Meth-fueled war

Books | The pill-popping Nazi Germany invaders of France
by Norman Ohler
Posted 9/22/18, 08:32 am

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich is Norman Ohler’s tautly written account, based on previously overlooked documents, of how drugs fueled Adolf Hitler’s rapid rise during the 1930s and sensational fall during the second half of World War II. Among the conclusions: Methamphetamines distributed to thousands of soldiers made possible the blitzkrieg that killed France in 1940. Hitler became dependent on a witch’s cornucopia of heroin and other drugs during World War II.

This excerpt, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, describes Germany’s methamphetamine-soaked advance, and shows how the undrugged French found its speed impossible to fathom. Tragically, the mass lessons Germans later learned—live by meth, die by meth—have not been absorbed by many addicted Americans. Ohler provides a valuable lesson: Dance with the devil and die.

Blitzed was on WORLD’s short list for 2017 Book of the Year in the history category. Marvin Olasky

“Think Big”

Perhaps France died in 1940: their defeat against the Germans came after only eleven days, the country has never recovered from that humiliation.
—Frédéric Beigbeder

“The task is a very difficult one,” General Halder, chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres General Staff, noted in his diary. “In the given terrain [Maas] and with the given strength of the forces—particularly in terms of artillery— it cannot be solved. … We have to resort to unusual means and bear the associated risk.” Methamphetamine was one such unusual means, and the men desperately needed it when General Guderian ordered: “I demand that you do not sleep for at least three days and nights, if that is required.” And required it was. Only if the French border city of Sedan was reached during that time and the border river Maas (or Meuse) was crossed, would the Germans be in northern France sooner than most of the French Army itself, which was either still in northern Belgium, or inside the Maginot Line further south.

The Wehrmacht were well prepared. The quartermasters had ordered the pills in time. General Johann Adolf Graf von Kielmansegg (who became NATO commander-in-chief of Allied Land Forces in Central Europe in the 1960s) ordered twenty thousand for his 1st Panzer Division, and during the night between May 10 and 11, it was taken en masse. Thousands of soldiers took the substance out of their field caps or were given it by their medical officers. It was laid on their tongues and gulped down with a swig of water.

Twenty minutes later the nerve cells in their brains started releasing the neurotransmitters. All of a sudden dopamine and noradrenalin intensified perception and put the soldiers in a state of absolute alertness. The night brightened: no one would sleep, lights were turned on, and the “Lindworm” of the Wehrmacht started eating its way tirelessly toward Belgium. The listlessness and frustration of the first few hours made way for new and rather strange feelings. Something started happening, something that later 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 there had been in the First World War, but instead a storm of chemicals broke out, punctuated by euphoric flashes of mental lightning, and 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 percent, and hearts thundered in the cylinder chamber of the chest.

The average blood pressure increased by up to 25 percent, and hearts thundered in the cylinder chamber of the chest.

The first battle began in the morning. The Belgian defenders had entrenched themselves near Martelange, a small border community, in bunkers on a hillside. In front of them lay a slope, several hundred yards of open terrain: impossible to take except by a frontal attack, which was apparent suicide. But that’s exactly what the pepped-up infantrymen of the Wehrmacht did. The Belgians, shocked by this fearless behavior, retreated. Rather than securing their position, as military practice would normally have decreed, the completely uninhibited attackers immediately chased after them and set their enemies unambiguously to flight. This first clash was symptomatic.

After three days the division commander reported that they had reached the French border. Sedan lay in front of the Germans; many of them had not shut their eyes since the start of the campaign. And they still couldn’t rest: the German artillery fire was scheduled for 4 p.m. on the dot, and the massive wave of dive bombers was rolling in from the sky. Whenever the pilots of the Luftwaffe began their breakneck plunge and hurtled vertically down, they turned on their wailing sirens, the so-called horns of Jericho, which were followed by mighty explosions. Windowpanes rattled with the blasts and the houses of the border city shook. Meth unleashed charge after charge in German brains, neurotransmitters were released, exploded in the synaptic gaps, burst, and dispersed their explosive cargo: neuronal paths twitched, gap junctions flared, everything whirred and roared. Down below the defenders cowered, their bunkers shaking. The siren wail of the plunging planes drilled into their ears and left their nerves bare.

In the course of the hours that followed, 60,000 Germans, 22,000 vehicles, and 850 tanks crossed the river: “We felt a kind of high, an exceptional state,” one participant reported. “We were sitting in our vehicles, covered in dust, exhausted and wired.” In a rush they had never experienced before, the Germans took the French border city. “The pugnacious desire to defeat the enemy in chivalrous combat will never fade,” says the official Wehrmacht report. In fact Pervitin made an enormous contribution to putting the soldiers in a warlike mood.

French military reinforcements arrived a few crucial hours too late. The Germans had already crossed the Meuse. The dam was broken. Until their capitulation the French were no match for Germany’s chemically enhanced dynamism. They kept acting too slowly, were surprised and overrun, and continually failed to grab the initiative. A Wehrmacht report dryly states: “The French must have been thrown into such confusion by the sudden appearance of our tanks that their defense was carried out very weakly.”

The French historian Marc Bloch, who fought for his country in May and June 1940, analyzes the breakdown of French troops as a “mental defeat”: “Our soldiers were baulked, they allowed themselves to be thwarted much too easily, because our thinking was too slow.” The French brains were not dominated by the same euphorically tinted exceptional situation. “We encountered the Germans everywhere, they were crisscrossing the terrain,” Bloch writes, describing the crazed confusion that the attackers were sowing: “They believed in action and unpredictability. We were built on immobility and on the familiar. During the whole campaign the Germans maintained their terrible habit of appearing precisely where they shouldn’t have been: they didn’t stick to the rules of the game. … Which means that certain, hardly deniable, weaknesses are chiefly due to the excessively slow rhythm that our brains have been taught.”

This was a campaign that was decided in the psyche.

French losses through bombing were relatively small on this first day in Sedan, with fifty-seven dead. It was more the psychological effects provoked by the attack of the unfettered Germans that were so devastating. This was a campaign that was decided in the psyche. A French investigative report described the quick crossing of the Meuse by the Germans and the failure of the French defense as a “phénomène d’hallucination collective.

Time Is Meth

Blitzkrieg was guided by methamphetamine. If not to say that
Blitzkrieg was founded on methamphetamine.
—Dr. Peter Steinkamp, medical historian

Where an invasion is concerned, the advantages of stimulants are obvious: war is played out in space and time. Speed is crucial. One exception to this was the First World War, where minimal territorial gains were won over four whole years of fighting. But if, for example, Napoleon had been able to lead his troops out into the field two hours earlier at the Battle of Waterloo, things might have turned out very differently.

In the Wehrmacht report the methamphetamine-soaked advance of Guderian is described like this: “The General drives alone along the southern bank of the Maas [Meuse] in his off-road vehicle and heads off toward Donchery … engines firing, without rest or peace, day and night, as far as his fuel allows.” The reality is less harmless than these lines suggest. Thousands of people died in this invasion of France, which served as a blueprint for later campaigns, waged as it was in an innovative, unparalleled fashion. Guderian—with his grey moustache and his trademark binoculars around his neck—spoke of a miracle, but in fact he was the one who had during those days and nights invented the Blitzkrieg. In less than a hundred hours the Germans gained more territory than they had in over four years in the First World War. In planning the operation, Panzer Group von Kleist, of which Guderian was also part, had been given operational freedom as long as they could move fast enough and drive the front ahead of them. As soon as the tanks faltered, the group would be integrated into the structure as a whole. This instruction was now revealed to be a clever piece of planning: the squad developed the ambition never to falter and therefore be absorbed into the rest. Quite the contrary, they refused to be stopped and kept advancing, like the tip of a lance.

From Sedan onward Guderian was practically autonomous, out in front in his armored radio car, flanked by his ordnance officers in motorcycle combinations. His intention was no longer to secure the position and then to set up the bridgehead in an orderly fashion, following the rules. After taking the border city he charged on even though he was given a strict order to stop. In the rush of the campaign he became wholly insubordinate. He no longer needed flank protection; it was a matter of being faster than anyone who could have come at him from the side. He didn’t worry about supplies; he already had everything his unit needed. An ingenious supply system guaranteed that even the furthest forward tanks always had enough fuel, and Pervitin was distributed by the Main Medical Park, the Wehrmacht’s wholesale pharmacist.

Four days went past, and the Allies were still being completely taken by surprise. They couldn’t adjust to this unpredictable invader who didn’t act methodically but was simply focused on reaching the Atlantic Coast as quickly as possible, to make the encirclement perfect. The journey there would be achieved through a kind of ad hoc planning in which methamphetamine played a crucial part.

“We drive as fast as convoy travel permits. The general has his men run the operation as smoothly as possible. We covered huge distances today. Two officers from a French supply column are presented to the General: ‘Oh, the Germans very fast—très, très vite.’ They are flummoxed at suddenly having been caught. They had no idea where and when we were coming from. … On we progress to Montcornet. All the vehicles on this stretch are going at full speed. The general has to assign new roads for us to travel along. It’s all so incredibly fast,” as the report on Guderian’s advance has it. “In the market square the French are still getting out of their trucks, for a stretch they travel along in our column. No one has had time to take care of the town. The general stops at the church and regulates the traffic with his adjutant. One division off to the right, the other to the left. Everyone is chasing along as if in a race.”

In less than a hundred hours the Germans gained more territory than they had in over four years in the First World War.

The Blitzkrieg had unleashed itself and became autonomous—and in those hectic spring days of May 1940 it embodied the evolving modern age, bursting all its bonds, crossing every boundary. From now on, uppers were indispensable.

The Crystal Fox

Erwin Rommel, later by some way the best known of all the German generals, wasn’t an expert on tanks but came from the infantry, the rank and file of the army. But it was his ignorance of the steel giants and their possible movements that helped him advance in a completely unconventional way. He led his 7th Panzer Division intuitively, like a shock troop. Instead of waiting until the assault engineers had built pontoons, he put his massively heavy vehicles onto ferries across the rivers of France—and it worked. Winston Churchill, named British prime minister on the day of the German invasion, was rarely wider off the mark than when he tried to reassure his French colleague, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud: “All experience shows that the offensive will come to an end after a while. … After five or six days, they have to halt for supplies, and the opportunity for counterattack is presented.”

Rommel didn’t halt. Too nimble to offer a target, he drove and drove and drove, taking advantage as Guderian had done of the excellent German logistics and becoming a kind of deadly joker, always playing high and wild, becoming unpredictable, uncontrollable, unstoppable. They admired him at headquarters: “I’d like to go right to the front like General Rommel. He’s the greatest daredevil, always in the first combat vehicle of his division!” Even his superior, General Hermann Hoth, couldn’t issue him with orders, because by the time these written documents arrived on the battlefield, Rommel was already miles away and out of radio contact. He had no apparent sense of danger—a typical symptom of excessive methamphetamine consumption. Even in the middle of the night he stormed on and attacked solid positions while still in motion, firing all barrels like a sort of berserker, constantly catching his adversaries on the back foot. The French despaired at the sight of the unleashed monsters coming at full speed toward their artillery. What on earth were they supposed to do? There were no instructions on how to defend yourself in that situation; they’d never practiced it in maneuvers.

Toward the end of that first week of the attack there was a ghostly scene that casts a sharp light on the German advance: in the early hours of May 17, 1940, Rommel, no longer answerable to any of his superiors, tore along the road from Solre-le-Château, right in the north of France, toward Avesnes. As chance would have it, the 5th Infantry Division, parts of the 18th Infantry Division, and the 1st Infantry Division of the French Army had struck their bivouac on that very spot. Rommel didn’t hesitate for a second. He dashed through them, crushing everyone and everything, fired broadsides, and over the next six miles he pushed hundreds of vehicles and tanks, along with the dead and wounded, into the ditches on either side and rattled on with blood-smeared tracks, standing between two officers from his staff in the armored command post vehicle, his cap pushed to the back of his head, leading the attack.

The Blitzkrieg by the Germans, who no longer had to sleep, had breached all boundaries.

The Blitzkrieg by the Germans, who no longer had to sleep, had breached all boundaries. The seed was sown for future orgies of violence. There was an impression that these soldiers could be stopped by nothing and no one, and they gradually appeared to believe their own propaganda, which claimed they were truly superior. Methamphetamine, which encourages arrogance, supported this false assessment of the situation. The first rumors of the “unconquerable Wehrmacht” started making the rounds. The French war minister, Édouard Daladier, in the Élysée Palace, wouldn’t have it and yelled his disbelief down the receiver when his commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin, told him of the defeat on May 15 at 8:30 p.m. “No! What you’re telling me is impossible! You must be mistaken! It’s impossible!” The boches were already eighty miles from Paris— and there were no French reserves to protect the capital. Everything had gone so fast. “Is that supposed to mean that the French army is beaten?” Daladier’s expression was one of utter dejection. “I was dumbfounded,” Churchill recorded in his memoirs. “I admit that this was one of the greatest surprises in my life.”

The Germans had won the war in Europe after only a few days. Well, almost.

From Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler and translated by Shaun Whiteside. Copyright © 2015. Translation copyright © 2017. Translation edition published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 09/22/2018 10:06 pm

    I wouldn't say that drugs made the blitzkrieg possible.  They may have made the Germans inhumanly brave and unpredictable, but that does not necessarily turn the tide.  There were other strategic and tactical factors involved, not least of which that the French prepared as if the Germans would attack France directly through the Maginot line instead of poor Belgium.  The Germans also used what to that point were truly unconventional tactics, which people like Gen. Patton used very successfully later.  If the 3rd Army was stoked, I would like to hear about it.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 09/23/2018 04:48 am

    Fascinating article. It is clear from what you write that methamphetamines gave the Germans the critical edge they needed. The ability to go without sleep, to believe they were invincible, to not have to eat, as well as the possession of sharp critical decisive thinking skills gave them what they needed to carry out their Blitzkrieg. Tactics are tactics that as we all know are thrown out the window the moment the battle begins. But this short excerpt shows how the Germans were able to adapt and press on contrary to all expectations. It seems that it didn’t matter what route they took they were going to win. And did. But it couldn’t and didn’t last. You can only operate under methamphetamine drive for so long.