‘Flashback’ Lecture Notes: How Hitler’s Doctor Changed the Course of World War II
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because drugs and dictators are a dangerous combination.
In Episode 5 of Flashback, OZY’s chart-topping history podcast, we learn about the unintended consequences of changing one man’s medication.
With World War II dragging on and the Nazis losing ground in 1944, Adolf Hitler remained remarkably upbeat during daily briefings. His generals assumed he had an atomic bomb or some other secret plan up his sleeve. What Hitler mostly had up his sleeve, however, were needle marks — the result of the injections of the amphetamines, opioids and other drugs he’d grown increasingly dependent upon thanks to an unorthodox personal doctor who was convinced he could cure all of the Führer’s ills.
This week on Flashback: a cautionary tale about what can happen when you give powerful people some powerful drugs. You can listen here, and then enjoy digging deeper into the story in my Lecture Notes below.
THE MYSTERY MAN IN HITLER’S HOME MOVIES
The man behind Hitler’s drug regimen was a Dr. Feelgood from Berlin named Dr. Theodor Morell. During the last years of the war, he was constantly at the Führer’s side. You can see him in some of the footage taken of the Nazi leadership, including Hitler girlfriend Eva Braun’s home movies shot at the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat. Look for the overweight bald man with glasses (around 8:55) in the following clip from Braun’s films.
WHAT MADE HITLER STOP EATING MEAT?
Dr. Morell first came to Hitler’s aid when the dictator was suffering from chronic digestion issues during the mid 1930s, which were likely related to the dictator’s high-fiber vegetarian diet. Why did Hitler become a vegetarian in the first place? Ronald Hayman, author of Hitler and Geli, points to a traumatic moment in the Nazi leader’s life. The morning after finding that his niece (and romantic interest) Geli Raubal had committed suicide in 1931, Hitler is reported to have pushed away a plate of ham and complained, “It’s like eating a corpse.” And from that point on, according to Hayman, Hitler preferred a steady diet of vegetables, raw or pulped.
A D-DAY IN THE LIFE OF PATIENT A
After learning of the Allied invasion of Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944, a furious Hitler is said to have yelled across the room at his generals, “Is this the invasion or isn’t it?!” At which point, Dr. Morell scrambled over to give the man he referred to as “Patient A” in his medical notes an injection of “x” (Eukodal, active ingredient oxycodone). Patient A calmed down and, as Norman Ohler puts it in his book Blitzed, “suddenly appeared affable and lighthearted, enjoyed the day and the fine weather, and clapped everyone he met jovially on the shoulder … [despite] the looming military disaster.”
JFK’S OWN DRUG REGIMEN ALMOST COST HIM THE PRESIDENCY
Hitler was not the only Western leader in the 20th century to accept a powerful drug cocktail from a German doctor. U.S. President John F. Kennedy did for years as well, driven in part by his battle with Addison’s disease. In fact, Kennedy’s checkered bill of health almost cost him the 1960 election when his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, armed with the knowledge of Kennedy’s true condition, stood ready to publicize it in the run-up to the vote. But something made Nixon stop: Kennedy forces, including singer Frank Sinatra, had learned something about Nixon’s own medical history — he had been secretly visiting a psychotherapist from Germany for years. You can read more about the candidates’ crazy mutually assured medical destruction on OZY.
BLOOD, TOIL, TEARS AND PILLS
Winston Churchill was yet another major 20th century leader who received amphetamines (like Hitler and Kennedy) and who likely suffered from bipolar disorder (like Hitler). But, as Nassir Ghaemi, author of A First Rate Madness, told me, he managed his treatment a bit more responsibly than Hitler did.