In Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, Norman Ohler shows how methamphetamines made the German Blitzkrieg possible

As German Panzers overran France in the summer of 1940, their drive and endurance astonished Winston Churchill, who wrote in his memoirs, “I was dumbfounded. This was one of the greatest surprises of my life.” Many wondered if this was indeed a super race.  The answer was simpler: Most of the tank commanders and crews were high on Pervitin, an early form of methamphetamine. The super race had become super using performance enhancing drugs.

Based primarily on sources from the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv (German Federal Military Archive), Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany is author Norman Ohler’s first non-fiction book and has caused a stir by quoting sources showing the pervasiveness of drug use in Nazi Germany.

Ohler describes how “speed” allowed the German Wehrmacht soldiers to achieve what had hitherto been thought impossible, namely, marching through the Belgian Ardennes in a bold attack on France during the summer of 1940 that lasted three days. Prior to the invasion of France in 1940, the Wehrmacht ordered 35 million Pervitin tablets, and a decree was sent to army doctors telling them to give soldiers one tablet during the day, two more at night, and one to two tablets three hours later. With the meth in their systems, the soldiers rolled through France at lightning speed.

Ohler’s interest in the topic began when a friend mentioned to him how common drug use in the Third Reich had been. Ohler began to investigate and, with the advice of historian Hans Mommsen, turned up materials that showed how National Socialism, despite its  ‘pure’ image, thrived on chemical fixes.

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
Norman Ohler (translated by Shaun Whiteside),
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany
(Allen Lane, 2016).
Listed on The Guardian’s History Books of the Year 2016 and a German bestseller.
Paperback: €17.95 // Cover courtesy of publisher

Hitler goes cold turkey

Until 1939, Pervitin could be bought without a prescription in Germany and was advertised as a way to boost confidence and increase energy, even making its way into chocolates sold by confectioner Hildebrandt. The company advised women to simply eat a few chocolates and then speed through their housework. At the same time, the company said, women would lose weight because Pervitin would curb their appetites. What could be better than finishing your housework and dieting at the same time? Ohler calls it “National Socialism in pill form.”

While the soldiers were taking Pervitin, Adolf Hitler was becoming addicted to a drug called Eukodal (now known as oxycodone), an opiate closely related to heroin, which induced euphoric states.  Hitler was prescribed the drug  in regular “treatments”  by his private physician, Dr. Theodor Morell. Eventually, even Eukodal was not enough to feed Hitler’s habit after the July 1944 attempt on his life, Dr. Morell began giving him doses of cocaine.

The real crisis for Hitler came in early 1945 when the Allies bombed the pharmaceutical factories. According to Ohler, as Hitler’s supply of drugs ran out, he began to show symptoms of withdrawal. Eyewitnesses at
Hitler’s bunker in Berlin noted his poor health, which until Blitzed  had been attributed to Parkinson’s disease. Ohler says instead that Hitler was going “cold turkey.” It seems hardly plausible that this fascist dictator could not obtain his drugs of choice, even at the end, but that is Ohler’s argument.

Breaking very bad

Thus despite ubiquitous National Socialist propaganda showing wholesome images of men and women, boys and girls, there was a dark side to the Nazi regime beyond the brutality toward political opponents and minorities – in the sponsoring of debilitating drug use to achieve its ends. While Hitler promoted himself as a healthy, teetotal leader, we see his contempt not only for his enemies but also for his own body and those of his people – tools to  achieve his goal of ultimate conquest.

The irony of a pure “master race” is not lost on Ohler, who describes the debauchery of the Nazi elite and shows the inherent rottenness of the National Socialist system that, for political and military ends, turned its soldiers into addicts.

As Hitler’s troops began to wear down in the Soviet campaign, and the Soviets counterattacked, not even methamphetamines could change the course of the war. For short spurts, meth produced results, but in a long, drawn-out campaign it was simply not enough.