“I demand that you do not sleep for at least three days and nights if that is required,” General Heinz Guderian is said to have told the thousands of German troops who had massed to cross the Meuse river and push into Belgium and France in 1940.
The largest motorised unit in military history had assembled, comprising 41,410 vehicles and including 1222 tanks. Its goal: to reach the French town of Sedan before the French army did. However, only by fighting non-stop for at least 72 hours would that be possible. As General Franz Halder noted in his diary: “We have to resort to unusual means.”
According to German author Norman Ohler, that meant one thing: drugs, specifically methamphetamine. In his book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, translated from German and praised for its meticulous research, Ohler advances the claim that the Nazis used stimulants and narcotics as military strategy. On this particular night on the Meuse, he writes, a supply of 20,000 pills was distributed to the soldiers, who collectively consumed the entire stock during the course of the night.
“Twenty minutes later, the nerve cells in their brains started releasing neurotransmitters. All of a sudden, dopamine and noradrenaline put the soldiers in a state of absolute alertness. The night brightened, no one would sleep, lights were turned on and the Wehrmacht started eating its way tirelessly towards Belgium. The listlessness and frustration of the first few hours made way for new and strange feelings. Something started happening, something no one could readily explain. An intense chill crept across scalps, a hot feeling of cold filled everyone from within. There were as yet no storms of steel, as in the first world war, but instead a storm of chemicals broke out, punctuated by euphoric flashes of mental lightning.
“The level of activity reached its peak. The drivers drove; the radio operators’ decoding machines, like futuristic typewriters, radioed; gunners in black combat trousers and dark grey shirts crouched behind their weapons, ready to fire.
“There were no more breaks; an uninterrupted chemical bombardment had broken out in the cerebrum, the body released greater quantities of nutrients, boosting its sugar production so that the machine was running at maximum output and the pistons were going up and down exponentially.
“The average blood pressure increased by up to 25 per cent and hearts thundered in the cylinder chamber of the chest.”
Ohler, in Australia recently for the Sydney Writers Festival, says chemical assistance such as the stimulant Pervitin — akin to the street drug crystal meth — stretched all the way to the Nazi high command and Adolf Hitler.
Endorsed by British historian Ian Kershaw, who wrote Hitler: A Biography, Ohler says soldiers were able to stave off sleep for as long as 17 days to catch Allied forces off-guard in key battles.
“We felt a kind of high, an exceptional state,” relates a German soldier, whose unit had fought without a break for three days. “We were sitting in our vehicles, covered in dust, exhausted, wired.”
Ohler mines rare documents and archival images for his book and bases his thesis on a close examination of notes and correspondence from those in the field. He describes how methamphetamine became an indispensable component of German battle plans, one tank group consuming 30 million pills within months, the mental high and military victories giving troops a sense of arrogance, fearlessness and uninhibited invincibility. Ohler writes of the French campaign: “In less than 100 hours the Germans gained more territory than they had in over four years in the first world war.” Winston Churchill, he writes, was dumbfounded. Of course, there were consequences for the soldiers: cardiac arrests, heart attacks, physical collapse.
Ohler asserts German pilots also used the drug, enabling their Messerschmitts to keep flying for longer than Britain’s Spitfires, as did the navy, with Hitler Youth recruited to pilot one-man torpedo vehicles while ingesting cocaine-spiked chewing gum. Many drowned at sea, he says. Drugs also were used as a form of torture, with cocaine administered to Sachsenhausen inmates to test how long they could keep walking, some managing four days non-stop.
Hitler reportedly became increasingly dependent on drugs including methamphetamine supplemented with barbiturates, cocaine, steroids, sex hormones and an early form of OxyContin. His physician, Theodor Morell, was administering 28 pills a day at one stage, in addition to a barrage of injections, scarring his patient’s arms where the skin was perforated. As the pressure of losing the war mounted, Hitler’s physical decline belied his unrealistic drug-imbued optimism and he began experiencing tremors, regularly placing his right hand over his left and right leg over his left to conceal the shaking when seated.
Despite five years of research and much hard evidence, large parts of Ohler’s thesis are impossible to corroborate. It is worth noting that he emphasises that Hitler’s “goals and motives were not the result of drugs but established much earlier. Hitler did not murder because he was living in a haze. Quite the contrary … Hitler was always the master of his senses and knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert, cold-blooded way. He acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane. He could go on taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes. It does not diminish his monstrous guilt.”
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.