One of the images that always sticks with me when I think about the virtues of rest (and mention in my book) is that of Winston Churchill regularly taking afternoon naps, and Adolf Hitler staying up for days on end on a cocktail of meth, cocaine, and heaven knows what else. Any assumption that long hours inevitably lead to victory are challenged by the way those two lives played out.
But it turns out that, according to a new book, the Nazis were even more into performance-enhancing and energy-boosting drugs, particularly methamphetimine and cocaine, than I realized. Norman Ohler’s new book, brilliantly titled Blitzed, is the first detailed study of drug use in the Third Reich.
A review in The Guardian explains that while lots of drugs were banned on the grounds that they were decadent, etc., some drugs
had their uses, particularly in a society hell bent on keeping up with the energetic Hitler (“Germany awake!” the Nazis ordered, and the nation had no choice but to snap to attention). A substance that could “integrate shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into the labour market might even be sanctioned. At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug – and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers (initially, it could be bought without prescription). It even made its way into confectionery. “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight,” went the slogan. Women were recommended to eat two or three, after which they would be able to get through their housework in no time at all – with the added bonus that they would also lose weight, given the deleterious effect Pervitin had on the appetite. Ohler describes it as National Socialism in pill form.
Meth was issued to soldiers involved in the invasion France, so they could drive forward for several days without having to stop (and thus giving the enemy time to regroup). “Thereafter, drugs were regarded as an effective weapon by high command, one that could be deployed against the greatest odds.”
The Nazis may be worth a closer look as a great example of an ideology of superhuman performance even more extreme than what we see in today’s hardest-driving professions.