July 8th, 2017
It’s a truism that you are what you eat, but perhaps never more so than in Nazi Germany. Even if the war ended so long ago that certain elements of American society have forgotten that the Nazis were the bad guys, there are still discoveries to be made about the defining cataclysm of the 20th Century. German novelist Norman Ohler has made a particularly startling one with his nonfiction book Der Totale Rausch, translated into English as Blitzed. It tells the story of drug use in Nazi Germany, and specifically of a little pill by the name of Pervitin.
Invented on the outskirts of Berlin in 1937 and on the market a year later, Pervitin is a highly refined, one might even say perfected, methamphetamine. There’s a yawning gap between Pervitin and the crystal scourge of the American methlands, the difference between a real Rolls Royce and the one you built in your garage. But the underlying appeal is the same — methamphetamine confers upon its users a sense of quickness, confidence, certainty, energy and above all, alertness, an euphoria of well-being and power. Or, at least that’s how it seems to the individual burning through a month’s supply of neurotransmitters in a day, because that was the effect of Pervitin. Twenty minutes after ingestion, the drug would uncork a flow of neurotransmitters, flooding the brain’s synaptic gaps with a smooth and steady stream that would last for twelve hours. No bonus points for guessing what happened after the rush wore off.
That methamphetamine was perfected in Germany shouldn’t surprise us. This, after all, was where the pharmaceutical industry was born. Even before the Germanic states unified into the nation of Germany in 1871, the German-speaking lands were renowned for an educational system that produced exceptionally well-trained specialists of all kinds, chemists included. In was in the northwest of what was then the Kingdom of Prussia that a young pharmaceutical assistant isolated the key component of opium, which he named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. As anyone who’s ever needed to alleviate a crippling pain can tell you, this was a significant event in human history.
Opium could do the same thing, but different poppies produced different potencies and it meant that treating suffering with opium was trial and error. The discovery of morphine opened the door to what we think of as normal — the notion that the mysteries of herbalist could become the precision of the pharmacist. Now the dose of the painkiller could be measured with scientific accuracy, a certain strength gauged against a certain body weight, the effect modulated with complete control. That, of course, isn’t really how it works because, while the morphine might be completely consistent, all patients are different and these days, it’s the patient that controls the dose, which is almost full circle back to the opium eaters.
But there was something else lurking in the discovery that the poppy’s sap could be deconstructed to reveal the essential ingredient within. It was a promise, really, the first glimmering that — although the body had been envisaged as a kind of meat machine since the time of Descartes — here we could grasp parts of the machine that were less substantial than the levers, pulleys, and pumps. Grasp — and operate.
A century after morphine appeared in Westphalia, Germany was a chemical and pharmaceutical giant, and a nation on the wrong end of the First World War. The Weimar Republic was Germany’s first experiment with democracy, and it produced a nation of incredible creative ferment and social turmoil. Among the stew of artists, beggars, marxists, scientists, fascists, writers, filmmakers and just plain ordinary volk, all of them struggling with uncertainty, bouts of hunger and money that was often nearly worthless, drugs were in great demand. You might expect alcohol to be the palliative of choice in hard times, but in Weimar Germany drugs were far cheaper than booze — and completely legal.
Certain people were appalled by this and some of those people were Nazis. Though the Nazi rise was fueled by booze, Nazi PR was all about purity, and not just racial. Hitler, in particular, was mythologized as being of superhuman asceticism — barely eating, never drinking alcohol, boundlessly energetic and eternally sacrificing himself for the well-being of his people. Ohler makes the fascinating point that while the Nazis conflated jews and communists and drugs into a kind of single “social poison” infecting the body of the nation, they also strove to create a political ecstasy that was distinctly like a drugged state of consciousness.
The Nazis wouldn’t stand for any competition in the euphoria-inducing business and immediately set to work criminalizing drugs when they rose to power. They instituted their very own rauschgiftbekämpfung (war on drugs) and even changed the connotation of the word itself. The German droge once meant “dried plant parts,” and was a neutral term that encompassed anything dried that you might find at a herbalist. But the Nazis changed that and their preferred connotation, “powerful and dangerous-unless-controlled,” remains the default today, in the US as well as Germany.
The Nazis forced drug use underground and punished it severely in a way that queasily evokes the American model, right down to how anti-drug enforcement fell most heavily on minorities. And there are more uneasy resonances. The Nazis wanted to build a performance society, with citizens driving themselves to be more productive, more multitasking, more energetic (and cheery, too, dammit) as they slaved away in the service of something somehow greater, though details were sketchy. In the last years before the war, change came relentlessly until the once-prostrate nation teemed with power and ambition and cast all of Europe in its shadow. If the average citizen were to believe the words of the Ministry of Information, it was all for the better.
This was the culture that welcomed Pervitin with open arms. Depression, fatigue, weakness, faltering libido, slow thinking, awkward words, even addiction to the old drugs, all that was to be banished by Pervitin — and it had to be. There was immense pressure to be part of the “winners,” to join in the march of what was branded progress, and if you didn’t… Well, that was enough to rouse suspicion that you weren’t part of the winning team, and being on the wrong team in Nazi Germany was a lethal condition.
Pervitin (and I can’t help but constantly read that as “perverse vitamin”) was a substance matched to its moment. In short order, it became ubiquitous, like coffee. Actors, doctors, factory workers, students, scientists, firefighters, writers and — yes — Nazis, were all eager adopters. Housewives got their own special version in boxed chocolates, each piece of which was spiked with a dose of methamphetamine equivalent to five Pervitin pills. The maker suggested three to nine pieces as a suitable portion, and don’t sweat the calories, because it’s an appetite suppressant. By 1939, Pervitin was everywhere in Germany, a modern wonderdrug that did everything from awakening “sexual power” in women to making “shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into heroes of labor.
That’s all fairly horrifying, but it took war to bring Pervitin to its appalling apotheosis. The maelstrom began in September of 1939, but after Poland’s fall, five weeks later, the war seemed to fall into a kind of slumber. Yes, France, Britain and Germany were at war, but for seven months, almost nothing happened in the fields of Western Europe. At sea, it was a different story, as U-Boats and the Royal Navy began their long struggle, but it was so quiet that the Brits began calling it the “Phoney War,” while on the other side of the fortifications, German soldiers coined the term “Sitzkrieg.”
It was the ghost of World War I that held the armies frozen. Every general on both sides had lived experience of years of ghastly trench warfare, locked motionless in the mud with nothing to do but try to bleed the other side to death before your own side succumbed. No one could force themselves to give orders that might trigger it again.
The Germans had a plan to avoid this, a swift, bold stroke that would take their armies through the rugged Ardennes Forest and outflank the French fortifications. But there was a reason that the Ardennes was lightly defended. It was a maze with few roads, and if the Germans were discovered while still in the Ardennes, stopping them would be almost trivial. To make it succeed, the armored divisions would have to do something not possible, obey the orders of the tank general spearheading the invasion: “I demand that you do not sleep for at least three days and nights.”
Well, glory be.
The order went out: 35 million Pervitin tablets were needed for the military, and the Temmler factory on the outskirts of Berlin worked overtime, stamping out more than 800,000 each day.
The received history of the Fall of France in 1940 centers on the notion of “collapse,” that the French, too scarred by the last war, simply didn’t put up that much of a fight. Marc Bloch, French historian and soldier who fought in the Fall of France (and died fighting with the Resistance) came to believe that the real reason France lost was mental, that the French failed “because our thinking was too slow.” How right he was.
The Nazi armies didn’t stop gulping meth when they got out of the forest. They kept right at it for seventeen straight days, fast, reckless, fearless, confident and blitzed out of their heads until France surrendered. The Blitzkrieg has come down to us as a terrible but brilliant military innovation, a reconceptualization of war for the age of machinery and petroleum. But what’s left out of this is that for the whole notion to work, the people involved must also behave like machines. Pervitin was the last, essential, part of the strategy.
That’s all history now and methamphetamine use is a crime instead of official policy. But if we step back and consider the philosophy that underlay Pervitin, the past feels oddly present. The US military might be less open-minded than the Nazis when it comes to amphetamine abuse, but unsleeping warfare is still all the rage. The difference is that it’s now the domain of the drones and robots, aloft and on duty for impossible lengths of time because their human minders are working shifts in air-conditioned huts in the Nevada desert.
Civilian shirkers and malingerers pay for the privilege of being constantly online, which conveniently keeps them in line, at least in the eyes of those issuing orders from higher on the HR chain. That HR chain is increasingly likely to employ behavior modification software which looks like a game but which isn’t really about fun. To quote one of the vendors, “with Badgeville digital motivation, companies can see improved collaboration, performance at work, increased retention and employee well being.” GoldmanSachs, Chevron, Deloitte, Oracle, Pfizer and so on are all believers, but isn’t this kind of cheerleading about increased productivity, loyalty and “well-being” just a little too familiar?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the behavior modification algorithms (and social media, and texting, and email, and endlessly on) achieve their popularity by triggering neurotransmitter releases, just like our friend Pervitin. These “gamified” systems are less brutalizing to our internal chemistry, even if they may be just as addictive. But do take a moment to award Pervitin points for honesty — at least with the pill, you know when you’re taking the drug.