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Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit, review, Channel 4: bull sperm and crystal meth

October 20th, 2014

Does it matter if Hitler was ill, or addicted to drugs? It’s a morally fraught question, and one handled with relative aplomb by Channel 4’s documentary, Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit. For the first time on British television, we peered into the detailed medical diaries of Dr Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician and a man nicknamed the “Reichsspritzenmeister” – loosely, the needle master of the Third Reich. He plied his needy patient with everything from sugar jabs to a potent daily cycle of stimulants and sedatives.

Anything that seeks to diminish Hitler’s responsibility for his actions should ring alarm bells – tellingly, the Holocaust denier David Irving likes to claim that medical mistakes sent Hitler into trances. While the documentary never tackled these ethical questions directly, the tone was sensitive, seeking insights rather than excuses for the “moral vacuum” at the heart of the Third Reich.

Pieced together from the diary, medical records and interviews, these insights included the rather enjoyable image of Hitler as a cranky, flatulent hypochondriac; paranoid putty in the hands of an opportunistic quack. Morell’s treatments ranged from Pervitin, a pick-me-up based on crystal meth, to a supposed aphrodisiac containing bull’s semen. The picture darkened as the war turned against Hitler. “The Führer didn’t sleep last night because of his anxieties,” Morell wrote in his diary on July 6, 1943. While hardly surprising that sending millions of men to die in vain might keep a man awake, there was a frisson to seeing it noted as medical fact.

By the end of the war, the “needle master” was administering 20 jabs a day, while his patient may have had Parkinson’s. We saw footage from 1945, originally suppressed by German censors, which showed Hitler’s hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. At the time, he was preparing to defend Berlin from 2.5 million Soviet troops with an army of 45,000. His trembling hand was a potent image of ruined power in every sense.

There were no neat conclusions to be drawn on Hitler’s unravelling, but this was an evocative seat at the tyrant’s bedside. Where the film fell short was on explaining the medical context: it wasn’t clear how Morell’s treatments varied from conventional medicine. Whether quack and addict, or doctor and patient, one thing we know for certain about their relationship was how it ended: Morell abandoning Hitler in his bunker to the ultimate self-medication – a suicide pill.


World War Two

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