When we began our project in 2013, we thought it was a mainly academic enterprise, but with the Brexit and US Presidential election campaigns it gained public significance. The world has entered the era of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ in which conspiracy theories have become part of the international currency of ‘fake news’ on the Internet.
‘Alternative facts’ have mostly been propagated by assertion, without any real attempt at providing evidential proof. As long ago as 17 October 2004, the journalist Ron Suskind reported in the New York Times magazine a conversation with a Presidential aide, generally thought to have been Karl Rove, a conversation in which ‘the aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”’
There’s my truth, then, and your truth, and whoever has more power will be able to impose their truth on everyone else; there’s no such thing as objective truth, as the poststructuralists claimed in the 1990s. An older version of this claim can be found in the widespread (but entirely erroneous) belief that history is written by the victors. Power in this context means the ability to be more effective in spreading your truth-claims than other people are in spreading theirs. One way of doing this is to provide what looks like solid evidence to convince the ‘reality-based community’ that what you’re saying is true. It’s a technique used for example by Holocaust deniers in their attempt to show that six million Jews were not murdered by the Nazis and their allies in World War II and that poison gas was not used to kill them (see my book Telling Lies About Hitler). Driving Holocaust denial is of course a modern form of anti-Semitism, but sometimes the motives behind the propagation of ‘alternative facts’ about the Nazis are more subtle.
Take for instance Norman Ohler’s book Blitzed, which I reviewed in The Guardian on 19 November 2016. This is a book that uses a small amount of detailed research on amphetamines, opiates and other drugs in Nazi Germany to advance large claims about the Third Reich, including the assertion that all Germans were literally drugged into acquiescing in the regime’s crimes all the way from 1933 to 1945, and the identification of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a drug addict. These claims won Ohler massive sales for his book, and huge publicity for his views. Finally, the mystery of Nazi Germany, of why Hitler was so evil, and why Germans supported him, has been explained! It’s an argument that fits in well to the age of populism, where simplistic explanations for complex phenomena are grasped with alacrity by a confused and bewildered public that has become tired of the complicated analyses offered by competing groups of experts.
Ohler says explicitly in the German edition of his book that history is ‘always fiction’, and indeed in his case, it certainly is. So it’s surprising that in responding to my review, he tried to argue that his book was purely factual. Of course I don’t mind anyone writing about Hitler and the Nazis: everyone’s welcome. But if you do so, you have to get your facts right. Ohler has indeed done some excellent research and uncovered fresh details from the archives about concentration camp experiments with drugs and a few other things. What’s at issue, however, is the fact that on the basis of this research he makes sweeping generalisations that the evidence doesn’t support.
Thus for example he thinks that because 35 million amphetamine tablets were given to German soldiers in the invasion of France (a fact that has long been well known to historians), they must all have been high. Given that well over three million troops took part in one capacity or another, this makes just over 10 per soldier for the entire six weeks; the drug was in fact mostly given to tank crews, so that the majority of troops were not supplied with them at all. And contrary to Ohler’s assertion, I don’t say the tank crews’ reliance on amphetamines to get them through the Ardennes in three days and nights of non-stop driving was irrelevant to the war; in fact I point out this fact in my book The Third Reich at War. But we need to keep a sense of proportion here. Just because the German army used amphetamines on specific occasions such as this, for specific groups of soldiers, it doesn’t mean they were used for everyone, all the time.
But this is exactly Ohler’s claim, extended to civilians as well. It can be read in the extract from his book appended to his 2 May 2017 article in The Guardian. He does indeed assert that the entire German population of 60 to 70 million people was kept going throughout the Third Reich by ‘Pervitin’, or what we would call ‘speed’, which became a ‘grocery item’ that ‘allowed the individual to function in the dictatorship’. There is absolutely no evidence for this bizarre claim, nor does Ohler supply any. It’s an ‘alternative fact’, designed to win attention through its brazen simplicity.
The same can be said of Ohler’s assertion that Hitler was a drug addict. At various points in his book, he argues that drug abuse clouded Hitler’s judgment, until towards the end he was turned into a physical and mental wreck by having to go ‘cold turkey’. Serious and medically qualified writers have already been through the evidence here, which includes the casebooks of his personal physician Theo Morell, but because they conclude that the Nazi leader was not a drug addict, Ohler simply ignores them. For anyone who wants a serious study of Hitler’s medication, I would recommend Was Hitler Ill? by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann. Perhaps Ohler should read it too.
Blitzed is a highly readable book, thanks to Ohler’s skill as a novelist, and it’s received widespread attention, as well as commercial success, thanks to his skill at self-promotion. A few historians who should know better have endorsed it, but mine is far from being the only critical review: if you want a really devastating assessment of its value, you should read Nikolaus Wachsmann’s demolition job in the Financial Times on 14 October 2016, not to mention (if you read German) the reviews by Anna Gnausch and other medically qualified historians of the German edition. As Gnausch says, Ohler tries to row back more than once from the obvious conclusion that will be drawn from his arguments, that neither the Germans nor Hitler were responsible for their actions, it was drugs that drove them, but that’s the overwhelming impression his book conveys. And that’s where the danger lies – in absolving Hitler and the Germans from responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich.
In the end, Blitzed belongs not in the world of serious history, but in the new landscape of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, and its commercial success is on a par with that of similar productions such as the books and television series that claim Hitler escaped from his Berlin bunker in 1945 and lived out his days in exile in Argentina. These too have been widely circulated and have met with widespread endorsement from viewers and readers, though not, it has to be said, from serious historians. It’s important in today’s climate not to ignore such claims, just as it’s important not to ignore Holocaust denial, but to confront them with real evidence. Only in this way can the ‘reality-based community’ prevail.
• This entry was first posted on the Conspiracy and Democracy project website on 30 May 2017.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.