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Winter Reading: Blitzed – Drugs in Nazi Germany

February 6, 2018

As a student of the Second World War, it was always a mystery to me why in 1940 the German armed forces, outnumbered by the combined forces of Britain and France, and with inferior equipment, managed to cut through France and reach the Channel with such devastating speed.

There have been many explanations, of course, ranging from the static tactics that the defenders inherited from the previous war to a lack of fighting spirit from two nations that suffered so grievously between 1914 and 1918.

The idea that the German invasion force was doped up on methamphetamine, from commanders such as Rommel and Guderian down to the tank crews that formed the spearhead of the advance – and thereby was able to sustain the attack for several days without sleep – is a new one to me.

That, though, is the theory put forward by the German writer Norman Ohler in his book Blitzed. He spends the early part of his narrative describing how in the 1930s Germany, deprived of natural resources by the loss of its colonies after the First World War, became expert in synthesising pain-killing and performance-enhancing drugs – cocaine, morphine and methamphetamine.

The latter was widely marketed as Pervitin. Whereas the Nazis saw cocaine and morphine as decadent drugs beloved by Jews and other undesirable elements, Pervitin seemed to be the wonder drug. It was available without prescription, and was used enthusiastically at all levels of German society – by housewives needing a lift, students preparing for exams and athletes competing in the 1936 Olympics.

Army commanders in a number of units fed the drug to their troops during the invasion of Poland, though not systematically. The results, in terms of alertness, aggression and endurance, convinced the High Command to sanction the use of Pervitin by all units, including the air force, in the forthcoming invasion of France and Belgium. They ordered huge quantities of the drug, ignoring the dangerous consequences of overdose, as well as the debilitating exhaustion that eventually caught up with users.

The invasion force rampaged through France at lightening speed. Tank crews were able to press onwards for three days without sleep. The British and the French were stunned by the speed of the advance. They were constantly on the back foot, unable to catch up.

In one passage, Ohner describes Rommel blasting through French units:

He (Rommel) had no apparent sense of danger – a typical symptom of excessive methamphetamine consumption. Even in the middle of the night, he stormed on and attacked solid positions while still in motion, firing all barrels like a sort of berserker, constantly catching his adversaries on the back foot. The French despaired at the sight of the unleashed monsters coming at full speed towards their artillery. What on earth were they supposed to do? There were no instructions on how to defend yourself in that situation; they’d never practiced it in manoeuvres.

Towards the end of that first week of the attack there was a ghostly scene that casts a sharp light on the German advance: in the early hours of 17 May 1940, Rommel, no longer answerable to any of his superiors, tore along the road from Solre-le-Château, right in the north of France, towards Avesnes. As chance would have it, the 5th Infantry Division, parts of the 18th Infantry Division and the 1st Infantry Division of the French Army had struck their bivouac on that very spot. Rommel didn’t hesitate for a second. He dashed through them, crushing everyone and everything, fired broadsides, and over the next ten kilometres he pushed hundreds of vehicles and tanks, along with the dead and wounded, into the ditches on either side and rattled on with blood-smeared tracks, standing between two officers from his staff in the armoured command post vehicle, his cap pushed to the back of his head, leading the attack.

Drugs, Ohner believes, also played their part in letting the British off the hook at Dunkirk. Guderian was ready to wipe out the encircled British and French forces, when he received the order from Hitler to halt. It seems that Goering, a morphine addict, persuaded Hitler to let the Luftwaffe finish off the campaign form the air. Both saw the army with its Prussian military ethos as potentially disloyal. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, was a Nazi creation. Best that they should have the honour of delivering the coup de grace.

Except that they failed to do so. Over ten days, as Guderian and his tank divisions looked on, the British and a number of French units were evacuated from the beaches. Was Goering pumped up into a grand delusion by the morphine flowing in his veins? That’s certainly Ohner’s theory.

I’m always interested to encounter German perspectives on the Second World War. One of my favourite movies about the war was Downfall, which depicted Hitler’s secretary’s account of the Fuhrer’s last few days in his Berlin Bunker. It was lit up by a magnificent performance from Bruno Ganz as a raging, deluded, self-pitying leader as he descended into his self-created hell.

As Norman Ohner relates Hitler’s drug dependence, starting with the bizarre injections administered by his doctor, Theodor Morell, and ending in almost complete physical collapse as he became increasingly dependent on opiods, cocaine, vitamins and untested hormones derived from animal organs, Ganz’s portrayal seems more faithful to his subject than ever.

Dr Morell became the Fuhrer’s his shadow, never allowed to leave his side, always ready with a battery of syringes and concoctions to revive the Fuhrer when needed, which was usually every day. Morell himself became wealthy through hawking his treatments around the Nazi leadership, and eventually by massive sales of vitamins to the armed forces.

Using archives in the US and Germany, Ohner plots in painful detail Hitler’s increasing reliance on Morell’s treatments from 1936, when they first met, until the last days in 1945. Morell was short, fat, vain and ambitious, toadying to his master and arrogant to others, as is so often the case with an autocrat’s courtiers.

As I read the story of the Fuhrer’s slow decline, Bruno Ganz’s performance kept coming back to me, especially as Ohner describes Hitler in his terminal state, hand and leg shaking uncontrollably, with track marks caused by incessant injections, drooling at the mouth, with food stains on his clothing. The picture on the cover of the book shows him in June 1944 around the time of Valkyrie assassination attempt, bug-eyed and stooping, hardly a picture of vigour.

Until just before the end Hitler was pathetically grateful to Morell for his treatments, claiming that the doctor had saved his life on several occasions. A few days before the end, Hitler dismissed him, enraged because Morrell couldn’t get his hands on the usual medications. The doctor managed to get out of Berlin, and was captured by the Americans, whose interrogators found him too drug-addled to provide them with any meaningful information. Two years later they dumped him, penniless at Munich Station, and, after being rescued – ironically – by a half Jewish Red Cross nurse, he died in hospital a few months later of chronic heart disease.

Blitzed is Norman Ohner’s first work of non-fiction. It’s gripping and fast-paced, and infused with plenty of black humour.

Until I heard about the book a couple of years ago, I was under the impression that the major pharmacological advance of the Second World War was the discovery of penicillin, which saved thousands of lives of servicemen who in earlier times would have died from infected wounds.

The Nazi use of methamphetamine was almost as significant. It echoes to this day. Various drugs, including amphetamines and marijuana, were used without official sanction during the Vietnam War. More recently, ISIS fighters have been prolific users of captagon, another form of amphetamine. Did that explain how ISIS marched into Mosul against overwhelming odds? Shades, perhaps of the German blitzkrieg in France.

The extent to which other armies use performance-enhancing drugs is not widely known, but it would not be surprising if the Americans, Russians and Chinese are not experimenting with a new generation of drugs that enhance resilience and cognition.

One thing’s for sure. Until such time as all the fighting is done by robots, humans required to risk their lives on the battlefield will always find it hard to refuse a chemical helping hand, be it in the form of a mug of rum before facing the machine guns at the Somme, or a wonder pill to turn them into supermen in the face of overwhelming force.

I can’t say I blame them, though the thought of submarine captains, drone pilots and those who man missile silos off their heads at critical moments is profoundly disturbing. And the same goes for presidents of the United States.

From → Books, Film, History, Politics

2 Comments
  1. Douglas Langmead permalink

    It all rings true to me. Drugs would explain the unspeakable treatment of those in concentration camps and the ethnic cleansings that went on. As for the use of drugs in modern times, I recall conversations with the USAF AWAC crews at the Boston 12-14 years ago when they freely admitted that they were pepped up with drugs to keep them alert on the radar screens during very long reconaissance flights. And coming down hard afterwards,

    • Good to hear from you Doug.

      Not at all to hear about the AWACS crews. Same goes for the drone pilots, I suspect. S

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