Image credit: Komischn.
This article is an edited transcript of Blitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany with Norman Ohler on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 29 April 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Heroin was patented at the end of the 19th Century by the German company Bayer, which is also famous for giving us aspirin. In fact, heroin and aspirin were discovered within 10 days by the same Bayer chemist.
At the time, Bayer weren’t sure if aspirin or heroin would be the big hit, but they were erring towards heroin. They even recommended it for small children who couldn’t fall asleep.
At the time these pharmaceuticals were frontier technology. People were very excited by the prospect of banishing tiredness. They spoke about pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the same way we now talk about technology reshaping the way we live and work.
It was an exciting time. Modernity was starting to take shape in the way we know it today and people were using new drugs to enhance their daily lives. Heroin’s highly addictive properties only became apparent later.
Crystal Meth – Nazi Germany’s favourite drug
The same was true with methamphetamine, which became the drug of choice in Nazi Germany. No one thought it was a dangerous drug. People just thought it was a wonderful pick-me-up in the morning.
Oscar Wilde famously noted that only dull people are brilliant at breakfast. Clearly the Nazis didn’t like the idea of a dull breakfast, so they took Pervitin with their coffee, which made for a fantastic start to the day.
Pervitin is a drug invented by the German pharmaceutical company Temmler, which is still a global player today. It’s now more commonly known by another name – crystal meth.
Chocolates laced with methamphetamine hit the market, and they were pretty popular. One piece of chocolate had 15 milligrams of pure methamphetamine in it.
In 1936, there were rumours after the Olympic Games in Berlin, that American athletes, who despite being black, were significantly better than German superheroes, were taking something performance enhancing. This was thought to be amphetamine.
The owner of Temmler decided that they were going to invent something better than amphetamine. They succeeded in inventing methamphetamine, what we know today as crystal meth. It really is more effective than amphetamine.
It was patented in October 1937 and then hit the market in 1938, quickly becoming Nazi Germany’s drug of choice.
It was by no means a niche product. Chocolates laced with methamphetamine hit the market, and they were pretty popular. One piece of chocolate had 15 milligrams of pure methamphetamine in it. Advertisements ran, showing happy German housewives eating these chocolates, which were branded Hildebrand.
Pervitin was everywhere. Every German university made a study about Pervitin, because it became so popular and every professor who examined Pervitin came to the conclusion that it was absolutely wonderful. They often wrote about taking it for themselves.
By the end of the 1930s, 1.5 million units of Pervitin were being made and consumed.
A typical line of crystal meth, as it would be taken recreationally today, is about the same dosage of one piece of Hildebrand chocolate.
The Pervitin pill contained 3 milligrams of crystal meth, so if you took one pill, you could feel it coming on, but people usually took two, and then they took another one.
It’s reasonable to imagine that German housewives were taking similar doses of methamphetamine to somebody who wants to hit the underground Berlin club scene and party for 36 hours.
The diary of a professor, Otto Friedrich Ranke, who was working for the German army describes how he would take one or two Pervitins and was able to work for something like 42 hours. He was absolutely amazed. He didn’t have to sleep. He was in his office all night doing work.
Ranke’s enthusiasm for the drug fizzes off the pages of his diary:
“It distinctly revives concentration. It’s a feeling of relief with regard to approaching difficult tasks. It’s not a stimulant, but clearly a mood-enhancer. Even at high doses, lasting damage is not apparent. With Pervitin, you can go on working for 36 to 50 hours without feeling any noticeable fatigue.”
You can imagine what happened in the late 30s in Germany. People were working non-stop.
Pervitin hits the front line
Many German soldiers took Pervitin in the attack on Poland, which started the Second World War, but it wasn’t yet being controlled and distributed by the army.
Ranke, who was responsible for introducing the drug to the army as a performance enhancer, realised that lots of soldiers were taking the drug, so he suggested to his superiors that it should be formally prescribed to soldiers before the attack on France.
In April 1940, just 3 weeks before the attack actually started, a ‘stimulant decree’ was issued by Walther von Brauchitsch, commander in chief of the German army. It also went across Hitler’s desk.
The stimulant decree stipulated how many pills the soldiers should take, when they should take them, what the side effects are and what the so-called positive effects would be.
Between the issue of that stimulant decree and the attack on France, 35 million dosages of crystal meth were being distributed, in a very orderly fashion, to the troops.
The famous armed spearheads of Guderian and Rommel, which saw German Panzer tank divisions make stunning advances in critical timeframes, almost certainly benefitted from the use of stimulants.
Whether or not there would have been a different outcome if the German troops were drug-free is hard to say but the fact that they were able to ride all day and all night and, in effect, become super humans, surely added an extra element of shock and surprise.
How widespread was crystal meth use in those Panzer divisions?
We can see pretty accurately how much Pervitin was being used by the Wehrmacht, because Ranke took a trip to the front.
He was right there in France, and make extensive notes in his diary. He wrote about meeting with Rommel’s highest medical officer and of traveling with Guderian.
He also noted how many pills he gave to each division. He comments for instance that he gave Rommel’s division a batch of 40,000 pills and that they were extremely happy, because they were running out. It’s all very well documented.
The famous armed spearheads of Guderian and Rommel, which saw German Panzer tank divisions make stunning advances in critical time frames, almost certainly benefited from the use of stimulants.
There’s a good description of Belgian troops facing off against Wehrmacht soldiers who were storming towards them. It was across an open field, a situation that normal soldiers would have balked at, but the Wehrmacht soldiers showed no fear at all.
The Belgians were seriously unnerved, no doubt wondering what on earth was going on with their seemingly fearless adversaries.
Such behaviour was certainly connected to Pervitin. In fact, studies were carried out before the attack that found high dosages would reduce fear.
There’s no doubt that Pervitin is a very good battle drug, and it certainly contributed to the myth of the so-called invincible Wehrmacht.