Context is important, but too often history is presented and accepted without necessary context that explains the otherwise inexplicable or broadens our understanding of things that seem hard to understand. Take the trial of the philosopher Socrates. Most know of it only as a miscarriage of justice by irrational Athenians. That ignores the context of the time and circumstances, of a trial that occurred soon after a popular revolution had overthrown a tyrannical regime dominated by Socrates’ students, that had murdered thousands. Seen from that perspective, public resentment of the tyrants’ teacher might explain why the Athenians were so sore at Socrates. Following are thirty things about that and other historic facts that are often presented out of context.
30. The Context of Socrates’ Trial and Execution
Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470 – 390 BC), the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition, is deemed a founder of Western philosophy. The widely accepted narrative is that he was an honest man who asked uncomfortable questions that his fellow Athenians did not like. So in a great miscarriage of justice, they railroaded, tried and executed him. At least that is how his most famous pupil, Plato, put it. However, if one digs into the context of what was going on in Athens at the time, that narrative begins to lose its shine.
To many at the time, Socrates could have been viewed as a guru who taught some nasty people and filled their heads with anti-democracy views. His students then went on to do horrible things. There is no historic evidence that Socrates personally did any of the bad things to his worst pupils. When called upon to personally participate in evil, he went home instead. However, when one considers how contemporary Athenians might have seen it, Socrates could be compared to a modern radical imam who might not personally get his hands dirty, but whose preaching fires up others and inspires them to do awful things.
29. Socrates Attracted Those Who Disliked Democracy
Socrates was a well-known and controversial figure in his native Athens. A gadfly, he often stopped people and asked them a series of questions that ultimately left them tied up in logical knots and contradicting themselves – the Socratic Method. That made him unpopular with many, and he was frequently mocked in the plays of comic dramatists, such as Aristophanes’ The Clouds. He emerged in the context of Athens at the height of her power – a flourishing democracy and the most powerful polis, or city state, of the era. Something like the USA of the Greek world.
Socrates questioned democracy, which was music to the ears of Athens’ snobby rich young – think the equivalent of modern trust fund preppy spoiled brats. He validated their view that privileged people like them had a natural right to lord it over the unwashed masses. One of those students, Alcibiades, went on to betray Athens and turn it upside down and inside out during the Peloponnesian War, which ended catastrophically for the Athenians. Socrates was not responsible for the actions of Alcibiades, who was a live wire and dangerous force of nature. However, Alcibiades is an example of the kinds of privileged youth who liked Socrates because they thought he was “edgy”.
28. The Rule of the Thirty Tyrants Offers Context for Why the Athenians Were So Mad at Socrates
In of itself, Socrates’ street trolling was an annoyance, but it did not anger his fellow citizens enough to want to kill him. Nor was the fact that he inspired and was liked by Ancient Athens’ version of preppy snobs sufficient to rile up other Athenians so much that they wanted Socrates dead. The context that took him from an irritant to a hated menace was the rise of the Thirty Tyrants – a cabal of rich Athenians who overthrew the democratic government. Their leader was Socrates’ student Critias, and their numbers included other pupils of the famous philosopher. They installed a collaborationist regime supported by Sparta, Athens’ longtime enemy which had defeated it after a decades-long Peloponnesian War.
The Thirty Tyrants’ government was an oligarchy dominated by aristocrats, and a bloodthirsty one at that. In the short time it held power, the regime carried a deadly purge against democratic supporters in which an estimated 5% of Athens’ citizens were murdered, and others had their property confiscated and were forced to flee into exile. To put that in a modern context, picture if America’s 1%, led by radical devotees of Ayn Rand, carried a coup backed by China or Russia, and overthrew the US government. Then they installed a radical libertarian government, and rolled rights back to the days when only the propertied upper class got to vote. To cow the population into submission, they then sent out squads that took out about 16 million Americans – 5% of the 2021 population.
27. The Rule of the Thirty Tyrants Made Socrates a Widely Loathed Figure in Athens
Although Socrates’ students led the Thirty Tyrants, he refused to get his own hands dirty in their reign of terror. In one narrative, he was ordered to participate in the roundup and execution of some people, but he heeded the dictates of his inner conscience and went home instead. Laudable as that might have been, to many Athenians that was not enough, and when a popular uprising eventually overthrew the Thirty Tyrants and restored democracy, Socrates had a target on his back. To put it in a modern context, imagine if Americans rose up in revolt to overthrew a radical libertarian regime of Ayn Rand devotees that had slaughtered 16 million of their fellow citizens, and restored democracy. If Ayn Rand was still alive, even if she had not personally killed anybody, she would probably not fare well.
That was the context in which Socrates was viewed by many Athenians after the Thirty Tyrants’ bloody regime. To many, he was a loudmouth troll who preached a philosophy that catered to his days’ rich snobs’ sense of entitlement and resentment of jumped up commoners having a say in government. That philosophy inspired them to commit treason and cooperate with a foreign enemy to overthrow the government and slaughter said commoners. Seen from that perspective, that the Athenians afforded Socrates a trial – a fair and open one in which he got to defend himself, unlike those slaughtered by his Thirty Tyrant acolytes – demonstrated remarkable restraint. They could have simply dragged him out of his house and tore him limb from limb with their bare hands soon as democracy was restored.
26. The Sympathetic Narrative About Socrates’ Trial Was Penned by His Student Plato, Who Disliked Democracy
The narrative that Socrates’ trial and execution were a grave miscarriage of justice was penned by Plato (427 – 347 BC). Socrates’ most famous student, Plato was a towering philosopher in his own right, who went on to teach yet another great philosopher, Aristotle. That trio laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato ranks among history’s most influential figures, and for over two millennia has been one of the world’s most widely read and studied philosophers. In addition to his writings, he founded the Western World’s first institution of higher learning, The Academy in Athens.
Plato’s sympathetic narrative about Socrates should be understood in the context of his background and political leanings. Plato was born in a wealthy and conservative, even reactionary, family. He was related to two of the Thirty Tyrants who overthrew Athens’ democracy. That family influence is reflected in Plato’s political philosophy, which is skeptical of democracy and favors enlightened authoritarianism. When the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown and democracy was restored, a counter reaction set in against anti democratic thought, which culminated in the execution of Plato’s teacher Socrates in 399 BC.
25. Plato Had an Ax to Grind Against Athenian Democracy
From the perspective of pro-democracy Athenians, Socrates was not a harmless old man who merely asked uncomfortable questions, but a pernicious guru who taught a subversive philosophy that catered to aristocrats hostile to democracy. Many of Socrates’ students had committed treason and joined the enemy to fight against their city during the Peloponnesian War. Most infamous among them was Alcibiades. Athens lost that war, and Socrates’ acolytes overthrew the democratic government and replaced it with the Thirty Tyrants regime, which engaged in widespread murder.
When democracy was restored, people looked back at Athens’ glory days only three decades past, when their polis was at the height of its power and prosperity. The Athenians contrasted those days with their reduced circumstances in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat and violent repression, and asked themselves “what went wrong?” Socrates and his boat rocking were among the answers. Athens became unhealthy for Socrates’ students, and Plato fled to travel around the Mediterranean. He returned years later, after passions had cooled, and founded The Academy in the 380s BC. It is in that context that Plato penned his sympathetic account of Socrates.
24. The Claim That FDR Knew That Japan Planned to Attack Pearl Harbor, But Did Nothing
One of the more pernicious World War II myths claims that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew in advance of the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor. He nonetheless allowed it to happen in order to get America into the war on Britain’s side. The claim, which arose in the context of the 1944 presidential elections, is not supported by any credible evidence, and is both irrational and illogical. It is based on the fact that American cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese codes and gleaned messages indicative of hostile intent. However, those messages did not specify the when and where of Japan’s aggressive designs.
Warnings were issued to American commanders throughout the Pacific, but the ones in Pearl Harbor did not take adequate precautions. Neither did Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, who was also caught unprepared despite the warnings. As to the myth’s illogic, FDR saw Nazi Germany as the world’s greatest menace, and sought to rearm and prepare America for what he deemed the inevitability of war against fascism. There is no causal nexus between allowing the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor and the US going to war against Nazi Germany. It was Germany that FDR wanted to fight, not Japan. The Japanese attacking the US would have resulted in war against Japan, not against Germany.
America got into a war with Germany not because Japan attacked the US, but because of Hitler. To the consternation of his generals, the Fuhrer declared war on America when he had nothing to gain, and everything to lose from gratuitously adding to his list of enemies the world’s wealthiest country and greatest industrial powerhouse. There is little reason to think that Congress would otherwise have declared war against Germany after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In the context of the time, it was Japan against whom Americans sought payback, not Germany.
Even if a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could have led to war against Germany, FDR’s alleged goal to get America into the war would have been accomplished just as well if our forces had been prepared. A Japanese attack defeated by alert US forces would have still been an act of war by Japan. Roosevelt would still have gotten the war he supposedly sought, without thousands of American servicemen and civilians unnecessarily killed. The US Navy could have ambushed the Japanese and sunk their fleet before it launched a single plane against Pearl Harbor. Its mere presence in the vicinity of Hawaii would have been sufficient evidence of Japan’s hostile intent to justify war.
A commonly accepted WWII narrative has it that the race to the atom bomb was a close run one between America and Germany. Supposedly, German physicists were about to give Hitler an atomic bomb, and would have done so if the war had lasted just a little bit longer. It is true that throughout the war, American and British scientists assumed that Hitler had an advanced nuclear program that might bear fruit at any time. They thus figured that they were in a race against Germany over who would first produce nuclear weapons.
In reality, the Third Reich never came close to cracking the secrets of the atom. It was discovered after the war that Germany’s nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as had been assumed: early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn and followed it away from the path that leads to nuclear weapons. Given that context, WWII could have lasted another decade, and Germany would have been no closer to having an atomic bomb in 1955 than it was in 1945.
Germany’s chief WWII nuclear physicist was Werner Heisenberg, who had nebulous ideas that a powerful weapon could be produced if the atom was split. However, he never figured out how to weaponize nuclear fission. In their last test in the spring of 1945, German scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project had achieved in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation, without which an atomic weapon program could not have succeeded.
Additionally, Germany’s nuclear program lacked necessary support. After Manhattan Project scientists achieved criticality, it took America another three years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to successfully test the first atomic bomb. The Germans had not accomplished the criticality breakthrough by the time the war ended, and their nuclear program never received the kind of support enjoyed by the Manhattan Project. Given that context of bad research and inadequate support, Hitler never came close to possessing an atomic bomb.
20. The American Revolution From the Perspective of America’s Slaves
In 1775, Samuel Johnson summed up one of the greatest contradictions of the American Colonists’ fight for freedom: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negros?” The American Revolution brought hope to America’s slaves, as the Patriots’ talk of “Liberty” and “Equality” ignited their dreams. However, as they discovered, even the greatest champions of freedom were hesitant to extend it to blacks. By contrast, the British did not hesitate to offer freedom to slaves who fled their rebel masters and sided with the British.
Given that context, it is unsurprising that many blacks became Loyalists, and preferred the British who offered them freedom to the Patriots who did not. Today, the struggle between Britain and the American colonists is usually presented as a fight for liberty between tyranny and a people yearning for freedom. However, from the perspective of many Colonists of African descent, it was not so straightforward, and the side that offered them freedom from tyranny was that of the British, not the Colonists.
19. George Washington Purged Black Soldiers From the Continental Army
Blacks fought against the British in the war’s early battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. However, when George Washington took command of the Patriot forces, he was appalled to see black soldiers. With slave uprisings a constant fear of slaveholders, the sight of armed blacks was guaranteed to discomfit a plantation owner such as army’s new commander. So he halted the recruitment of black soldiers, and eventually purged them from the Continental Army. Later, after his forces were drastically reduced by desertions and diseases, Washington was forced to turn a blind eye to black soldiers in his army.
The British thought differently about arming blacks, and sought to turn the rebels’ slaves against them. In November, 1775, Virginia’s British governor, Lord Dunmore, offered slaves their freedom in exchange for service to the Crown. That struck slaveholders such as Thomas Jefferson as monstrous, and brought many undecided slave owners to the Patriots’ side. That context explains why, despite the Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal” part, it assails the British for offering slaves an opportunity to secure that equality.
18. In the Context of Freedom With the British or Continued Slavery With the Patriots, Thousands of Slaves Chose the British
In 1779, General Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief in America, issued the Phillipsburgh Proclamation, which decreed that any slaves who fled their rebel masters and made it to British lines were free. Bondsmen took up the offer and fled by the thousands to trade slavery under the Americans for freedom with the British. In South Carolina, a quarter of the slave population – about 25,000 slaves – fled to the British. So did a quarter of Georgia’s slaves, and about 30,000 in Virginia.
Many runaways were caught and savagely punished by their masters, then returned to slavery. However, those who reached British territory were free, and during the war, over 100,000 slaves made their way to freedom behind British lines. They aided the British as laborers, guides, spies, and fighters. Unsurprisingly, after years of mistreatment and indignities, many were eager to spill the blood of their former masters when given the chance. Many fought with conspicuous courage, and sported sashes that read “Liberty to Negroes” – freedom fighters in the most literal sense of the word.
17. The British Governor Who Offered American Slaves Freedom if They Fought for King George III
In November, 1775, Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore’s issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves in exchange for service to the Crown. It was in that context that hundreds of slaves escaped their American owners and joined his troops in Norfolk within weeks. Hundreds more arrived each week, and as the number of runaways steadily grew, so did the fear and ire of American masters. Dunmore’s proclamation did not win the British many white Colonial hearts and minds, but it certainly won the hearts and minds of many Colonial blacks.
It also alleviated a severe manpower shortage: it increased the British governor’s available manpower, and simultaneously reduced that of the rebellious colonists. Arming and hastily training the escaped slaves, Dunmore doubled his forces within a few weeks. Unfortunately for him and his black recruits, diseases – particularly typhoid and smallpox – wreaked havoc upon the escaped slaves. Medical care and sanitation standards in those days were generally low even in ideal conditions, and conditions in the camps hastily thrown up for the new recruits were far from ideal.
16. Overconfidence Doomed the British Cause in Virginia
In the context of poor camp conditions, epidemics swept the runaways and killed them off almost as fast as they were assembled. That prevented Lord Dunmore from raising the vast slave armies that he had envisaged. Nonetheless, the survivors were assembled in what came to be known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, led by white officers and sergeants. On November 15th, 1775, the new soldiers got their baptism of fire in the small-scale Battle of Kemp’s Landing. It was a British victory over colonial militia, in which one of the militia colonels was captured by a former slave fighting for the British.
Unfortunately for Lord Dunmore and the British cause in Virginia, he grew overconfident as a result of the easy victory at Kemp’s Landing, and became convinced that the Patriots were cowards. A few weeks later, on December 9th, 1775, the Ethiopian Regiment fought in the Battle of Great Bridge, in which the British were tricked by a double agent into making a frontal assault across a bridge. They were decisively repulsed. The Patriot victory compelled the British to evacuate Norfolk.
15. The Context that Explains the Return of Black Soldiers to the Continental Army Despite its Commander in Chief’s Wishes
Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment marked a significant step in British policy, as its members were the first of thousands who fought for the British during the war. As British prospects in Virginia collapsed, Lord Dunmore disbanded the regiment, and many of its members joined other units, particularly the Black Pioneers, in New York. One former Ethiopian Regiment soldier, a runaway slave from New Jersey named Titus Cornelius, grew famous upon his return to his birthplace, where he became a Loyalist guerrilla leader nicknamed Colonel Tye.
In April, 1776, a British expedition into North Carolina under the command of general Henry Clinton was joined by 71 runaway slaves. Clinton took an immediate liking to the runaways, and formed them into a company that came to be known as the Black Pioneers. It was in that context that blacks were allowed once again in the Patriot army. The recruitment of runaway slaves by the British led the Continental Congress to override George Washington’s wishes to keep blacks out of the Continental Army. In 1777, the eligibility of blacks to serve in Continental forces – rescinded by Washington in 1775 – was restored.
General Clinton placed a Royal Marine lieutenant in charge of the Black Pioneers, assisted by white subalterns and black noncommissioned officers. The rank and file were runaway slaves, mostly from North and South Carolina, plus a few from Georgia. Clinton ordered that they be treated with respect and decency, and that they be adequately clothed and fed. He also promised them emancipation at the end of the war. Clinton’s North Carolina expedition ended in failure, but he took the Black Pioneers with him when he sailed north.
The context of decent treatment – a welcome contrast with their treatment as slaves – led the Black Pioneers to exert themselves greatly in the campaign that led to the capture of New York City by the British in 1776. Later that year, Clinton was ordered to take Newport, Rhode Island, and the Black Pioneers were the only Colonial unit that accompanied his British regulars. From Rhode Island, they were dispatched back to New York, and thence to Philadelphia, which fell to the British in 1777. In 1777, Clinton’s runaways became the nucleus of the Black Loyalist Company, which ably served the British for the rest of the war.
13. The Context in Which Black Noncombatants Served Often Required Them to Work Under Enemy Fire
In 1778, the Black Loyalist Company was merged into the Guides and Pioneers in New York, and given the name the Black Pioneers and Guides. As Pioneers, the new unit’s soldiers performed military engineering, fortification, and construction tasks. As Guides, they served as scouts and raiders. The Black Pioneers were not treated as a standard regiment, but were instead parceled out in small ad hoc units – typically of about 30 men – that were attached to British armies. They served those armies as scouts, raiders, and military engineers.
As engineers, they did not fight, but the context in which they served often required them to work under heavy fire as they dug and shored up entrenchments and fortifications. In 1779, Clinton sailed to besiege Charleston, South Carolina, and took the Black Pioneers with him. They performed vital military engineering tasks that contributed to the city’s capture. They then returned to New York, where they remained until the end of the war. The Black Pioneers were one of the last provincial in New York, and accompanied the British when they evacuated the city in 1783.
12. The Patriots’ Victory Was Terrible News for the Escaped Slaves Who Had Sought Freedom With the British
In October, 1781, an allied Franco-American force trapped, besieged, and forced the surrender of General Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. It was the war’s final major pitched battle, as the British, exhausted by years of fruitless fighting and the mounting costs in blood and treasure, threw in the towel. Defeat at Yorktown led to the fall of the pro-war government in London, and its replacement with one that sued for peace. In the context of the Black Loyalists’ perspective, that was calamitous news.
British defeat and Patriot victory meant that the side that had offered them freedom had lost, and their former masters had won. Thousands of slaves-turned-freedom-fighters found themselves bottled up with the British in enclaves such as Charleston and New York, unsure whether Britain would honor its promises to them. They had good reason to worry: American negotiators had added a last minute clause to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, forbidding the British from “carrying away” American property. That “property” included runaway slaves who had fought for the British.
11. George Washington Demanded that the British Return Escaped Slaves
After the war ended in 1783, the fate of Black Loyalist escaped slaves became a bone of contention between the Patriots and British military commanders. The British were treaty-bound to deliver their black comrades in arms to their former masters, but the British on the ground refused to do so. In addition to basic decency and honor, the contest over the fate of the escaped slaves offered the British an opportunity to demonstrate moral superiority over the victorious Patriots. As the British commander in South Carolina put it: “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters”.
The British commander in chief agreed, and directed that: “such that have been promised their freedom, to have it”. That incensed George Washington, one of whose slaves had fled and joined the British. It was in that context that many wondered whether hostilities would erupt anew over the issue. The British in New York finally resolved the issue, to the ire of the slave owners, by issuing thousands of “Certificates of Freedom” to Black Loyalists. The documents entitled bearers to decamp to British colonies such as Nova Scotia “or wherever else He/She may think proper”. In South Carolina, the British also honored their commitment to Black Loyalists, and took them with them when they left.
10. The Narrative That Hitler Had Deliberately Allowed the British to Escape From the Beaches of Dunkirk
The Battle of France in 1940 was a debacle for the Western Powers. In just six weeks, the Germans did what they had been unable to do in four years during World War I, routed the British and French armies, and forced France to surrender. By late May, the Germans had pushed the British army into an ever shrinking pocket surrounding the port of Dunkirk, and seemed about to annihilate them. Then seemingly inexplicably, with a decisive victory over the British in his grasp, Hitler ordered his panzers to halt, and left the task of reducing the surrounded forces to the Luftwaffe.
In late May, 1940, Hitler ordered his panzer formations, some of them just a few miles from the disorganized British milling about the beaches of Dunkirk, to halt for 48 hours in order to rest and refit. German generals loudly protested, but to no avail. The British took advantage of the breather, and organized a defense that eventually allowed them to evacuate about 338,000 Allied soldiers to safety. That seemingly miraculous reprieve led to a myth that Hitler, as a good will gesture to the British whom he admired, had deliberately allowed them to escape.
9. In the Context of Hitler’s Goals in 1940, a British Escape From Dunkirk Was the Last Thing That He Wanted
Credible historians give short shrift to the fanciful notion that a merciful Fuhrer had deliberately let the British go: there is zero evidence to support the assertion. However, crackpot revisionists have embraced the notion that Hitler had allowed the British to escape so he could look like a magnanimous gentleman, and thus draw Britain into peace negotiations. Even for a figure as notoriously irrational as Hitler, to deliberately let the British escape was too irrational. In the context of his aim to bring Britain to the peace table, hundreds of thousands of British POWs would have been a major bargaining chip.
More so than if those soldiers were back in Britain, armed and defiant. Moreover, the fatal halt order had not even originated with Hitler. A panzer unit commander who had lost half his armored forces and needed time to regroup, requested a halt from Army Group A’s commander, Gerd von Rundstedt. Rundstedt agreed and passed it up to Hitler, who rubber stamped the order to halt. After the war, German generals – including Rundstedt – pinned the blame on Hitler for ruining the opportunity to win the war in 1940.
8. Olympics Doping Led to the Discovery of Crystal Meth
During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, German scientists observed that American athletes’ performance was enhanced by Benzedrine, then rushed to come up with their own performance-enhancing drug. A year later, a Dr. Fritz Hauschild discovered methamphetamines, or crystal meth. In 1938 Temmler, a pharmaceutical company, began to sell crystal meth over the counter under the brand name Pervitin. It became so ubiquitous that it was marketed to German women in boxes of chocolate, with the recommendation that they take two to three a day to breeze through house chores and lose weight – the drug also suppressed appetite. With Pervitin such a huge hit with the German public, Germany’s military decided that it wanted a hit as well.
After hurried testing, Pervitin was approved for issue to the military and ordered into mass production. That took place in the context of a tolerant German official policy towards drugs. Before World War I, Germany was the world’s leading chemical giant, and the country’s chemical industry effectively had a global monopoly on drugs whose production required advanced (for that era) chemical expertise and industrial capacity. Germany’s chemical dominance was fueled by collaboration between researchers in German universities and industry – an approach pioneered in nineteenth century Germany, that has since become common in other countries around the world.
7. The Context of WWI and its Aftermath Led to a German Drug Epidemic
Before the evils of narcotics and the harmful effects of addiction were fully understood, drugs did not carry much of a moral stigma. German chemical research was fueled by the sale of morphine, first distilled from opium by a German chemist in the early nineteenth century, and patented by Merck not long afterwards. Further research on opium, morphine, and their derivatives, led to their inclusion in popular (and over the counter) products such as cough suppressants and household pain relievers. The pharmaceutical giant Bayer made a killing off of heroin, which was legal in Germany until the 1950s.
The widespread tolerance towards drugs was further boosted by WWI and its aftermath. There were millions of casualties, many of whom needed drugs for prolonged periods during recovery, and the authorities’ were less concerned with the drugs’ addictive properties, and more with their effectiveness as pain relief. It was in that context that Germany experienced an under-reported but widespread epidemic of hard drug addiction in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly by veterans who got hooked on drugs taken for pain relief, or medical personnel who had easy access to such drugs.
6. The Nazis Attacked the Use of Some Hard Drugs, and Approved of the Use of Others
Drug addiction was so pervasive that even a high ranking official such as Herman Goering, Hitler’s second in command, was widely known to have a pill habit – developed while recovering from a bullet he took during the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch – without it generating much controversy. In that context, to the extent that addiction was even recognized as such, it was perceived as readily curable. Most of the time, however, addiction’s symptoms were wrongly attributed to other conditions, or misdiagnosed altogether in accordance with quack pseudoscientific theories that were prevalent at the time.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the use of cocaine and heroin, which became popular after WWI, went into precipitous decline. The Third Reich attacked those drugs as poisons, deliberately introduced to Germany by Jews as part of a sinister plot to undermine and weaken the Aryan race. However, attacks against those particular drugs did not indicate an across-the-board policy against drugs, per se. Heroin and cocaine might have become socially unacceptable in Nazi Germany, but the Nazis were fine with drugs they viewed as performance enhancing. Chief among those was crystal meth, in the form of Pervitin.
In 1938, German pharmaceutical Temmler began to market methamphetamine pills under the brand name Pervitin. A high ranking army doctor, Otto Freidrich Ranke, saw the newly discovered drug’s potential as a means to keep tired troops and pilots alert, and to keep the entire German military euphoric. Ranke tested Temmler’s new product on university students, who exhibited a sudden spike in alertness and productivity, despite being short on sleep. Elated, and as ignorant as the rest of Germany’s medical community of narcotics’ harmful side effects, Ranke saw to it that Pervitin was approved for issue to the armed forces, and ordered into mass production.
During WWII, Germany’s military issued its men millions of packets of Pervitin – a pill whose effectiveness in keeping the troops alert was compared to drinking strong coffee by the gallon. On top of that, it made the worries of German soldiers disappear, and infused them with feelings of happiness and euphoria. Or at least it did so for a few hours, before the effects wore off or the soldiers popped more pills to maintain the high for as long as possible. Given the context that Pervitin is basically crystal meth, the German military spent WWII tweaking.
4. The Context That Explains “Nazi Super Soldiers”
In the war’s first year, the Germans swept through Poland, Denmark and Norway, the Lowland Countries, and France. It was in the context of the astonishing speed and fury of the blitzkrieg that reports of “Nazi Super Soldiers” emerged. The pace and ferocity of the German advance owed much to innovative tactics, that integrated infantry, armor, and air, into a seemingly irresistible juggernaut. However, the Allies could not figure out the inexplicable energy and tirelessness of the German soldiers, who seemed indefatigable as they advanced and fought day and night, with little or no rest.
The reason was crystal meth, or Pervitin, which German troops were encouraged to pop in order to fight fatigue. The packaging read “Alertness Aid”, to be taken “to maintain wakefulness”. It was accompanied by a warning that it should only be used “from time to time”. However, once people start to use drugs, they seldom limit their intake to “from time to time”. Things got worse when medical authorities realized that cocaine’s effects overlap substantially with those of amphetamines, with the added “benefit” that cocaine produces greater euphoria. So cocaine was added to Pervitin.
3. The Nazis Issued Their Soldiers Crystal Meth Mixed With Cocaine
The new Pervetrin was an even more addictive drug cocktail. Millions in the German military could not get enough of their crystal meth, and especially not enough of their crystal meth after it got laced with cocaine. Many wrote home, to ask their loves to mail them Pervitin. One such was Heinrich Boll, a German postwar author who won the 1972 Nobel Prize for literature. In a 1940 letter to his parents, 22-year-old Boll begged them to send him some Pervitin, which he wrote not only kept him alert, but also chased away his worries.
Millions of Pervitin pills were issued prior to Operation Barbarossa, the German surprise attack against the Soviet Union. The pills became incredibly popular with the troops, who nicknamed them “tank chocolate”. However, the cocaine-laced crystal meth produced terrible long term effects, and short rest periods were inadequate to make up for the extended stretches of wakefulness while tweaking. In the context of widespread pill use and abuse, millions became addicts, with side effects such as sweating, dizziness, depression, hallucinations, and psychotic episodes in which soldiers shot themselves or their comrades.
Even as his troops rampaged across Europe and the Mediterranean basin while tweaking on cocaine-laced crystal meth, the Fuhrer himself became a daily user of Pervitin. That, perhaps, sheds light on some of his inexplicable wartime decisions. As the war progressed, Hitler found it increasingly difficult to even get out of bed in the morning without shots of a drug concoction that included Pervitin. That was thanks in large part to a quack doctor, Theodor Morell, who eased Hitler’s chronic digestive ailments with cultures of live bacteria.
The relieved dictator rewarded Morell by making him his personal physician, and the doctor’s popularity skyrocketed, especially among high ranking ranking Nazis. That popularity was not due solely to the boost that Morell got from his status as Hitler’s doctor: he routinely treated his patients by injecting them with concoctions of addictive drugs, that had them coming back for more. Herman Goering, himself an all out drug addict and copious pill popper, sarcastically referred to doctor Morell as “the Reichmaster of the injections”.
1. The Context That Explains Hitler’s Cocaine Addiction
Dr. Morrell not only got the Fuhrer hooked on crystal meth via Pervitin, he also turned him into a cocaine addict after the quack prescribed it to soothe the dictator’s sore throat and clear his sinuses. It was in the context of that treatment that Hitler soon developed an irresistible compulsion to soothe his throat and clear his sinuses. By 1945, Hitler was a full blown junkie with rotting teeth, addicted to a bewildering variety of drugs. When his drug supplies ran out in the war’s closing weeks, the Furher suffered all the symptoms of severe withdrawal: delusions, psychosis, paranoia, extreme shaking, and kidney failure.
Pervitin remained popular and readily available in Germany after the war, frequently prescribed by doctors as an antidepressant or as an appetite suppressant, or readily obtainable on the black market. German students – especially medical students – were huge fans of the drug, which they used as a stimulant to help them cram for exams. It was only removed from medical supplies in East Germany in the 1970s, and in West Germany in the 1980s, before it was finally banned and declared illegal after German reunification in the 1990s.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading