In early 1959, my possibly ill-advised parents allowed me to see the British film, Dunkirk, which portrayed the desperate evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force after the German invasion of France in 1940. I remember that I could hardly sleep for days after that, unable to reconcile the horror it portrayed so tersely with the Approved Version of warfare that we heard every day on Anzac Day (the local equivalent of Remembrance Day or Memorial Day).
In August that year, I first heard the name Auschwitz. My father wouldn’t tell me what it meant so I found out myself. Before I had finished high school, I had read a great deal on the Second World War, including Bullock’s biography of Hitler, Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the dictator’s political Testament, and accounts of the unspeakable horror of the death camps. My intake was balanced, if that is the word, by Australian books on the Pacific War and by Soviet history, leaving me convinced that war had no future, a theme that has never left me.
But one question was not answered by any of the many, many books I read: how did the Wehrmacht manage to smash its way across Europe so successfully? In 1940, the French Army was the best equipped and most powerful in the world; in just nine days, they were pulverised. The enormous Red Army greatly outnumbered the invading Axis forces; yet in the first five months of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, well over three million Soviet troops were taken prisoner. By early 1942, 97 percent of them were dead, the greatest single slaughter of humans in our ghastly history. Granted, the Soviet soldiers were often barely literate peasant boys with very little training, pitched against a mechanised army with close air support, but that didn’t explain it. In 1941, Nazi transport was largely horse-drawn and bogged down in the first of the autumn rains.
Only now has some entirely original research on the vast archives of Nazi material held in Germany, the US and other centres been mined to give a credible answer to this question. In his first non-fiction work, German author Norman Ohler has presented an entirely credible account of how the great bulk of the German armed forces spent the war years high on methamphetamine.
In a work of quite remarkable scholarship, Ohler has traced two themes: how an enterprising drug manufacturer realised the potential of methamphetamine and managed to sell it to the High Command as a very valuable but entirely harmless drug that would allow soldiers to do without sleep for days. Just before the invasion of the Low Countries and France, his factory was turning out 850,000 tablets of methamphetamine a day, practically all of it destined for the troops – from the most senior generals to the lowliest private. For the Ardennes offensive, the Wehrmacht had stockpiled a staggering 35 million tablets, all of which were consumed in that mad, headlong and breathtaking rush to the Channel. Popping Pervitin tablets, Gen. Heinz Guderian, who is credited with the concept of armoured Blitzkrieg, stayed awake for nearly three days, during which time his forces ranged behind the French defensive forces on the Maginot Line, sowing chaos and fear everywhere they went.
This was true of practically all of the famous commanders and, if the generals didn’t sleep, what soldier could resist tablets that allowed him to stay awake and join the ecstatic victory? Ohler shows that Operation Barbarossa was probably the world’s largest coordinated group high; without the drugs, the Nazi forces quickly sank into a torpor from which they never recovered.
At the same time, back in Berlin, Hitler’s personal physician, Theodore Morell, was hard at work, appealing to his famous patient’s deep-seated suspicion of conventional doctors, injecting him daily with his own concoctions and, eventually, leading him to a terminal addiction to oxycodone, methamphetamine and cocaine. Morell himself was a neurotic but venal and utterly unscrupulous charlatan; the bond he shared with Hitler was probably the closest in either of their distorted lives. After the July 20th plot, Hitler was physically and mentally disabled. Morell was able to keep him going only through ever-increasing doses of the narcotics and stimulants, although Hitler probably believed he was still getting Morell’s patented hormone and herbal mixes that he so valued.
Bizarrely, none of the major references on Hitler’s life refers to Morell in more than fleeting terms, yet it would now appear he actively influenced the course of the war – for the worse. Ohler managed to track practically all of Morell’s meticulously detailed files on Hitler and decipher his atrocious and heavily disguised writing. The evidence he presents seems overwhelming: the younger Hitler was a most severely disturbed and neurotic personality. By the late 1930s, he was probably slipping into periods of paranoid psychosis but he appeared to be able to induce these more or less at will. Throughout the war years, his mental balance was seriously affected by Morell’s drugs until, after the Stauffenberg assassination attempt in July 1944, he was a hopeless addict, deluded and unable to recognise or respond to what was happening around him.
The book is well-written by an experienced writer, although in the latter pages, it becomes a bit florid. As investigative history, it provides a wealth of confirmatory detail on an era that will never leave us. It also raises the question of whether amphetamines and other stimulants can ever be safe. This book is highly recommended to anybody with an interest in the darker side of human nature, which should include every psychiatrist.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.