From Odd Nansen’s diary, November 21, 1944:
Just now a singular patrol is marching round and round the parade ground interminably. All are fully equipped and fitted out and sing and whistle as they walk. That’s the “pill patrol.” They’re being used to test out a new energy pill. How long can they keep going full steam on it? After the first forty-eight hours it’s said that most of them had given up and collapsed, although the theory is that after taking this pill one can perform the incredible without the usual reaction afterward. Well, no doubt the Germans could use a pill like that now.
One conundrum has always puzzled me about Odd Nansen’s diary. I understand why From Day to Day may not have sold widely when first published in English in 1949—in my Introduction I blame war fatigue, concern over the emerging Cold War, and other factors for the lack of interest. But what I’ve never fully understood is why historians failed during the succeeding six decades to use Nansen’s diary in their research on Nazi Germany, World War II, the Holocaust, the concentration camps, etc. The number of history books I found during my research that even included mention of From Day to Day in their bibliography can probably be counted on one hand. [Some attempts to correct this oversight are underway. Nikolaus Wachsmann’s magisterial history of the camp system, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, not only relies on Nansen’s diary, he begins one of his chapters highlighting Nansen’s interactions with Tom Buergenthal.]
So imagine my surprise when I recently purchased Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler.
A novelist and screenwriter rather than an historian, Ohler set out to explore a hitherto untapped vein in the motherlode that is Nazi history—Germany’s and Hitler’s remarkable use (and misuse) of drugs in order to function during the war.
Ohler’s book begins with an account of the Nazis’ early attempts to stamp out widespread use of the heavy drugs which characterized life under the Weimer Republic. This easy availability was due to, among other things, Germany’s preeminence in the pharmaceutical industry. In the 1920s German companies produced 40% of the world’s morphine and controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine traffic. Under the Nazis stiff penalties (including death and sterilization) became the order of the day. A favorite way to stigmatize illegal drugs was to lay their prevalence at the feet of the nefarious Jews.
But as opioid and cocaine use declined, German chemists were synthesizing new drugs—stimulants like methamphetamine—marketed under the brand name Pervitin.
At first Pervitin was available in Germany without prescription, and was touted as a cure for every ailment imaginable: aches, low energy, depression, reduced sex drive—you name it. By 1939, fears over its widespread use—it was even being added to chocolates—and its addictive qualities, led Pervitin to be deemed a controlled substance, available only via prescription. Even that hardly put a dent in its consumption, which continued to soar. Moreover, the prescription requirement did not apply to the military.
And if there was one group which saw the benefits in stimulant use, it was the military. Ohler attributes the German Army’s stunning blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” victories in Poland and on the western front to the Wehrmacht’s use of Pervitin to keep soldiers going for days without rest.
As Germany’s fortunes faded, however, and as Hitler himself became ever more dependent on various drug cocktails administered by his personal physician, German doctors tested ever more potent combinations of Pervitin and cocaine in a vain attempt to provide a fighting advantage where no advantage could be had. The soldiers who had marched into Poland in 1939 and France in 1940 were long gone by late 1944, and no amounts of stimulants could overcome the overwhelming advantage in men and materiel the Allies had built up.
Here’s where Nansen’s observation of November 21, 1944 (which is quoted by Ohler in Blitzed), comes in. Ohler describes the German Navy’s development of a new wonder weapon: a mini-sub designed to wreak havoc on Allied shipping in the English Channel. The crews, however, would need to function for four days without rest. Could they do it? New stimulants would need to be tested.
Elsewhere in Nansen’s diary (January 17, 1945) he describes the Schuhläufer, or “shoe-testing unit,” at Sachsenhausen. Prisoners were made to march over a semi-circular track composed of various materials (concrete, mud, gravel, cobblestones, etc.) to test the efficiency of various synthetic shoe soles, leather and rubber being in increasingly short supply.
As Ohler (and Nansen) point out, “the shoe-walking unit was a punishment unit.” Not only were inmates required to carry heavy backpacks (to put greater stress on the soles) and walk over 25 miles, the director, a man “known for his cruelty,” often issued shoes that were too small, or in different sizes for the left and right feet “supposedly to collect additional data.”
What Nansen was witnessing on November 21 was a special experiment by the German Navy on the shoe-testing track to see if humans could indeed function for four days without sleep. According to Ohler, one prisoner, pumped up on cocaine and seven times the normal dose of Pervitin, covered 60 miles on the track in 16 hours “without fatigue,” and all the test subjects were able to stay awake throughout the requisite four days. [The use of the mini-subs turned out to be a complete failure. Most never reached their target, and those sailors who returned to base complained of becoming delusional or psychotic under repeated doses of stimulants—all dispensed via chewing gum.]
An international bestseller, Blitzed has been translated into over 25 languages. As one reviewer notes, it “places a new lens on a disturbing chapter in history.”
Despite its commercial success, Ohler’s book has received a mixed reception by the historical community. It has been criticized as speculative, and given to overly broad generalizations, by historians Richard Evans (here), Dagmar Herzog (here), and Nik Wachsmann, while being praised by the likes of Antony Beevor (here) and Alex Kershaw, who called it “a serious piece of scholarship.”
In defending himself from his critics, Ohler penned a column for The Guardian newspaper this past May. In it he refers to Germany’s leading historian of Nazism, Hans Mommsen, and Mommsen’s excitement over Ohler’s research findings. He then quotes Mommsen’s reaction to reading about the “pill patrol”:
“Mommsen was shocked; he knew so much about the Third Reich, but had never seen the navy’s files documenting these abominable tests. “I have never heard of this,” he said, baffled. “We historians have no idea about drugs. So we have never looked this way.”
If Mommsen, and the rest of the historical community, had only read From Day to Day, perhaps they wouldn’t have been quite so shocked (and uninformed) after all.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of some of Ohler’s positions, it is heartening to me to finally see From Day to Day used once again as a primary source in a history book dealing with this “disturbing chapter in history.”
Odd Nansen’s diary is too informative, too important, and too well-written, not to be. Historians, take note!