The soldiers of the Nazi regime were once thought to be among the best fighters in Europe in the name of furthering the ‘good’ of the Third Reich across Europe and the rest of the world. In the 1950s, an American military analyst, Colonel Trevor Dupuy, went as far as to say that: “On a man for man basis, German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances” – yet, the colonel wasn’t to know that the Nazi’s had a secret weapon: Methamphetamine.
In his book “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany”, author Norman Ohler revealed the extent to which stimulant drugs had festered the ranks of the Wehrmacht, the German army.
Above all the stimulants, such as cocaine and speed, methamphetamine, became an obsession for the strategists and coordinators of the German military and health ministry alike, and was to prove as decisive in winning countless battles as the soldiers fighting them.
Mr Ohler talks of the German defence physiologist, Otto Ranke, having one main enemy, that is, fatigue – “a strange antagonist, hard to grasp, one that regularly knocked out fighters, put them on the ground and forced them to rest,” he writes.
The war on exhaustion was duly waged, with Ranke reading a German chemist’s praise of a drug called Pervitin, or methamphetamine, which seemingly allowed subjects to improve lung capacity and absorb greater amounts of oxygen – standard signs of improved physical performance at the time.
It led to soldiers being tested on, which Pervitin proving favourable in promoting alertness and focus, good spirits, of which a military record of the time noted was: “An excellent substance for rousing a weary squad.”
This culminated in the first marked large-scale use of Pervitin and distribution within the Wermacht during an offensive against Poland on September 1 1939, the beginning of the Second World War.
Mr Ohler explains this set the tone for what was to come, and writes that Pervitin enabled soldiers to view “War as a task that needed to be worked through, and the drug seemed to have 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.”
Further on, he explains: “For many soldiers, the drug seemed to be an ideal companion on the battlefield.
“It switched off inhibitions, which made fighting easier – whether it was night marches, before which the upper was consumed by ‘all drivers and leaders at midnight to sharpen their attention’, removing stuck tanks, shooting or ‘performing other automatized manoeuvres’.
“In every aspect of the attack, which led to the deaths of 100,000 Polish soldiers and, by the end of the year, 60,000 Polish civillians, the drug helped the aggressors to work ‘without any sign of tiredness until the end of the mission’.”
In the following years soldiers were supplied with huge sums of Pervitin, with it proving to suppress the usual ills that came with battle.
The drug was most notably used during the Blitz, where Nazi pilots would dose themselves up before embarking on frenzied bombing with unparalleled precision.
Mr Ohler writes of Böll: “He couldn’t go without the ‘wonderful service’ of methamphetamine even after the war had ended and he was sitting back at his desk.
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“He became dependent on it as a soldier in order to be able to endure the exertions of war and carry on functioning: ‘Please send me, at the next opportunity, an envelope containing Pervitin. Father can pay it out of what he lost to me from our bet,’ he says in another letter from the war.”
This nonchalance in which the stimulant was talked of offering a glimpse of both its regularity in everyday life, subsequent danger and eventual downfall it would later cause.
Fast forward to the second half of 1944 and Hitler had lost on all fronts, with Paris falling to the allies and the prospect of the Third Reich global domination quickly diminishing.
Pervitin had long ceased to be the superhuman drug it once was, as Mr Ohler notes: “Now, only Pervitin helped soldiers either to keep going or to flee the enemy.”
We now know that excessive and prolonged use of Pervitin results in psychosis, with soldiers having consumed it more or less regularly since the first invasion of Poland in 1939 to the Blitzkreig on France and the attack on the Soviet Union.
Mr Ohler notes that psychotic effects and the increase in dosage to maintain desired effects would no doubt have been in play.
By 1944 and 1945 the Nazi soldiers were down and out, with Mr Ohler writing that although wounded soldiers’ spirits were partially lifted after being admitted a combination of Pervitin and morphine for their redeployment: “Many soldiers didn’t want to be redeployed; they were exhausted, run down, and they needed longer and longer periods of recovery.
“For many, the propaganda slogans about fighting to the last carriage rang hollow. No more talks of eagerness, the mood was downcast.”
Hitler’s defeat in WWII was multi-faceted, with an amalgamation of poor logistics and a lack of foresight; and, potentially crucially, an absolute devastation of his soldier’s moral, mental degradation and physical exhaustion at the hands of years of prolonged abuse of stimulant drugs.
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