Ever wondered what a powerful country in the midst of a meth epidemic might look like under fascist leadership?
Turns out there’s precedent, and it’s not pretty. According to an eye-opening book published in the U.S. this month, meth addiction quite literally gave us history’s greatest industrial menace: the Nazi war machine. It even got the teetotal Hitler in its grip during World War II.
The book by German historian and journalist Norman Ohler is called Blitzed, and it’s as breezy and darkly humorous as its title. But don’t be fooled by the gallows humor of chapter names like “Sieg High” and “High Hitler”: This is a serious and original work of scholarship that dropped jaws around Europe when it was published there last year.
Ohler has dug into the global Nazi records as never before (turns out a lot of them were taken back to an archive in Washington, D.C., after the war). What he’s come back with is the little-known biography of an over-the-counter drug called Pervitin “National Socialism in pill form,” as Ohler calls it. (Except that it was marketed to German housewives in chocolate form, that’s pretty accurate.)
Ohler estimates that 100 million little white Pervitin pills were chugged by Germans just in the pre-wartime period. Meanwhile, a whopping 35 million doses were ordered up by the Wermacht and Luftwaffe to fuel the coming war.
And what was Pervitin? You might know it better as the star of Breaking Bad, though its purity and potency would drive Walter White to tears: Methamphetamine.
Suddenly, if you’ve ever witnessed the devastation wreaked by this drug the overly aggressive, ego-boosting, hyper-paranoid, tragically soulless and ultimately self-defeating lives of meth heads World War II makes so much more sense.
Germany had long been world leaders in drugged living through chemistry. Earlier in the century, one scientist at Merck managed to invent both aspirin and heroin in the same two-week period. Before the Nazis came to power, the Weimar Republic had been hooked on the purest morphine and cocaine, plentiful and cheap as liquor.
The Nazis, no surprise, were giant hypocrites when it came to drugs. They declared that the bodies of all good Germans belonged to the state and must be clean; they executed and imprisoned addicts and dealers. (Many, like the morphine junkie Herman Goring, were addicts regardless).
But then a company called Temmler started looking for a drug that might make German athletes better than Benzedrine a low-level amphetamine made American athletes at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. (Thanks, America.) On what we should now remember as the most ominous Halloween ever, 1937, Temmler patented its new superdrug.
The rest is horrifying history. Temmler modeled its massive ad campaign for Pervitin on one for Coca-Cola. They sent 3 milligrams of meth to every doctor in Berlin; many became hooked even before they recommended it to their patients for a variety of ailments. (Each Pervitin chocolate, for comparison, had 14 milligrams in.)
Nazi bosses loved it. The SS loved it. Students loved it. Anyone working the night shift in this booming, re-arming economy loved it. But nobody loved it like soldiers: “War was seen as a task that needed to be worked through,” Ohler writes. Pervitin “helped the tank units not to worry too much about what they were doing in this foreign country, and instead let them get on with their job even if the job meant killing.”
The invasion of Poland in 1939 was conducted by soldiers on meth who didn’t need sleep, and the partitioning of Poland with Russia was negotiated by officers on meth who felt supremely confident about everything.
That’s when the war machine realized it was onto something.
What’s particularly chilling about this is the way everyone was in on it. With the exception of a few concerned medical officials who tried to close the stable door after the meth-fueled horse had bolted (Pervitin became prescription-only in 1939, but was still supremely easy to get and production went up by 1.5 million units a year), the drug just suddenly seemed to be everywhere at once. The meth epidemic spread from the bottom up as much as from the pharma giant down.
There was a “stimulant directive” from the Reich’s bureaucracy making sure all divisions were issued with massive quantities of the stuff, and that the soldiers were popping at least one pill a day and two if they had to stay up at night. But the soldiers were rapidly firing off stimulant directives of their own. Ohler offers letters from a future Nobel prize winner for literature, writing home to his family, his requests for PERVITIN filling the page in large block capitals.
Even the smart kids were meth heads in Nazi Germany.
Oh, and the clean-living Fuhrer too, though he didn’t really know it. His personal physician, a quack who made it big by jabbing famous people in the butt so smoothly they didn’t feel it, started sneaking some of it (along with morphine) into Hitler’s daily “vitamin” injections during the war.
The effect all this meth had? Ohler makes a pretty convincing case that we wouldn’t have the word “blitzkrieg” without it; the Germans may not even have conquered Europe. They were outnumbered by the French and British armies in 1940. If anything, Hitler actually wanted them to go slow. He feared a bloody return to World War I-style gridlock, and he also feared a runaway army that didn’t need him.
Nazi tank drivers blitzed France at least in part because they were blitzed, popping up to four pills at a time. They didn’t care for sleep. Lunch was a piece of chocolate or a biscuit. Commanders like Rommel literally drove over French divisions to get to the Atlantic, where one older officer insisted on going for a swim and died of a meth-induced heart attack.
The revelations in Blitzed, a relatively short book, are likely just the beginning of scholarship on the subject. For example, what part did Pervitin play in the Nazi street violence of the late 1930s? How many of the antisemitic killers and window-smashers of Kristallnacht, which took place a year into the nationwide meth epidemic, were high at the time?
We may never know, just as we may never know in what ways the U.S. meth epidemic 12 million Americans have used it overlaps with the rise of white nationalism. But Blitzed is at least a timely reminder of the drug’s terrifying power and a decent argument against the Republican healthcare plan’s removal of a provision that mandates Medicaid cover addiction treatment.
The battle to mitigate the effects of meth, currently the world’s most popular psychostimulant, may be one of the most important fights there is.