Eukodal, he was practically relieved when his opponents tried to snare him with the anti-gas pills, which were available without prescription. Morell was also able to demonstrate that he had not even prescribed them, but that Hitler had organized the acquisition of the pills through his valet, Heinz Linge. Brandt, who had little knowledge of biochemistry and focused his attention on the side-effects of strychnine, was not satisfied with this defense. He threatened Morell: “Do you think anyone would believe you if you claimed that you didn’t issue this prescription? Do you think Himmler might treat you differently from anyone else? So many people are being executed at present that the matter would be dealt with quite coldly.” Just a week later Brandt added: “I have proof that this is a simple case of strychnine poisoning. I can tell you quite openly that over the last five days I have only stayed here because of the Führer’s illness.”
But what sort of illness was that exactly? Was it really icterus—jaundice? Or might it be a typical kind of junkie hepatitis because Morell wasn’t using properly sterile needles? Hitler, whose syringes were only ever disinfected with alcohol, wasn’t looking well. His liver, under heavy attack from those many toxic substances over the past few months, was releasing the bile pigment bilirubin: a warning signal that turns skin and eyes yellow. Morell was being accused of poisoning his patient. There was an air of threat when Brandt addressed Hitler. Meanwhile, on the night of October 5, 1944, Morell suffered a brain edema from the agitation. Hitler was unsettled beyond measure by the accusations: Treachery? Poison? Might he have been mistaken for all those years? Was he being double-crossed by his personally chosen doctor, Morell, the truest of the true, the best of all his friends? Wouldn’t dropping his personal physician, who had just given him a beneficial injection of Eukodal, amount to a kind of self-abandonment? Wouldn’t it leave him high and dry, vulnerable? This was an attack that might prove fatal, as his power was based on charisma. After all, it was the drugs that helped him artificially maintain his previously natural aura, on which everything depended.
Since the start of the Führer’s rapid physical decline these internecine struggles between the doctors turned into a proxy war for succession at the top of the Nazi state. The situation was becoming worse: Himmler told Brandt he could easily imagine that Morell had tried to kill Hitler. The Reichsführer-SS called the physician to his office and coldly informed him that he had himself sent so many people to the gallows that he no longer cared about one more. At the same time, in Berlin, the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, summoned Morell’s locum, Dr. Weber, from the Kurfürstendamm to a hearing at the Reich Security Main Office on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Weber tried to exonerate his boss, and voiced his opinion that a plot was utterly out of the question. He claimed Morell was far too fearful for such a thing.
Finally the chemical analysis of the disputed medication was made available. The result: its atropine and strychnine content was far too small to poison anyone, even in the massive quantities that Hitler had been given. It was a comprehensive victory for Morell. “I would like the matter involving the anti-gas pills to be forgotten once and for all,” Hitler stated, ending the affair. “You can say what you like against Morell—he is and remains my only personal physician, and I trust him completely.” Giesing received a reprimand, and Hitler dismissed him with the words that all Germans were freely able to choose their doctors, including himself, the Führer. Furthermore, it was well known that it was the patient’s faith in his doctor’s methods that contributed to his cure. Hitler would stay with the doctor he was familiar with, and brushed aside all references to Morell’s lax treatment of the syringe: “I know that Morell’s new method is not yet internationally recognized, and that Morell is still in the research stage with certain matters, without having reached a firm conclusion about them. But that has been the case with all medical innovations. I have no worries that Morell will not make his own way, and I will immediately give him financial support for his work if he needs it.”
Himmler, a dedicated sycophant, immediately changed tack: “Yes, gentlemen,” he explained to Hasselbach and Giesing, “You are not diplomats. You know that the Führer has implicit trust in Morell, and that should not be shaken.” When Hasselbach protested that any medical or even civil court could at least accuse Morell of negligent bodily harm, Himmler turned abrasive: “Professor, you are forgetting that as interior minister I am also head of the supreme health authority. And I don’t want Morell to be brought to trial.” The head of the SS dismissed Giesing’s objection that Hitler was the only head of state in the world who took between 120 and 150 tablets and received between 8 and 10 injections every week.
The tide had turned once and for all against Giesing, who was given a check from Bormann for ten thousand reichsmarks in compensation for his work. Both reichsmarks in compensation for his work. Both Hasselbach and the influential Brandt were out of luck as well, also damaging the latter’s confidant Speer, who had his eye on Hitler’s succession. The three doctors had to leave headquarters. Morell was the only one who stayed behind. On October 8, 1944, he rejoiced in the happy news: “The Führer told me that Brandt had only to meet his obligations in Berlin.” Patient A stood firmly by his supplier. Just as every addict adores his dealer, Hitler was unable to leave the generous doctor who provided him with everything he needed.
The dictator told his physician: “These idiots didn’t even think about what they were doing to me! I would suddenly have been standing there without a doctor, and these people should have known that during the eight years you have been with me you have saved my life several times. And how I was before! All doctors who were dragged in failed. I’m not an ungrateful person, my dear doctor. If we are both lucky enough to make it through the war, then you’ll see how well I will reward you!”
Morell’s confident reply can also be read as an attempt to justify himself to posterity, because the physician put it baldly on record: “My Führer, if a normal doctor had treated you during that time, then you would have been taken away from your work for so long that the Reich would have perished.” According to Morell’s own account, Hitler peered at him with a long, grateful gaze and shook his hand: “My dear doctor, I am glad and happy that I have you.”
The war between the doctors was thus shelved. Patient A had put a stop to a premature dismissal. The price he paid was the continued destruction of his health by a personal physician who had been confirmed in his post. To calm his nerves the head of state received “Eukodal, Eupaverin. Glucose i.v. plus Homoseran i.m.”
Excerpt from BLITZED: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler, translated by Shaun Whiteside. © 2017 by Norman Ohler. English translation © 2017 by Shaun Whiteside. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.