Luftwaffe pilots blitzed on crystal meth, Goering injecting morphine with a gold syringe and the Fuhrer with the arms of a junkie. How drugs fueled the Nazis: High Hitler.
On the surface, this all sounds like a modern scene, a snapshot from a 21st-century rave party or rock concert, where youngsters blow their minds on illegal chemical stimulants. But if you thought that, then you couldn’t be more wrong. Because, astonishingly, these descriptions of drug-taking are from soldiers and airmen of Nazi Germany as they invaded and conquered Poland in a lightning-swift attack back in 1939. As the tanks, troops and planes swarmed across the border, there was no time for rest. Medical officers doled out performance-enhancing, mind-bending tablets by the bucket-load to keep men awake, alert and focused. It has long been known that figures at the top of the Nazi hierarchy were serious drug-takers. The Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Goering, was addicted to morphine, and the Fuhrer himself had massive doses of stimulants injected into him on a daily basis.
But much the same, it now seems, went for those they commanded. Poland fell in a matter of days to Nazi troops high on the German-invented, factory-produced amphetamine called Pervitin . The tablets tasted horrible — ‘repentantly bitter and floury’, according to one soldier as he chewed his three at a time — but were so effective in overcoming fatigue and delivering super-human self-confidence that the distinctive orange and blue tubes they came in were every bit as essential a piece of kit as grenades and rifles. According to this book by German author Norman Ohler, the whole of the Third Reich was awash with narcotics. The apt title of Blitzed sums up how drugged up he believes that nation was as it fought and lost World War II. ‘National Socialism,’ he writes, ‘was toxic in the truest sense of the word. It gave the world a chemical legacy that still affects us today, a poison that refuses to disappear.’
The Nazis came to power, don’t forget, claiming the moral high ground over the decadent, drug-fueled years of Germany’s Weimar Republic, in which actresses sipped cocktails of chloroform and ether, and close to half of Berlin’s doctors were said to be morphine addicts. Hitler and his gang were ‘clean’, they insisted, declaring a war on hard drugs and clamping down on ‘seductive poisons’ such as heroin and cocaine and the degenerates who used them.
But a blind eye was turned to other dangerous narcotics. At the Temmler pharmaceuticals factory near Berlin , chemists turned out synthetic ‘happy pills’ by the millions. Their active ingredient was an artificial form of Adrenalin, which acted like a firework going off in the brain.
It upped energy levels, gave confidence, boosted libido. Pretty soon in booming Germany, everyone in industry, business or at home was upping his or her game by downing pills. They worked on menopausal women, new mums with the baby blues and hay fever sufferers. You could even buy chocolates that were spiked with it. Side-effects from prolonged use — listlessness, joylessness and depression — were downplayed. And when the country went to war in 1939 and into situations of even greater stress, naturally the drug went, too.
Soldier Heinrich Boll (later a Nobel laureate in literature) wrote home from the front line asking his parents to send him ‘a bit of bacon, cigarettes and some Pervitin’.
Senior military doctors were big fans. ‘Excellent for rousing a weary squad,’ wrote one. Those in combat agreed. The drug switched off inhibitions as well as fatigue. Gruesome tasks were more easily done.Its positives in the Poland campaign were an argument for its use in Hitler’s next ‘blitzkrieg’ attack — the invasion of Belgium and France in May 1940.
Three weeks before it was launched, a so-called ‘stimulant decree’ went out to field regiments: one tablet a day and two at night and a man could go for 24 hours or more without sleep. The only side-effect might be ‘belligerence’ — and what was wrong with that? The Temmler factory went into overdrive, turning out a staggering 35 million pills. On this massive high, the pumped-up German army hared through Belgium and France, covering hundreds of miles without stopping, right to the shoes of the English Channel.
But then, surprisingly, the rush was over. The German military onslaught controversially came to a halt on Hitler’s order, letting the British Army off the hook at Dunkirk to scramble back home and live to fight another day. Ohler claims that drugs played a part in this supposedly crucial strategic blunder. The ghastly Goering, he says, was shooting up on morphine at the time with his craftsman-made gold syringe.
Bloated, as a result, with a false sense of invincibility, he insisted to Hitler that his air force could do a better job of destroying the British on the beaches than the army could.
But the Luftwaffe failed in this mission, as it also did in the subsequent aerial Battle of Britain . London was ‘blitzed’ by bombs, but survived to continue the war. For Germany, the momentum of victory was gone, replaced by a sense of anti-climax. A long, dragged-out war began, particularly in Russia, where, after initial spectacular successes mirroring those in Poland and France, the German army was bogged down. Pervitin suited a blitz strategy, but had the opposite effect during the attritional slugging match that now followed. All its bad side-effects surfaced: depression, lethargy, insomnia, paranoia. Plus dependency. By now, millions of Germans, whether away fighting or at home, were addicted.
To be fair, Germany’s fighting men were not alone in their use of stimulants. British air crews swallowed what they called ‘wakey-wakey’ pills before setting out on long-distance bombing missions to Germany. But these were Benzedrine , also an amphetamine, but much less potent than crystal meth. Nor did the habit spread to the civilian population here, which had only tea, cigarettes and watered beer to settle its nerves. The full extent of Nazi Germany’s drug habit, as detailed by Ohler, comes as a real surprise. It seems to have been more widespread and more debilitating to the war effort than historians previously realised.
But then again, Hitler was increasingly pumping himself full of weird substances to keep his flagging health from caving in, all concocted by his personal doctor, Theodor Morell, and injected into the Fuhrer many times a day. Eva Braun, Mussolini, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Speer and Goering’s wife were also on Morell’s books.
He picked from more than 80 painkillers, pick-me-ups, hormone preparations, steroids, quack remedies and balms, always changing the ingredients of the cocktail to avoid dependency and always injecting because Hitler preferred the quick fix of a needle. His arms had the tracks of a junkie as a result. From late 1943, he was on frequent doses of Eukodal, an opiate that gave a bigger kick than heroin. It gave him ludicrously optimistic highs — in which he maintained he could still rule the world — followed by deep depressions, where he lashed out at all those around him for disloyalty.
The mad mood swings were also accompanied by other side-effects — insomnia, tremors and terrible constipation. Thus it was that, shaking and unable to sleep or defecate, the Fuhrer and his Thousand-Year Reich collapsed in ruins in just 12 years, brought down by ego, over-ambition and dodgy drugs.
Its addiction to Pervitin said it all. It promised the earth but, in reality, plumbed the depths. Just like Nazism itself.