Dutch cocaine - the ultimate weapon
For a government that has been taking an increasingly strict line on drugs it's an embarrassing revelation, as shocking as it is intriguing: a new best-selling book in the Netherlands reveals the country supplied all sides fighting in the First World War with grade A cocaine.
Conny Braam stumbled across the information while she was researching the Dutch cultivation of opium over the centuries, discovering the country was home to the biggest ever cocaine "factory" in Europe. Not only that, given that the Netherlands was a neutral country, it took the shrewd decision to promote the drug on both sides of the conflict, convincing all those involved that cocaine was the ultimate weapon.
Braam used her findings as the basis for a novel entitled The Dutch Cocaine Factory Sales Rep, relying on research carried out by a German scientist who in the 19th century tried out cocaine on soldiers and was enthusiastic about the results.
"He wrote about it, that this was the best thing to get soldiers fighting, because the feeling of hunger goes, you can go on for 24 hours, you can get very reckless and actually, in those circumstances, you become a real killing machine."
When it dawned on her that the Dutch had probably come to the same conclusion, the author dedicated two years to carrying out research in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, investigating archives and documents. The Dutch factory opened in 1900 and originally produced an average of 14,000 kg of cocaine a year. But a surge in demand from military commanders after 1914 saw production rise to between 20,000 and 30,000 kg a year. And it wasn't expensive - one kilogram of cocaine cost 800 guilders on the open market. That's around 36 euro cents per gram, less than a hundredth of the price it goes for today.
Reckless, crazy, idiotic
Conny Braam discovered reams of previously unseen correspondence between the Dutch government and those they supplied, as well as articles in pharmaceutical magazines describing the success of the drug.
"There are descriptions of people who used it and it’s not very different from those who use cocaine nowadays... It makes them reckless, it makes them crazy, idiotic, with no responsibility, nothing."
She estimates that hundreds of thousands of soldiers used the drug, but admits it is impossible to be sure of the figures because so many died during the war. Her guess is based on the number of addicts when fighting finished.
Her studies show it was unlikely the soldiers knew what it was they were taking, even though at the time the use of cocaine was less stigmatised than it is today.
"They all got a cup of rum before they went over the top and the cocaine might have been in the rum, because with alcohol it works doubly well. I think a lot of these soldiers had no idea. The only thing you could see was trench after trench, these hundreds and thousands of poor, poor soldiers were running like mad, straight into the fire of the German machine guns."
Somme 1916: British soldiers attack
The novel has already proved phenomenally successful in Dutch bookshops and the author hopes it will be published in English next year. The reaction from readers has been overwhelmingly positive, not least because many can't believe the government's explicit involvement in the production of drugs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the army has been less forthcoming when asked to respond.
During her research Conny Braam found the door slammed in her face whenever she mentioned the word 'cocaine' and eventually resorted to telling people she was researching the use of medicines during the war. She adds that she is waiting for a reaction from an army official - but that too could prove difficult given the controversial questions the book has led her to ask.
Dutch Cocaine Factory 1900-1950 © Photo: Collection IISG
"I would like people to discuss this thing in view of the wars that are going in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do they give these poor guys there? What do they make available to them? People come to me - the book has been out a week - and already I've had so many people contact me and say: 'You have no idea what's going on these days.' Write a book about that."