Some drugs, however, had their uses, particularly in a society hell bent on keeping up with the energetic Hitler (“Germany awake!” the Nazis ordered, and the nation had no choice but to snap to attention). A substance that could “integrate shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into the labour market might even be sanctioned. At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug – and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers (initially, it could be bought without prescription). It even made its way into confectionery. “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight,” went the slogan. Women were recommended to eat two or three, after which they would be able to get through their housework in no time at all – with the added bonus that they would also lose weight, given the deleterious effect Pervitin had on the appetite. Ohler describes it as National Socialism in pill form.Ohler got interested in Nazi drug use after reading the notes of Hitler's doctor; I think the knowledge that Hitler was a heavy user of cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates is fairly widespread by now. But the extent of drug use throughout the Reich has remained obscure. I must have read about the German invasion of France in two dozen books, including two just about that six weeks of fighting, but not one of them mentioned those 35 million doses of methamphetamine. Ohler claims that the initial German breakthrough was only possible because the men of the panzer divisions went for 72 hours without sleep. The picture at the top shows a bar of Panzerschokolade, chocolate heavily laced with amphetamines.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before soldiers were relying on it too. In Blitzed, Ohler reproduces a letter sent in 1939 by Heinrich Böll, the future Nobel laureate, from the frontline to his parents back at home, in which he begs them for Pervitin, the only way he knew to fight the great enemy – sleep. In Berlin, it was the job of Dr Otto Ranke, the director of the Institute for General and Defence Physiology, to protect the Wehrmacht’s “animated machines” – ie its soldiers – from wear, and after conducting some tests he concluded that Pervitin was indeed excellent medicine for exhausted soldiers. Not only did it make sleep unnecessary (Ranke, who would himself become addicted to the drug, observed that he could work for 50 hours on Pervitin without feeling fatigued), it also switched off inhibitions, making fighting easier, or at any rate less terrifying.
In 1940, as plans were made to invade France through the Ardennes mountains, a “stimulant decree” was sent out to army doctors, recommending that soldiers take one tablet per day, two at night in short sequence, and another one or two tablets after two or three hours if necessary. The Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe ordered 35 million tablets, and the Temmler factory increased production. The likes of Böll, it’s fair to say, wouldn’t need to ask their parents for Pervitin again.
Maybe we shouldn't put too much weight on these accounts of amphetamine use as explanations for how the war went. Or maybe we should; amphetamine use at the levels Ohler describes absolutely can make men crazy. How many Nazis were drug-crazed on top of all their other problems?
It's fascinating to think about the effects of dangerous, mind-altering drugs being used on such a massive scale by men carrying guns and flying fighter planes.