When the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, they were high on methamphetamine. The German-made product Pervitin "helped the tank units not to worry too much about what they were doing" and "let them get on with the job—even if the job meant killing," writes Norman Ohler in his eye-opening new book Blitzed. "Hitler refused to acknowledge" the drug's role in military successes, insisting the Nazis' secret was "the Aryan warrior's soul."
In the spring of 1940, the "insane" idea of "pushing a lightning armada of tanks through the supposedly impassable Belgian Ardennes Mountains to reach the French border city of Sedan within a few days, and then charge all the way to the Atlantic Coast," was made possible by millions of doses of Pervitin.
The Wehrmacht (Nazi soldiers) took the substance en masse, staying up for days on end without sleep as "a storm of chemicals broke out, punctuated by euphoric flashes of mental lightning" in their minds, and their "hearts thundered."
The maneuver "shocked" the Belgians because it looked like "apparent suicide." The Belgians retreated, and then, to their surprise, "the completely uninhibited attackers immediately chased after them" rather than securing their position.
From there, the Germans proceeded into France, led by "unpredictable, uncontrollable, unstoppable" General Rommel, who "had no apparent sense of danger—a typical symptom of excessive methamphetamine consumption."
As Ohler writes:
The Blitzkrieg by the Germans, who no longer had to sleep, had breached all boundaries. The seed was sown for future orgies of violence. There was an impression that these soldiers could be stopped by nothing and no one, and they gradually appeared to believe their own propaganda, which claimed they were truly superior. Methamphetamine, which encourages arrogance, supported this false assessment of the situation.
The French war minister responded to the news: "No! What you're telling me is impossible! You must be mistaken! It's impossible!"
Winston Churchill said, "I was dumbfounded. I admit that this was one of the greatest surprises in my life."
It wasn't just the Wehrmacht. For years, everyday Germans had been taking performance-enhancing meth, too. "The racist terminology of National Socialism was informed by linguistic images of infection and poison," Ohler points out, which is what made German society's widespread dependence on toxins disturbingly ironic.
In addition to Pervitin, there were over-the-counter meth chocolates, marketed to boost energy, relieve hunger, cure depression, make housework a cinch. "The recommendation was to eat between three and nine [chocolates], with the indication that they were, unlike caffeine, perfectly safe."
But the most jaw-dropping revelations in the book have to do with Hitler, who was given regular injections (including before important speeches and personal meetings with Mussolini) of a secret cocktail of drugs that included opioids, cocaine, and animal byproducts. So much for being free of toxins. So much for being vegetarian. By 1943, Hitler was engaging
in lengthy and enervating conversations with himself, spells that lasted until early morning. These waffling monologues could go on for hours, the Fuhrer's soft baritone addressing no one in particular. Instead his eyes gazed into the distance as if he were talking to a vast and invisible following. He never grew tired of going over his favorite themes yet again: talking about the harmfulness of smoking, preaching against the poisoning of the body, and praising his own vegetarian diet.
As Hitler retreated from public view, Ohler writes, he "missed those ecstasies that his appearances had previously prompted," requiring "a new injection of the pepped-up feeling that was so important to his self-esteem. In his isolation, all pleasure and energy previously received from the attention of a cheering crowd had to be replaced by chemicals—further cocooning the dictator."
It's a fascinating book, especially if it's been a while since you revisited the highlights of the European land battles of World War II. The writing is not without its flaws—the chapter titles are needlessly silly ("Sieg High!" "High Hitler")—but the underlying reality of chemical-induced psychosis puts the irrational, death-obsessed Nazis in clearer light.
And must it be said? The notion of an image-obsessed, secrecy-obsessed, loyalty-obsessed leader who claims never to drink or use drugs but has some deep secrets (Hitler also drank beer sometimes, according to Ohler) has creepy relevance in the United States right now.
Ohler discussed Blitzed on Fresh Air recently—click below to listen.