Tweaking Soliders: the Nazis and Methamphetamine

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As leader of the Third Reich, it is commonly known Adolf Hilter advocated for Lebensreform (life reform).  Chief among this belief was that members of the Aryan Race should abstain from drug and alcohol use in order to create a pure and strong race.  However, at the same time Lebensreform was being advocated by Hilter and party officials like Heinrich Himmler, Nazi military men were nonetheless being fed the methamphetamine Pervitin in massive quantities during World War II.

Referred to as “pilot’s salt” or “tank chocolate” by members of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), Pervitin was seen as a wonder drug by officials who freely distributed it to military men.[1] The drug increased German soldiers’ alertness and endurance, and gave them confidence and euphoric feelings   No member of the Wehrmacht was immune from the drugs effects: pilots, infantrymen, and civil defense soldiers, were consuming large quantities of methamphetamine by order of the Nazi high command.

The use of amphetamine was not uncommon throughout industrialized countries during the 1930s and 40s.  Indeed, Dexedrine and other amphetamines would be given to allied pilots during the War to maintain alertness.  However, in the 1938, German paramedical company Temmler Werke began working on Pervitin, a new drug that was structurally different then previous “pep” pills on the market.  The Academy of Military Medicine in Berlin, decided to study methamphetamine to determine if it could be beneficial in combat situations.  In tests, the academy noticed that subjects dosed with Pervitin were able to perform better in mathematical and memory tests in a controlled environment.  As a result, 3 mg tablets of Pervitin were included in medical supplies for German military units during the invasion of Poland in 1939.[2]

The success of the Polish invasion furthered Pervitin’s reputation as a military performance enhancer and consumption of the drug skyrocketed.  As Nicholas Rasmussen notes, “In the Blitzkreig’s opening months… the German military consumed 35 million methamphetamine tablets” between April-June 1940.[3]  The use of Pervitin was not only restricted to enlisted men.  Hilter, who suffered from numerous health symptoms, used cocaine and methamphetamine under a doctor’s watchful eye.[4] On the homefront, non-military personal began taking the drug as part of the civilian effort.  News of the new German wonder drug caused both wonder and concern among the Allies.

While Pervitin did produce positive effects, there was considerable concern about its effectiveness.  Allied nations testing Pervitin on their own pilots, noticed that it caused agitation, restless, and impaired judgment.[5]  A widely circulated rumor told of an entire Germany infantry company surrendering to Russian forces in Leningrad after it wasted all its bullets during a methamphetamine-induced psychosis.  In addition, Luftwaffe soldiers were also deemed as less effective and distracted by senior officials after methamphetamine-fueled missions garnered mixed results.[6]  It was widely documented that Pervitin produced restlessness, delusions, and insomnia for the soldiers.  Withdrawal, unavoidable due to the heavy demand for Pervitin, was also painful for soldiers and may have been linked to poor military decision making and suicides by SS soldiers.

Regardless of their side effects, the demand for the drug remained high throughout the war.  Soldiers (including future Pulitzer Prize winner Heinrich Boll)[7] wrote letters home asking their parents to send them the methamphetamine.[8] Despite attempts to control usage of the drug, it is estimated that 200 million Pervitin pills were given to Wehrmacht soldiers between 1939 and 1945.[9]  Quite literally, Pervitin fueled Nazi Germany’s military exploits.

Shortly before the war ended, Nazi doctors began working on an improvement to the Pervitin pill (code name D-IX) that allegedly contained methamphetamine, cocaine, and a powerful painkiller (which was initially tested in concentration camps).[10]  However, the American invasion of Normandy prevented the further use and study of this pill. Amazingly, Pervitin was part of the medical supplies for both the West and Eastern Germany armies until 1988.


[1]  Megan Garber, “Pilot’s Salt: The Third Reich Kept Its Soliders Alert With Meth” Atlantic Monthly May 31, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/pilots-salt-the-third-reich-kept-its-soldiers-alert-with-meth/276429/ (accessed June 10, 2013).

[2] Elaine A. Moore, The Amphetamine Debate: The Use of Adderall, Ritalin, and Related Drugs for Behavior Modification, Neuroenhancement and Anti-Aging Purposes (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc, 2011.), 139.

[3] Nicholas Rasmussen, On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine (New York: New YorkUniversity Press, 2008), 54.

[4]Moore, 140.

[5] Garber.

[6] Rasmussen, 54-55.

[7] Ulrich.

[8] Garber.

[9] Allan Hall, “Junkies in Jackboots: Nazi Soldiers Given Highly Addictive Crystal Meth to Help Them Fight Harder and Longer,” Daily Mail Online, March 30, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1371512/Nazis-fed-speed-infantrymen-tested-cocaine-like-stimulant-concentration-camps.html (accessed June 9, 2013).

[10] Andreas Ulrich, “The Nazi Death Machine:  Hitler’s Durgged Soliders” Spielgel Online International May 6, 2005, http://www.spiegel.de/international/the-nazi-death-machine-hitler-s-drugged-soldiers-a-354606.html (accessed June 9, 2013).

4 thoughts on “Tweaking Soliders: the Nazis and Methamphetamine

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