Did stimulants fuel Nazi Germany’s war of annihilation?
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'A particularly potent, highly addictive, and quite insidious substance became a popular product under Hitler'

Did stimulants fuel Nazi Germany’s war of annihilation?

A probe into drug and alcohol use during Nazi Germany's 'blitzkrieg' assault on Europe opens a Pandora's box of coverups and accusations

A drug deal is photographed in Berlin, 1924 (Public Domain/German Federal Archive)
A drug deal is photographed in Berlin, 1924 (Public Domain/German Federal Archive)

‘Real historians don’t know anything about drugs,” said Norman Ohler, author of the book “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich,” recently translated into English.

From the Fuhrer shooting up before a military briefing, to German soldiers popping pills on the front, Ohler points to crystal meth and other controlled substances as playing an essential — but ignored — role in the Nazis’ blitzkrieg on Europe.

Since his book’s 2015 release in Germany as “Total Rush,” however, the author has been taken aback by the “level of anger” and “negative feedback” from some quarters, particularly historians of the Third Reich, he said. Nazi Germany’s heavy use of methamphetamine was repressed for generations, said Ohler in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“Although the Nazis pretended to be the cleanest of all, with a strict, ideologically reinforced anti-drug policy that was underscored by propagandistic pomp and draconian punishment, a particularly potent, highly addictive, and quite insidious substance became a popular product under Hitler,” wrote Ohler of the methamphetamine named Pervitin.

‘Showing you don’t have to be a historian to write a historical book is kind of a rebellion’

As a biography of drug use under Hitler’s rule, “Blitzed” begins with the German people’s pre-war affinity for crystal meth. From there, Ohler’s focus shifts to the stimulant’s conquest of the army, where meth was issued to soldiers as “wakefulness pills.” The book also details the elaborate intoxicant history of Adolf Hitler, some of which Ohler, a trained journalist, uncovered in archives.

“It has been like a repression,” said Ohler about the lack of research into drug use during the Third Reich. “That category of drug use is not valued and not significantly explained as a historical development,” said Ohler, author of several fiction books where mind-altering substances make an appearance.

The German book 'Blitzed' and its author, Norman Ohler (Courtesy)
The German book ‘Blitzed’ and its author, Norman Ohler (Courtesy)

Despite positive reviews from several leading historians, not all critics were appreciative of the journalist-filmmaker’s hunt for the prescription pads of Hitler’s quack-like doctor, much less Ohler’s claims that drugs were a key factor behind some of the dictator’s war decisions.

‘Ohler’s book is morally and politically dangerous’

“Ohler’s book is morally and politically dangerous,” wrote Richard J. Evans, a British historian concerned that “Blitzed” blames drugs, and not the German people, for atrocities committed by the Nazis. Other scholars accused the author of “mixing fact and fiction,” and “identifying causation where there is only correlation.” In the opinion of historian Dagmar Herzog, the book provided “more distraction and distortion than clarification.”

For Ohler, some of these accusations reveal his critics’ “false understanding of political correctness, shying away from the topic of drugs,” he said.

“Some historians are pissed because I am playing in their field,” said Ohler, who in 2004 was the last Western journalist to interview Yasser Arafat. “And I landed a big scoop in their field. Showing you don’t have to be a historian to write a historical book is kind of a rebellion,” he said.

‘The People’s Drug’

Sold over-the-counter during the late 1930s, Pervitin became the “people’s drug” during Germany’s build-up to war. Much was expected of Reich citizens, and the ubiquitous stimulant helped people stay awake for up to 40 hours “without any discernible fatigue.” By the time Hitler launched his war against Europe, thousands of Germans were addicted to Pervitin.

The methamphetamine-based Pervitin, a drug that achieved huge popularity in Germany during the late 1930s (Public Domain)
The methamphetamine-based Pervitin, a drug that achieved huge popularity in Germany during the late 1930s (Public Domain)

In Ohler’s assessment, the stimulant fit the Nazis’ new society like a glove. Taken as a pill or injection, Pervitin was used by all parts of society, without supervision, and could even be added to one’s morning coffee. The drug helped Germans “feel more at ease when they had to tackle a difficult task,” and it “vanquished their depression,” according to the book.

“In the Third Reich, the fever for Pervitin was escalating in 1939,” wrote Ohler. “Housewives in menopause were ‘popping the stuff like candy.’ Young mothers with postpartum depression took it prior to breastfeeding. Widows looking to remarry swallowed high doses to reduce their inhibition before going on a first date,” wrote the 46-year-old author.

Even when nominal limits were imposed on obtaining the drug to reduce “accompanying symptoms of addiction,” Ohler wrote, “it still wasn’t difficult on a given day to get multiple vials of injectable Pervitin, or to purchase hundreds of pills at one time from dispensaries.”

Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in Weimar, Germany, October 1930 (public domain)
Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in Weimar, Germany, October 1930 (public domain)

However much Pervitin revved up German society, the stimulant’s full effects were not unleashed inside the homeland itself. Beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler’s thirst for conquest demanded almost non-stop feats from the army. The Polish battlefields confirmed Pervitin as the Wehrmacht’s drug of choice to implement blitzkrieg warfare.

“Pervitin seems well-suited for counteracting symptoms of fatigue and for reducing the need for sleep after pronounced physical and mental effort,” read an army medical report following the invasion of Poland.

In April of 1940, the Wehrmacht issued an order that Ohler called “without precedent in the history of war.” In the “Wakefulness Pill Decree” distributed to medical personnel, Pervitin was praised as a “decisive” factor in the conquest of Poland. The army would henceforth distribute “wakefulness pills” to all soldiers.

For his efforts to uncover the German army’s use of crystal meth during the war, Ohler said he received some “negative feedback” from members of the modern-day Bundeswehr, the German military. Although Ohler said he sought the guidance of two army historians to write “Blitzed,” not everyone in the Bundeswehr was flattered by his book’s depiction of meth-fueled victories almost 80 years ago.

An Associated Press photograph shows some of over 132,000 members of the Hitler youth assembled at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany on May 1, 1939 (AP Photo)
An Associated Press photograph shows some of over 132,000 members of the Hitler youth assembled at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany on May 1, 1939 (AP Photo)

“I think they were hurt in their pride,” said Ohler, adding he was surprised that people so far removed from the Nazi era could feel besmirched by claims in his book.

“It was obvious that they took these drugs to be even better fighters,” said Ohler, adding that Hitler’s Wehrmacht was “smart” to supply soldiers with methamphetamine while French soldiers were being issued red wine.

‘Facilitator of atrocities’

Although the use of alcohol by Nazi murderers and their collaborators is well documented, the overall role of intoxicants in perpetrating the Holocaust has rarely been examined. “Blitzed” author Ohler told The Times of Israel he was not familiar with any research on the subject, although “we all know the concentration guards were drinking like pigs,” he said.

Last year, the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies published, “Stone-cold killers or drunk with murder? Alcohol and atrocity during the Holocaust.” In that essay, Texas A&M University Prof. Edward B. Westermann examined the use of alcohol by SS and police leaders to “steady nerves and lower inhibitions” among Shoah perpetrators.

Part of the Babi Yar ravine at the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine where the advancing Red Army unearthed the bodies of 14,000 civilians killed by fleeing Nazis, 1944. (AP)
Part of the Babi Yar ravine at the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine where the advancing Red Army unearthed the bodies of 14,000 civilians killed by fleeing Nazis, 1944. (AP)

“Testimonies by former SS and policemen are replete with references to a special ration of alcohol used as incentives for participation in killing actions,” wrote Westermann. “The disbursement of ‘special rations’ became a ubiquitous element in the process of annihilation.”

Westermann documented an array of uses for alcohol, including its “facilitation of physical abuse, sexual transgression, and mass murder,” wrote the historian.

In hundreds of Einsatzgruppen killings east of Poland, alcohol was present when SS men planned the next day’s “action” at a local pub, and liquor was also used to recruit collaborators. Alcohol helped calm killers’ nerves during open-air mass executions of Jews, now called “the Holocaust by bullets.” There was no stage of an SS-led “action” in which vodka or schnapps were not present, including when perpetrators “converted” the victims’ belongings into more alcohol.

Following the September 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev, the victims' belongings were pillaged (Public domain)
Following the September 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev, the victims’ belongings were pillaged (Public domain)

“The widespread abuse of alcohol among the auxiliaries in the East played a variety of roles in the murder of the Jews, one of which was to provide the perpetrators with easy access to their victims’ personal items,” wrote Westermann. “In numerous documented instances, [non-German collaborators] traded with local inhabitants: plundered goods, including items of clothing, for alcohol. Germans, too, traded plundered goods for alcohol.”

Just as “special rations” of methamphetamine pills helped fuel the German blitzkrieg on Europe, so too did alcohol help catalyze genocide in the east, where mechanized killing squads were tasked with implementing a new kind of horror.

“Many Einsatzgruppen members used alcohol both as a means for preparing for mass murder and as a way of dealing with their role in it,” wrote Westermann. “The execution of children appears to have been a threshold that some perpetrators could cross only with the assistance of alcohol.”

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