Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons

Khalid Elhassan - January 15, 2022

In the eighteenth century, a Prussian king tried to create an army of super big soldiers. He couldn’t find enough for a whole army, but he gathered a regiment thousands strong. To make them taller, he tried to stretch them on a rack. He also tried to breed super soldiers by crossing his giants with tall women. Other military establishments took different routes. Instead of super-soldiers, they tried to get superb performances out of normal soldiers with drugs or booze.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
King Frederick William I inspects his Potsdam Giants. The Irish Times

30. A Prussian King’s Quest for Super Soldiers

Frederick William I (1688 – 1740) was Prussia’s king from 1713 until his death in 1740. The country he inherited was a backward and second-rate power. An ascetic, he rejected the fluff and frippery of the glamorous court in which he was raised and dedicated himself to the enhancement of Prussia’s stature. Through his tireless efforts, he transformed his country into an efficiently well-run and prosperous state. His son and successor Frederick II the Great built on that and catapulted it into the ranks of Europe’s major military powers. Frederick William was fascinated with the military, and most of his work was dedicated to increasing Prussia’s armed might. So much so that he was nicknamed Soldatenkonig, or the “Soldier King”.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Frederick William I, who stood only 5 ft 3 in, was obsessed with collection tall soldiers. History Answers

When Frederick William became king, Prussia had 38,000 soldiers, supported mostly by foreign subsidies. By the time he died in 1740, the army had grown to 83,000 out of a population of 2.2 million. Prussia was financially independent and had become Europe’s third military power, behind France and Russia. It was a sizeable army for such a small kingdom and gave rise to a quip that Prussia was not a country with an army, but an army with a country. Frederick William’s passion for the military took him in weird directions at times, such as his lifelong quest for super soldiers. As seen below, the Soldier King collected giant soldiers and tried to breed giants for his army.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Frederick William I, right, was short – a fact that might have spurred his odd need to possess giants. Wikimedia

29. Frederick William I Collected Tall Men Like Nerds Collect Star Wars Figures

King Frederick William I was a short man, even by the significantly lower height standards of his era. He stood a mere 5 feet 3 inches, but despite that – or perhaps precisely because of that – he developed a passion for collecting tall soldiers. As he expanded his military, the king paid special attention to the recruitment of big and tall men, whom he placed in a special regiment, The Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam. The only requirement to join was that they have a minimum height of 6 feet 2 inches. They became commonly known as the Potsdam Giants, or as his subjects nicknamed them, the Lang Kerle, or “Long Fellows”.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Frederick William inspects his Potsdam Giants. Russia Beyond the Horizon

Frederick William’s passion for tall soldiers knew no bounds. As he once told a diplomat: “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers – they are my weakness“. They were clad in fine gold-laced blue jackets, scarlet breeches and vest, white gaiters, and an eighteen-inch grenadier cap atop their heads to make them look even taller. They were well-housed and fed the best food. Pay was determined by height: the taller the super-soldiers were, the more they were paid. They never saw combat, because the king loved them too much to risk their lives. He spared no expense and balked at nothing to get his hands on tall men. If they willingly enlisted, all well and good, but if not, as seen below, Frederick William simply had them kidnapped and forcibly added to his regiment.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
King Frederick William I inspects his Potsdam Giants. War History Online

28. The King Who Balked at Nothing to Get His Hands on Super Tall Soldiers

Frederick William drilled and trained his Potsdam Giants every day, and liked to show them off to foreign dignitaries to impress them. When he felt depressed, he cheered himself up by holding a parade of his super soldiers, “preceded by tall, turbaned Moors with cymbals and trumpets and the grenadiers mascot, an enormous bear“. When he fell ill, he had them march through his bedroom past his sickbed. He often painted them from memory. Aware of that passion, the emperors of Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Sultan sent him tall soldiers to encourage friendly relations. However, although the giants made the king happy, many of them were unhappy – especially those forcibly recruited. Tall men who did not want to join the Potsdam Giant were simply kidnapped. Not just in Prussia, but across Europe.

One such was James Kirkland, an Irish giant who stood 7 feet 2 inches, who was hired as a footman by Prussia’s ambassador in London. It was a ruse: Kirkland was sent to a Prussian ship moored in Portsmouth, where he was seized, bound, gagged, and sent to Prussia. The king even tried to kidnap an unusually tall Austrian diplomat. In an attempt to make his tall soldiers even taller, he stretched them on racks and supervised the painful procedure as he ate lunch. He eventually gave up after too many died. He also turned to eugenics and tried to breed super soldiers by pairing his giants with tall women. When the king died in 1740, the regiment had 2500 men. His successor Frederick the Great did not share his father’s passion for tall soldiers, and promptly dispersed most of them to active combat units.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Spartans, the ancient Greek world’s super-soldiers, at the Battle of Plataea. iStock

27. Why Do Soldiers Fight?

As seen above, King Frederick Williams I had tried to breed super soldiers. Other armies and military establishments throughout history took a less ambitious route. Rather than try to get super-soldiers, they tried to get super performances out of otherwise normal soldiers. The super soldierly performances that were often most desired from the commanders’ perspective were physical courage and the willingness to face deadly peril without fear or flinching. So they did what they could to suppress their soldiers’ fear.

A lot of the time, that boiled down to the commanders getting their men real drunk on booze, or real high on narcotics in order to get them to fight courageously. Or at least get them to fight oblivious to the mortal perils around them. Those were among the prime methods to get men to fight since the dawn of history – a task that is simultaneously easy, and tricky. “Why do soldiers fight?” British military historian John Keegan answered that question with three factors: “inducement, coercion, and narcosis“.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Roman military punishments. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

26. The Three Key Motivations That Get Soldiers to Fight

Of John Keegan’s three motivations that explain why soldiers could be made to fight, the first, inducement, is about positive motivation. Things like pay, plunder, and the promise of revenge against a hated enemy. The second factor, coercion is about negative motivation. Military campaigns and battles are scary. It is thus understandable that most rational human beings would instinctively wish to avoid such hardships and hazards. To counter that human instinct, armies often sought to convince their soldiers that their commanders were scarier than the enemy.

Military commanders accomplished the goal of coercion with harsh punishments for cowardice, and for those who failed to give their all. The idea was and remains to present the warriors with a straightforward proposition: if they fought, they might live, or they might die. If they did not fight, they would certainly die, because their commanders would execute them. Keegan’s third method, narcosis, was to simply dope or liquor up the men so that, even if they lacked super courage, they could at least forget their fears long enough to endure combat. As seen below, armies went about that in a variety of ways.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Napoleonic era Austrian soldiers. Pinterest

25. Super Soldiers Have No Fears, But Real Soldiers Have Plenty

John Keegan’s positive and negative motivators of inducement and coercion could use a helping hand. Thus, the motivator of narcosis, or chemical motivation. War is hard work, and to even get one’s soldiers close enough to the enemy to fight it out often involved weeks or months of tedious and arduous marches from hither to yon. Throughout, the warriors have to withstand the elements, endure stints of thirst and hunger, and suffer other deprivations. On top of that, they have to cope with the hopelessness of knowing that there is something precious they could do about it all.

Then, when the enemy was finally in sight, there came the doubts and fears that real soldiers – as opposed to super-soldiers of fiction – have to deal with. How will the battle go? Will the warrior live? Will he die? Will he get wounded? How bad a wound? Will he get maimed for life? Will his favorite comrades live, or die, or get maimed? And how will he act in the moment of truth? Will he face the enemy bravely, and earn or retain the respect of his peers? Will he turn cowardly and let his comrades down? Historically, soldiers have often turned to alcohol and drugs to chase away – or at least dull – such concerns.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
WWI Doughboys unwind with a drink. Pinterest

24. Intoxicants Have Long Helped Warriors Cope With Warfare

For all the long list of their harmful effects, known to warriors and their commanders since forever or just about, they have nonetheless turned to intoxicants to help them cope. Stimulants in particular kept soldiers alert, fought off fatigue, and allowed men to perform with little sleep or rest. Drugs could also inspire courage and offer relief from the terrors of battle. The rituals of drinking and taking drugs also helped soldiers bond and thus created trust and camaraderie at the squad level amongst those whose lives depended upon each other.

And after battle, alcohol and drugs helped warriors to cope with the trauma of what they had experienced. In short, most warriors throughout history had to deal with various levels of exhaustion, stress, and anxiety, when on a campaign and in combat. In such circumstances, chemical aids were often seen as a welcome blessing. Intoxicants were frequently taken unofficially, by warriors who self-medicated to better endure the demands of war. But sometimes armies distributed intoxicants to their soldiers as official policy, to make war and combat feel more palatable.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Captured Rus commander Mtislav III brought before Mongol generals Jebe and Subudai after the Battle of Kalka River. Our Russia

23. The Russian’ Military’s Super Weapon, Vodka

In popular perception around the world, no country is as closely associated with a particular alcoholic drink as Russia is associated with vodka. The drink has become as symbolic of Russia as brown bears, caviar, and matryoshka dolls. The British Royal Navy and rum aside, no military in the world is as closely associated with a particular drink as the Russian military is associated with vodka. It is not just one of those popular perceptions that turn out to be based on little more than myth and legend. Russian armies and alcohol do go back a long way.

One of alcohol’s greatest positive effects, from the perspective of military leaders, is its ability to provide the troops with super courage. However, to strike the right balance between enough alcohol for liquid courage, and not going overboard, can be tricky. In 1223, a relatively small Mongol army inflicted a massive defeat upon a much larger Rus army at the Battle of the Kalka River. Much of the credit for the victory goes to the military genius of the Mongols’ commanders, Subutai and Jebe. However, alcohol played a role: much of the Rus army had gotten drunk, then launched itself at the Mongols in a reckless charge that ended in disaster.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Nineteenth century Russian state vodka distillery. Russia Beyond the Horizon

22. The Russian Government Encouraged Alcoholism to Collect Tax Revenues, and Help Military Enlistments

In the 1500s, Russia’s Tsars began to set up establishments to distill and sell vodka, and by the 1640s, vodka had become a government monopoly. The Tsarist tax system was regressive, in that it fell proportionally heaviest not upon the richest, but upon the poorest. Much of that tax revenue came from sales taxes. By the 1850s, nearly half of the Russian government’s revenue came from the taxes and duties on vodka sales. By the start of the twentieth century, the Smirnoff Vodka brand alone accounted for a full third of the Russian army’s budget.

Because of its vodka monopoly, generations of Tsarist governments encouraged vodka consumption, even at the price of widespread alcoholism among their subjects. Tsar Peter the Great reportedly decreed that the wives of peasants should be whipped if they dared to try and drag their inebriated husbands out of taverns before they were ready to leave. He also used alcoholism to help with military recruitment: those who drank themselves into debt could avoid debtors’ prison if they enlisted in the Russian army for 25 years.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
WWII Soviet soldiers ready to down their daily vodka ration. Voices From Russia

21. Vodka Played a Significant Rule in the Defeat of the Nazi “Super Men”

The Russian authorities’ attitudes towards vodka did not grow more enlightened with the passage of time. In the twentieth century, the Red Army issued its soldiers a daily vodka ration of 100 grams. It was not enough to get wasted on, but a few days’ ration could be saved for a good drunk. It was also relatively easy for soldiers to get their hands on more than the official ration. In the Winter War of 1939 – 1940, there were reports of wild drunken charges by Soviet soldiers.

During World War II, the daily ration of vodka was increased, and the military authorities actively encouraged its distribution and consumption. The Soviets’ sheer grit and super courage played a key role in their triumph over the Nazi “super men” to close out the war. However, that courage was surely boosted by the rivers of vodka that helped fuel the Red Army’s soldiers and kept them well lubricated. In their reminisces of the war, quite a few of them described the daily vodka ration as having been: “as important as Katyusha rockets in the victory of Nazism“.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
British Royal Navy bombards Algiers in 1816. National Maritime Museum

20. The British Royal Navy’s Long History With Rum

For centuries, rum and the British Royal Navy were inseparable. From as far back as the reign of King Henry VIII, English sailors enjoyed a daily ration of alcohol. It was issued not just to keep the crews happy and lubricated, but also as a matter of health. On long voyages, water in wooden casks would eventually go bad and spoil sooner or later. The addition of alcohol to the water would extend its shelf life, and push its expiration date more towards the later rather than sooner end of the spectrum.

For generations, British sailors were issued French brandy. After Britain captured Jamaica in 1655, however, the Royal Navy began to replace its sailors’ daily ration of French brandy with Jamaican produced rum. The transition was helped by heavy lobbying from wealthy and influential British West Indian planters, whose sugar plantations produced rum’s main ingredient, molasses. So the issuance of rum to the Royal Navy also took an aspect of financial support for an important British industry. Eventually, the daily rum ration of half a pint became an integral part of British sailors’ lives.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
British Tars enjoy their rum aboard a warship. Distiller

19. The Invention of Grog

The British Royal Navy initially issued the daily ration of a half-pint of neat to its sailors. That began to change in the 1740s, when Admiralty regulations made it compulsory to mix the rum with a quart of water, in a 1:4 ratio. That concoction came to be known as “grog”, after Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed “Old Grog” because of a grogram coat he wore at sea. He introduced the diluted rum to his West Indies squadron in 1740, and from there, and the practice eventually spread to the rest of the navy.

In 1756, Admiralty regulations directed the addition of lemon or lime juice to help ward off scurvy. At the height of the Age of Sail in the era of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, British ships were powered by wind, but British sailors were said to be powered by rum. Twice daily, at noon and again at sunset, the Tars would muster on deck in a “rum line” to collect their daily rum ration. On special occasions, by way of reward or to celebrate victories, captains might issue their crews a double ration – a full pint of rum.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
British Royal Navy sailors line up for their daily rum ration. Military History Now

18. The Birth of “Alcohol Proof”, to Separate the Super Booze From the Weak Stuff

Jack Tar was keen on his rum and always wanted to make sure that he had only been issued the good stuff. To ensure that their rum had not been watered down, British Tars would pour some of it on gunpowder, and try to ignite it. If it ignited, it was “proof” that the rum’s alcohol content was at least 57 percent. If it failed to light up, then the rum was “under proof”. Thus was born the term “alcohol proof“.

The name survived, even as the gunpowder test for alcoholic content was replaced by a gravity test in the nineteenth century. A side effect of the daily rum ration was that, at any given time, much of the Royal Navy operated at various levels of inebriation. Rum and the Royal Navy became closely associated in public perception. When First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was once challenged for offending some Royal Navy traditions, he derided those traditions as “rum, buggery, and the lash“.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
British Tars lined up for their daily rum ration. The Pirate’s Lair

17. The End of the Royal Navy’s Rum Ration

Social reforms and changed attitudes towards vices such as booze eventually began to chip away at the Royal Navy’s rum tradition. Bowing to the winds of change, the daily rum ration issued to British Tars was reduced from half a pint to a quarter pint in the 1850s. Nonetheless, the rum ration was not banned outright and continued to be issued for the remainder of the nineteenth century, throughout both world wars, and for much of the twentieth century. The increasing sophistication of military technology, however, made the daily alcohol ration increasingly anachronistic, not to mention hazardous.

Drunk sailors on modern naval vessels were too great a danger to their ships and crewmates. So on July 31st, 1970, the Admiralty finally abolished the daily rum ration once and for all. The date, known forever after known as “Black Friday” in the Royal Navy, was one of mourning. Solemn ceremonies took place on all active-duty ships. They featured black armbands, muffled drums, mournful pipers, and flag-draped coffins, as British sailors bid farewell to a tradition that had lasted for more than three centuries.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Zulu warriors. Great Big Canvas

16. The British Quest to Transform South Africa Into a Southern Hemisphere Canada

In 1878, the authorities in London sent a High Commissioner to South Africa. His brief was to transform that British possession into a federation like Canada. The official, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, was tasked with uniting British colonists, Boer settlers, and African tribes, into a single entity. A major hiccup, however, was the presence of independent states: the Boers of the South African Republic, and the Zulu Kingdom. Those entities would have to be destroyed before South Africa could be united under British control.

To deal with the Zulus, Frere went rogue and decided to instigate a war without the British government’s approval. So in December of 1878, he sent the Zulus an ultimatum that he knew they could not and would not comply with. It included demands that they disband their army, and institute radical cultural changes. When the ultimatum was not met, Frere sent in British forces to invade Zululand and initiated the Anglo-Zulu War. As seen below, the invasion did not go as smoothly as expected.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Zulu warriors annihilate the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. British Battles

15. The Zulu Super Drugs

The difficulties faced by the British when they invaded the Zulu lands were owed in no small part to that tribe’s warriors’ use of narcotics. It gave them super courage and endurance. Early on, in January of 1879, a British column of 1800 troops was virtually annihilated by a fierce and fearless Zulu charge at the Battle of Isandlwana. The Zulus’ ferocity and fearlessness were due to native courage that was instilled in Zulu warriors from early on. But it was also helped in no small measure by drugs.

Zulu shamans gave their warriors powerful narcotics that enhanced their endurance and chased away their fears. They included a cannabis snuff that was very high on THC, but very low in the sedative content that makes people on weed so relaxed and chill. So it made Zulu warriors high and got them to hallucinate, but it did not leave them lethargic as usually happens with cannabis use. Zulu warriors were also given an extract from a tumbleweed-type plant called Boophone disticha, with properties similar to codeine and morphine. From the perspective of the Zulu warriors’ enemies, the results were… frightful.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
A Zulu warrior in full war regalia. Avax News

14. Magic Mushrooms Rounded Off the Zulu Warriors’ Drug Cocktail, and Made Them Super Scary

The Boophone disticha extract used by Zulu warriors had both hallucinogenic and pain-deadening effects. That further reduced their fears of known dangers and made them that much harder to bring down. The drug concoction was then rounded off by psychedelic mushrooms that contained muscimol, whose effects included enhanced perception. The combined effect of all those drugs was to make the Zulu warriors highly alert and focused. They developed a tunnel vision on the task of charging their enemy no matter what, without the typical distractions of fear to hold them back. No wonder the British were repeatedly astonished by the extraordinary courage and super ferocity and fearlessness of their Zulu foes.

However, as things turned out in the end, courage and ferocity, whether natural or drug-induced, were not enough. The spear-armed Zulus eventually were overcome by massive British advantages in modern weaponry. After they got over the shock of their defeat at Isandlwana, the British regrouped for another go, in which they put their modern firearms and artillery to frightful use. The Zulus were crushed at the Battle of Ulundi in July of 1879, their kingdom was abolished, and its territory was divided amongst thirteen compliant chieftains.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
‘The Battle of the Pyramids’, by Antoine Jean Gros. Wikimedia

13. The French Invasion of Egypt Was Fueled by Copious Amounts of Wine

Throughout much of French military history, the soldiers’ intoxicant of choice was alcohol – cognac and wine, and lots of it. Napoleon Bonaparte had a famous dictum that armies marched on their stomachs. Those stomachs often needed not just food to fuel the soldiers, but also alcohol to settle their stomachs and the butterflies that fluttered in them. Wine was also useful to fuel their courage and turn them, if not into super soldiers, then at least into ones with temporary super courage. As they campaigned in Europe, French armies seldom had a problem in the procurement and acquisition of wine or other types of alcohol.

However, when Napoleon launched his Egyptian Campaign in 1798, things were different. He and his French forces found themselves in a Muslim country with precious little home-distilled alcohol. Things got worse for every thirsty French when British admiral Horatio Nelson and the Royal Navy destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in early August 1798. Suddenly, Napoleon and his men found themselves cut off from resupply from home. Catastrophically from their perspective, what with the fact that they were French and all, they were cut off from resupply of wine. So they cast for a substitute and settled upon hashish.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Hashish smoking. Haaretz.

12. Hashish as a Substitute for Wine

In the absence of alcohol, French soldiers in Egypt cast about for an alternative intoxicant. They came upon hashish, and soon developed an insatiable taste for it. Before long, French forces in Egypt were swept by an epidemic of hash addiction. The new habit quickly began to erode discipline and undermined the French military’s effectiveness to such an extent that Napoleon issued a total ban on hashish. He and French commanders reasoned that their troops were more effective back when they used to be alcoholics than they were now as junkies. So to help wean the French soldiers off of hash and return them to wine, Napoleon commissioned the local production of date wines and spirits.

It did not work: French troops drank the newly introduced date alcohol and discovered that it went great with hash, which they kept right on smoking. So instead of having to deal with soldiers who were frequently high, French commanders found themselves having to deal with soldiers who were now frequently high and drunk. Worse was to come after the Egyptian Campaign collapsed, and the surviving French troops were repatriated back home. They brought their hash and hash smoking habits back to France with them. Soon, hashish began to gain in popularity in Parisian salons and Bohemian circles, and from there, hash use spread to the rest of Europe.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Reichs Sports Leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten and Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg observe the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany in August 1936. Associated Press

11. How Hitler’s Olympics Fueled a Nazi Quest for Super Soldiers

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are best remembered nowadays for the record-breaking and memorable performances of American athlete Jesse Owens. Memorable too for some German scientists and doctors at the time was how the performance of many American athletes was enhanced by Benzedrine. That was the trade name for a form of amphetamine sold by American pharmaceutical Smith, Kline & French. What with the Nazi fixation on supermen, German scientists were impressed by the effectiveness of Benzedrine as a performance enhancer. Ironically, its base, amphetamine, had first been synthesized in Germany back in the nineteenth century.

The synthesized drug languished for decades, however, because nobody could figure out a marketable use for it. That ended in 1934 when Smith, Kline & French began to sell amphetamine as an anti-congestion nasal inhaler under the name Benzedrine. Back in 1936, Olympics doping did not shock or upset people, so much as it impressed them. German scientists rushed to come up with their own version of a performance enhancement drug. A year later, a doctor Fritz Hauschild came up with a formula for methamphetamines, or crystal meth. As seen below, it became a hit in both the German domestic market, and with the German military, where its widespread use gave rise to rumors of Nazi super soldiers.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
A Benzedrine inhaler. Imgur

10. Both the Axis and Allies Issued Their Troops Performance Enhancing Drugs

By 1938, the pharmaceutical company Temmler had begun to market the German answer to Benzedrine: an over-the-counter drug named Pervitin. Unlike Benzedrine, whose base was amphetamine, Pervitin was methamphetamine. The use of either substance leads to pleasant feelings of euphoria. Both render the user more energetic, with a greater ability to focus, and an irresistible desire to engage in activity and do stuff. When WWII broke out soon after the development of Benzedrine and Pervitin, both the Allies and Axis issued their version to try and get super performances out of their military personnel.

However, while both are addictive stimulant drugs, and thus have serious downsides, methamphetamine has far worse effects on the body than amphetamine. That is because although methamphetamine shares many similarities with amphetamine, it has one huge difference: it is far more intense. Methamphetamine goes into the brain significantly faster than other stimulant drugs. As a result, a powerful high is felt far more quickly than with amphetamines. That is why crystal meth, methamphetamine, is far more popular with addicts than amphetamine-based drugs like Adderall.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Pervitin. Is It Paleo

9. Both Sides in WWII Gave Their Troops Performance-Enhancing Drugs, But the Germans Paid a Heavier Price

Both the Allies and Axis in WWII tried to get super performances out of their warriors with drugs. However, the differences between each side’s choice of drugs – differences that were little understood or appreciated at the time – led to significantly different impacts. While both amphetamines and methamphetamines are addictive, methamphetamines are far more addictive and have significantly worse side effects. Thus, although millions of doses of performance-enhancing drugs were issued by both sides to their fighting men, the Germans paid a heavier price. Their drug, Pervitin, based on methamphetamine, was far more harmful than the Allies’ amphetamine-based Benzedrine.

Soon as it had hit the market in 1938, before the war, Pervitin became so popular and ubiquitous that it was marketed to German women in boxes of chocolate. The frauleins were urged to take two to three a day, in order to breeze through house chores and lose weight: the methamphetamine in Pervitin also suppressed appetite. With the drug such a huge hit with the German public, Germany’s military decided that it wanted a hit as well. After hurried tests, it was approved for issue to the Wehrmacht and ordered into mass production.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
A crippled German WWI veteran begs on the streets of Berlin in the interwar years. Reddit

8. Germany Used to be Pretty Chill About Drugs

Germany had long been tolerant towards drugs, and official policy that predated the Nazis’ ascension to power in 1933. Before World War I, Germany was the world’s chemical giant. The country’s chemical industry had a de facto global monopoly on drugs whose production required advanced (for that era) expertise and industrial capacity. Germany’s chemical dominance was fueled by collaboration between researchers in German universities and industry. It was an approach pioneered in nineteenth-century Germany, that has since become common around the world.

Back then, the evils of narcotics and the harmful effects of addiction were not yet fully understood. So to produce, sell, market, or use 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. It was patented by Merck not long afterward. Further research on opium, morphine, and their derivatives, led to their inclusion in popular over-the-counter products such as cough suppressants and household pain relievers. The pharmaceutical giant Bayer even got into and made a fortune off of heroin, which was legal in Germany until the 1950s.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
A Berlin cabaret in the Weimar Republic years. Pickwick’s Art Blog

7. The Germans Were Once the World’s Biggest Drug Addicts

Until the post-WWII era, German attitudes towards drugs differed greatly from how they are today. The widespread tolerance towards drugs was boosted by WWI and its aftermath. With millions of casualties, many of whom needed drugs for pain management during long periods of recovery, the authorities’ were not that worried about the addictive properties of drugs. Instead, they were more focused on their availability and effectiveness as pain relief. As a result, Germany experienced an under-reported but widespread epidemic of hard drug addiction in the 1920s and 1930s. It was fueled by WWI veterans who got hooked on drugs taken for pain relief, or medical personnel who had easy access to such drugs.

Addiction was so pervasive that even a high-ranking official such as Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, Hitler’s chief deputy and second in command, was widely known to have a pill habit. He developed his addiction as he recovered from a gunshot wound that he had received during the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The fact that he was hooked on drugs did not generate much controversy. To the extent that addiction was recognized as such, it was perceived as readily curable. Most of the time, however, addiction’s symptoms were wrongly attributed to other conditions. That was when they were not misdiagnosed altogether, in accordance with quack pseudo-scientific theories that were prevalent at the time.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Workers at the Temmler factory in Berlin, where methamphetamine-based Pervitin tablets were produced for the German military. The Guardian

6. The German Military Saw Methamphetamines as a Shortcut to Super Soldiers

When the Nazis took power in 1933, the use of cocaine and heroin, which had become increasingly popular after WWI, took a nosedive. 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, the attacks against those particular drugs did not indicate an across-the-board policy against drugs in general. 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 methamphetamine or crystal meth.

When the German pharmaceutical Temmler began to market methamphetamine pills under the brand name Pervitin, the German military took notice. A high-ranking army doctor, Otto Freidrich Ranke, saw the newly discovered drug’s potential as a shortcut to the Nazi quest for super soldiers. It was a nearly miraculous 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, even though they were short on sleep. That was music to Ranke’s ears.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Dr. Otto Friedrich Ranke, the medical official who introduced methamphetamines to the German military. Wikimedia

5. The Issuance of Methamphetamine to the German Military

Otto Friedrich Ranke was delighted by the results of the Pervitin tests. Elated, and as ignorant as the rest of Germany’s medical community of narcotics’ harmful side effects, he saw to it that the drug was approved for issue to the armed forces. It was duly ordered into mass production. In the Second World War, Germany’s military issued its men millions of packets of Pervitin. The pill’s effectiveness in keeping the troops alert was compared to drinking strong coffee by the gallon.

On top of that, Pervitin made the worries of Germany’s fighting men 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 keep the high going on for as long as possible. In other words, what with Pervitin’s base of methamphetamines, or basically being crystal meth, the German military spent WWII tweaking. As seen below, German military personnel paid a high price for that high.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
The German blitzkrieg rolls into France. History Crunch

4. The Nazi Super Soldiers Who Terrified the World

In the first year of the Second World War, the Germans swept through Poland, Denmark and Norway, the Lowland Countries, and France. The frightful speed and fury of the blitzkrieg, and reports of “Nazi Super Soldiers”, alarmed observers. The pace and ferocity of the German advance owed much to innovative tactics, that integrated infantry, armor, and air, into a seemingly irresistible steamroller. 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 the methamphetamine in Pervitin, which German troops were encouraged to use in order to fight fatigue and put out super performances. It gave a far greater high than the amphetamine of Benzedrine issued to Allied soldiers. Pervitin’s package read Alertness Aid“, to be taken “to maintain wakefulness. It was accompanied by a caution that it should only be used “from time to time“. However, once people start to take a drug, it is hard to limit themselves to using it only “from time to time”. Things got worse when medical authorities realized that the effects of cocaine overlap substantially with those of amphetamines, with the added “benefit” that cocaine produces greater euphoria. So cocaine was added to Pervitin.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
A member of the SS tweaking during WWII. American Heroes Channel

3. Many German Soldiers Suffered All the Symptoms of Methamphetamine Addiction

The addition of cocaine to the methamphetamine of Pervitin resulted in an even more addictive drug cocktail. Millions in the German military could not get enough of their de facto crystal meth, and especially not enough of their crystal meth after it got laced with cocaine. Many wrote home and begged their loved ones to send them Pervitin via military mail. One such was Heinrich Boll, a German postwar author who won the 1972 Nobel Prize for literature. For example, in a May 20th, 1940 letter to his parents, 22-year-old Boll begged them to send him some Pervitin, which he said not only kept him alert but also chased away his worries.

Millions of Pervitin pills were issued before the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the German surprise attack against the USSR. They became incredibly popular with the troops, who nicknamed them “tank chocolate“. However, hooking the troops on cocaine-laced crystal meth produced serious problems. The long-term effects were disastrous, and short rest periods were inadequate to make up for the long stretches of wakefulness as the soldiers tweaked on methamphetamine. Millions became addicts, with side effects such as copious sweat, dizziness, depression, and hallucinations. There were also numerous psychotic episodes, in which soldiers shot themselves or their comrades. In the meantime, however, Nazi soldiers performed feats of super stamina and endurance that awed their opponents.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Hitler and his personal physician, Theodor Morell. Pinterest

2. The Doctor Who Turned Hitler and Nazi Higher Ups Into Drug Addicts

As German “super soldiers” raged across Europe and the Mediterranean basin while high on cocaine-laced crystal methamphetamine, their commander in chief, Adolf Hitler, himself became a daily user of Pervitin. It explains some of his otherwise inexplicable wartime decisions. As the war progressed, the Fuhrer 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 him cultures of live bacteria.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
A super happy Hitler. Rolling Stone

To reward Morell, the relieved German dictator made him his personal physician. As a result, the doctor’s popularity skyrocketed, especially among high-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 with injections of addictive drugs that had them coming back for more. Herman Goering, himself an all-out drug addict and a copious pill popper, sarcastically referred to doctor Morell as “the Reichmaster of the injections“.

Governments that Tried to Create Super Soldiers and Super Weapons
Hitler towards the end. German War Machine

1. Methamphetamine Remained Legal in Germany Until the 1990s

The quack Dr. Theodor Morell did more than get the Fuhrer hooked on crystal meth, or methamphetamines, via Pervitin. He also turned him into a cocaine addict, after he prescribed it to soothe the dictator’s sore throat and clear his sinuses. Hitler soon had a compulsion to frequently soothe his throat and clear his sinuses. By 1945, the Fuhrer 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 final weeks, Hitler 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. No surprise, since millions of returning soldiers could swear by the super high it gave them. It was 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. It was finally banned outright and declared illegal after German reunification in the 1990s.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That is Interesting – How Drugs Like Pervitin and Cocaine Fueled the Nazis’ Rise and Fall

Andreas, Peter – Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs (2020)

Atlantic, The, September 25th, 2013 – How Alcohol Conquered Russia

Booth, Martin – Cannabis: A History (2005)

Clark, Christopher – Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (2006)

Cracked – Prussia’s King Tried to Breed an Army of Giant Super Soldiers

Gizmodo – A Beginner’s Guide to Navy-Strength Rum

Guardian, The, September 25th, 2016 – High Hitler: How Nazi Drug Abuse Steered the Course of History

History Collection – This Nazi Butcher Became a CIA Operative and South American Drug Kingpin

History of War – The Potsdam Giants: How the King of Prussia ‘Bred’ and Army of Super Soldiers

Keegan, John – Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle (1997)

Macalister College – Vodka: The Bitter Stuff

Military History Monthly, June 12th, 2012 – War Culture: Military Drinking

Military History Now – Fighting Spirits: Three Centuries of Rum in the Royal Navy

Ohler, Norman – Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (2017)

Rolling Stone, March 15th, 2017 – Hitler and His Drugs: Inside the Nazis’ Speed Craze

Spiegel, May 30th, 2013 – The German Granddaddy of Crystal Meth

Top Tenz – 10 Ways Drugs Have Been Utilized in Warfare Throughout History

War History Online – The Potsdam Giants: A Prussian Infantry Regiment of Nothing but Very Tall Soldiers

Weapons and Warfare – Potsdam Giants by Name!

Wikipedia – Drug Policy of Nazi Germany