Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

High Hitler: The Führer's Drug Dependency as a Reverse Causal Counterfactual

Norman Ohler’s new book, The Total High: Drugs in the Third Reich (Der totale Rausch: Drogen im Dritten Reich), raises interesting counterfactual questions about Hitler’s reign as the dictator of Nazi Germany. 


I haven’t yet seen a copy of the book, but based on reviews in the German press, it appears that Ohler argues that without a steady intake of illegal stimulants (cocaine, Quadro-Nox, Profundol, Belladonna Obistinol) and the “euphoria” they provided, Hitler “would have been unable to pull himself together for military conferences” and other important governmental meetings.  (This claim can be found in the Tagesanzeiger review).

Or as the Frankfurter Rundschau put it in a separate review: “Without supportive pharmaceutical means, Hitler would not have been able to play his demented Führer role, which cost millions of people worldwide their lives, to the end.”

These counterfactuals seek to underscore the importance of drugs for the Führer’s ability to function on a daily basis in reverse fashion by asserting how their absence would have affected him (rather than how their availability actually affected him). 

The claim can be seen as an example of what might be called a reverse causal counterfactual.  Or as Richard Ned Lebow writes in Forbidden Fruit, “If we hypothesize that ‘x’ caused ‘y,’ we assume that ‘y’ would not have happened…in the absence of ‘x’ (p. 40).” 

Applied to Ohler’s book, this mode of causal reasoning allows us to see that there is a difference between claiming: 1) drugs enabled Hitler to function until the end of the war and 2) without drugs Hitler could not have functioned until the end of the war.

The latter claim assigns more causal weight to drugs than the former, as other things besides drugs (say, food) were presumably necessary to enable Hitler to function during this period.  Claiming those things would have been insufficient in the absence of drugs underlines their causal importance more dramatically.  This kind of counterfactual has also been called a "necessary condition counterfactual," meaning that a given factor 'x' (here, drugs) was a "necessary factor for "y" (Hitler's functioning).  See Gary Goetz and Jack S. Levy (eds.), Explaining War and Peace: Case Studies and Necessary Condition Counterfactuals (2007).

The use of the term, “without,” in the introductory clause of any conditional sentence is probably a good sign that you are dealing with a reverse causal counterfactual, probably the most basic type of formulation of all.


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