Greatest Events of WWII

Courtesy Netflix

The trailer for Netflix’s new documentary series Greatest Events of WWII in Colour promises to “tell the story as you’ve never seen it before.”  I was skeptical, but with Remembrance Day and Don Cherry’s poppy rant fresh in my mind, I decided to give it a try. 

The first episode kept its promise, delivering two major surprises to me.

The first surprise was that the blitzkreig—the lightning-fast offensive that allowed Germany to subdue each of Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France in a matter of days or weeks—was fuelled at least in part by a drug known nowadays as crystal meth. 

Pervitin was a product manufactured by the German pharmaceutical company Temmler. Before the war, it was sold as an over-the-counter stimulant, a pick-me-up that vanquished fatigue and allowed people to get more done. It is a methamphetamine, the same stuff that is sold these days only as a street drug. Canada considers it so addictive and dangerous that there is no legal production of it today.

The German troops and airmen who invaded France in May, 1940 worked steadily, day and night, for three full days, without sleep and apparently without fatigue.  According to the documentary, this was possible because they were all doped up on Pervitin.

Not only did the drug keep soldiers alert, it also tends to dull feelings of empathy, and increase feelings of self-confidence and invincibility. This would make it the perfect pill for producing Aryan ubermenschen—indefatigable killing machines that would act against the enemy with no qualms, and obey orders with little concern for their personal safety. 

According to the experts who appear in the documentary, Pervitin was handed out “like candy” to German troops and fliers. Commentator Norman Ohler has written an entire book on the subject, alleging that Pervitin addiction went all the way up the ranks to Hitler himself.  His bookBlitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany(published in 2016) has earned excellent ratings on Amazon. However, this online review by another historian claims that Ohler exaggerates and misinterprets the evidence. 

The idea that the legendary cold-bloodedness of Nazi soldiers might have been at least partially drug-induced rather than entirely cultural or ideological provides interesting food for thought. 

The second surprise was film footage taken by French reconnaissance planes in early 1940, just before Germany invaded France. At that point, British and French forces were occupied trying to help repel the German invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands, lured there deliberately by German strategy.  Meanwhile, the Germans were trying to sneak into France further south. A long line of westbound Panzers, infantry, and artillery eventually formed a huge traffic jam, crawling slowly along narrow back-country roads. Historian James Holland describes the backlog of vehicles as “the biggest gridlock in the history of gridlocks.” In his book, he says there were almost 40,000 vehicles.

French reconnaissance planes spotted the miles-long traffic jam—you can see the film footage yourself—and reported it on up to their superiors. But General Gamelin – commander in chief of all French forces – either disbelieved or ignored the report. Did he even view the film?  We’re not told.  

What we do know is that the French and British took no action to bomb the long line of enemy vehicles, thereby missing a unique opportunity to inflict severe, early damage on the Germans. The documentary claims that the war could have ended then and there, had the French paid attention to their own intelligence. 

No doubt there are plenty of World War Two buffs who are familiar with this colossal blunder on the part of General Gamelin, but as an average citizen, I wasn’t. I’ve been accustomed to thinking of the millions killed in the war as victims of deliberate evil, rather than victims of incompetence.  

The ignoring of a country’s own intelligence is a recurring theme in the documentary series. The Americans ignored radar warning of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor (covered in episode 3 of the series) and the Germans ignored their own intelligence about the strength of Russian forces prior to attacking Stalingrad (episode 5). It boggles the mind to think that millions of lives that were snuffed out for such a reason .

The Netflix series contains 10 episodes, weaving together film footage collected from both Allied and Axis countries. The producers have taken the trouble to colourize every frame of their film, thereby ensuring the accuracy of their claim that this is something you’ve never seen before. But colourized or not, the contemporaneous film footage is far more gut-wrenching than anything I ever experienced as a tourist visiting Juno Beach or the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. It’s worth watching. 

Karen Selick is the Copy Editor and a Columnist for the Western Standard. She has previously written for he original Western Standard, National Post, Canadian Lawyer Magazine. She is the former Litigation Lawyer of the Canadian Constitution Foundation and is the owner of KeenEyesEditing.ca.

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Karen Selick is a Columnist for the Western Standard and Ontario Standard based near Belleville, Ontario. She been a columnist for the National Post, Canadian Lawyer Magazine, and the original Western Standard.

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