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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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