Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich — What it Means in Terms of Social Structure and Performance

On the beach - 1

On a very hot beach — Main Salmon, July 2016

I just finished listening to a stunning audiobook, Blitzed: Drug Use in the Third Reich. The book is primarily focused on research done by the author, Norman Ohler, on Hitler’s personal physician’s records, but also covers other stimulant/methamphetamine across the Third Reich during World War II.  Germany had become the leader in pharmaceutical technology for lots of reasons, pre-eminently though from the loss of its colonies due to WWI and the need to produce synthetic drugs because of the cut-off of natural remedies.  Because of this, companies like Bayer, Merck, and IG Farben found themselves pressed to the service of producing drugs like Pervitin, a methamphetamine, as well as Eucodal, essentially oxycodone, since natural opium from poppies was unavailable.

The author makes the point that is fascinating from a performance understanding of Authoritarian systems that the initial push through the Ardennes by famous General Heinz Guderian was made possible primarily through the use of Pervitin.  Though Guderian was a revolutionary military thinker, first using the idea of mechanized armor leading infantry, instead of the other way around, it was hyper-medicated Wehrmacht troops that enabled the Blitz.  French troops in 1940 were caught completely off-guard by the accelerated timescale of the attack, and as such hadn’t even thought to look for the German attack moving through the Ardennes in the middle of the night.

The book is one for nightmares — at the same time, the extensive research done by Ohler is some of the most important done on WWII that I’ve ever read.  Why?  Ohler comprehensively dismantles any romanticized version of Nazism and the performance of their army.  It was the drugs that made for the seemingly superhuman battlefield performance at the beginning of the war.

In the background, Ohler does a fantastic job of detailing the corruption that is the natural consequence of any Authoritarian system.  Guderian was initially not held back by disobeying orders, which allowed his superior performance-based social organization of his Panzer divisions to capture France in 11 days.  The short version is he implemented two-way radio communication between units, and coordinated tank operations at the the point of attack.  From Wikipedia,

“Guderian believed that among those things needed for success was the ability of commanders to communicate with their mobile units. Guderian insisted in 1933 that the tanks in the German armoured force be equipped with radio– and visual equipment in order to enable each tank commander to communicate with his crew and with the tanks in his platoon and company.[14] Inside the individual tanks, the German tank crews worked as a team, and the tank commander had the means to communicate with each of his crew members. Moreover, the German tanks worked collectively as a team, working together for mutual protection and increased firepower.[15] Said Hermann Balck: “The decisive breakthrough into modern military thinking came with Guderian, and it came not only in armour, but in communication.”[16] Of those things Guderian contributed, Balck considered some of the most important were the five man tank crew, with a dedicated radio operator in the hull of the tank, and the operation of the signal organization in the division to allow the commander to direct the division from any unit. This allowed forward control of the division, which was critical to mobile warfare.[17] The German victories from 1939 through 1941 were not due to superior equipment, but to superior tactics in the use of that equipment, and superior command and control which allowed the German panzer forces to operate at a much higher pace.”

Pretty empathetic — talk about demonstrating the power of information coherence on performance.  But all of it was, of course, doomed through the fundamental dominant collapsed Authoritarian v-Meme that so thoroughly permeated the Reich.  Guderian initially obeyed orders to capture France, yet was held off from attacking the retreating French and British troops at Dunkirk for six days. A stop order was issued from Nazi High Command and Hitler himself, due to the corruption and status-craving behavior of Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, who wanted credit for destroying the retreating army for himself.  Churchill famously quoted the evacuation at Dunkirk as a “miracle of deliverance.”  But it was not — it was a classic failure of the Authoritarian v-Meme.  If there’s any lesson here, it’s that social physics, once understood, trumps spirituality every time.

The failing performance of the Wehrmacht as the war ground on was not just due to the failures of Nazi High Command and Hitler’s micromanagement of the battlefield strategy.  Instead, it was at least as much due to the fundamental mental diminishment that comes from using meth over a number of years.  One of the disadvantages of an audiobook is that I can’t look up the numbers of pills of meth that were made and distributed.  But it was staggering.  Between the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe, there was almost an entire military force on crystal meth.

And the long-term side effects of meth are well understood.  One of my favorite pieces on WWII by Lee Sandlin, called Losing the Wara stunning piece of writing in the words of Sandlin known as belles-lettres, talks extensively about “berserker behavior” as a natural outgrowth of battlefield psychosis.  What is far more likely is that this behavior was chemically induced after extensive methamphetamine use.  Allied use is also documented, but not covered in the books.

The other pathologically fascinating profiling done in the book was about Hitler himself. As the war ground on, he was increasingly propped up by injections from his personal physician, Theodor Morrell.  Starting at first with vitamins, moving on to strange steroid concoctions derived from the endocrine systems of butchered animals — everything from bull seminal vesicles to pig pancreases– and then finally hooked on both Pervitin and Eucodal. By the time Hitler committed suicide, almost toothless and staggering, his blood was so think from the strange mixes of pig fats and hormones that he couldn’t even bleed.

The most fascinating part of this story also directly ties back to empathy — or rather, the lack of it.  Hitler, as one of the Great Tyrants, and a histrionic psychopath, lived in a state of completely collapsed egocentricism — where the only thing that mattered was his dissociated state and belief in victory, humanity (and survival of everyone else) be damned.  Two things struck me in listening. The first was a point Ohler made very strongly.  Hitler used drugs to maintain a fundamental homeostasis with his perception of the world.  The drugs did not make Hitler ‘psychotic’, as some might allude.  Rather, Morrell’s dysfunctional potions made the real consequences of Hitler’s psychopathy manageable for Hitler, and enabled him to continue ordering others to commit monstrous crimes.  Hitler, until the end, when the Eukodal finally ran out, felt great.  That’s the way it works with psychopaths.  It’s everyone else that suffers.

And that pharmaceutical support of Hitler’s all-encompassing collapsed egocentricity mirrored down through his supporters, with either fanatical loyalty, as was exhibited by most of Nazi High Command, and his SS units, or suppressed execution from those not bought into the paradigm.  Yet Hitler, ensconced in his top-secret fortress, the Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia (now Poland) maintained that singular Authoritarian v-Meme neural structure until near the end. With information, histrionic speeches and commands only flowing downward, in stark denial of the reality closing in, it’s an unbelievable disordered monument to the ability of systems to maintain self-similar homeostasis.  By the end of the war, you might think that it quite literally became impossible to maintain Hitler’s worldview, of a rapid, victorious end of the war.  Not all of Nazi High Command stay put in the Wolfsschanze.  Many ventured out into the middle of the burned and bombed-out ruins of virtually every German city.  Yet many people did.

It’s the Principle of Reinforcement, quite literally, on meth and steroids.

If there’s any takeaway from all this sadness, it’s that any time you get someone demanding overwork and loyalty without question in any organization, and you see people falling in line, get the hell out.  You’re not in a corporation — you’re in a cult.  As well, diversity rules with v-Memes, as well as with people.  And since it all boils down to information flows in the end, not surprisingly, the self-similar behavior in solution sets for the operation also are maintained.  Authoritarian systems, with their dichotomous thinking, are going to end in collapse.  And it’s not going to be pretty, regardless of the romantic, evocative distortion of the philosophy.

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