By Andreas Ulrich
Source: Spiegel Online
Date: 06 May 2005
The Nazis preached abstinence in the name of promoting national health. But when it came to fighting their Blitzkrieg, they had no qualms about pumping their soldiers full of drugs and alcohol. Speed was the drug of choice, but many others became addicted to morphine and alcohol.
In a letter dated November 9, 1939, to his “dear parents and siblings” back home in Cologne, a young soldier stationed in occupied Poland wrote: “It’s tough out here, and I hope you’ll understand if I’m only able to write to you once every two to four days soon. Today I’m writing you mainly to ask for some Pervitin …; Love, Hein.”
Pervitin, a stimulant commonly known as speed today, was the German army’s — the Wehrmacht’s — wonder drug.
On May 20, 1940, the 22-year-old soldier wrote to his family again: “Perhaps you could get me some more Pervitin so that I can have a backup supply?” And, in a letter sent from Bromberg on July 19, 1940, he wrote: “If at all possible, please send me some more Pervitin.” The man who wrote these letters became a famous writer later in life. He was Heinrich Boell, and in 1972 he was the first German to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the post-war period.
Many of the Wehrmacht’s soldiers were high on Pervitin when they went into battle, especially against Poland and France — in a Blitzkrieg fueled by speed. The German military was supplied with millions of methamphetamine tablets during the first half of 1940. The drugs were part of a plan to help pilots, sailors and infantry troops become capable of superhuman performance. The military leadership liberally dispensed such stimulants, but also alcohol and opiates, as long as it believed drugging and intoxicating troops could help it achieve victory over the Allies. But the Nazis were less than diligent in monitoring side-effects like drug addiction and a decline in moral standards.
After it was first introduced into the market in 1938, Pervitin, a methamphetamine drug newly developed by the Berlin-based Temmler pharmaceutical company, quickly became a top seller among the German civilian population. According to a report in the Klinische Wochenschrift (“Clinical Weekly”), the supposed wonder drug was brought to the attention of Otto Ranke, a military doctor and director of the Institute for General and Defense Physiology at Berlin’s Academy of Military Medicine. The effects of amphetamines are similar to those of the adrenaline produced by the body, triggering a heightened state of alert. In most people, the substance increases self-confidence, concentration and the willingness to take risks, while at the same time reducing sensitivity to pain, hunger and thirst, as well as reducing the need for sleep. In September 1939, Ranke tested the drug on 90 university students, and concluded that Pervitin could help the Wehrmacht win the war. At first Pervitin was tested on military drivers who participated in the invasion of Poland. Then, according to criminologist Wolf Kemper, it was “unscrupulously distributed to troops fighting at the front.”
Thirty-five million tablets
During the short period between April and July of 1940, more than 35 million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan (a slightly modified version produced by the Knoll pharmaceutical company) were shipped to the German army and air force. Some of the tablets, each containing three milligrams of active substance, were sent to the Wehrmacht’s medical divisions under the code name OBM, and then distributed directly to the troops. A rush order could even be placed by telephone if a shipment was urgently needed. The packages were labeled “Stimulant,” and the instructions recommended a dose of one to two tablets “only as needed, to maintain sleeplessness.”
Even then, doctors were concerned about the fact that the regeneration phase after taking the drug was becoming increasingly long, and that the effect was gradually decreasing among frequent users. In isolated cases, users experienced health problems like excessive perspiration and circulatory disorders, and there were even a few deaths. Leonardo Conti, the German Reich’s minister of health and an adherent of Adolf Hitler’s belief in asceticism, attempted to restrict the use of the pill, but was only moderately successful, at least when it came to the Wehrmacht. Although Pervitin was classified as a restricted substance on July 1, 1941, under the Opium Law, ten million tablets were shipped to troops that same year.
Pervitin was generally viewed as a proven drug to be used when soldiers were likely to be subjected to extreme stress. A memorandum for navy medical officers stated the following: “Every medical officer must be aware that Pervitin is a highly differentiated and powerful stimulant, a tool that enables him, at any time, to actively and effectively help certain individuals within his range of influence achieve above-average performance.”
“Their spirits suddenly improved”
The effects were seductive. In January 1942, a group of 500 German soldiers stationed on the eastern front and surrounded by the Red Army were attempting to escape. The temperature was minus 30 degrees Celsius. A military doctor assigned to the unit wrote in his report that at around midnight, six hours into their escape through snow that was waist-deep in places, “more and more soldiers were so exhausted that they were beginning to simply lie down in the snow.” The group’s commanding officers decided to give Pervitin to their troops. “After half an hour,” the doctor wrote, “the men began spontaneously reporting that they felt better. They began marching in orderly fashion again, their spirits improved, and they became more alert.”
It took almost six months for the report to reach the military’s senior medical command. But its response was merely to issue new guidelines and instructions for using Pervitin, including information about risks that barely differed from earlier instructions. The “Guidelines for Detecting and Combating Fatigue,” issued June 18, 1942, were the same as they had always been: “Two tablets taken once eliminate the need to sleep for three to eight hours, and two doses of two tablets each are normally effective for 24 hours.”
Toward the end of the war, the Nazis were even working on a miracle pill for their troops. In the northern German seaport of Kiel, on March 16, 1944, then Vice-Admiral Hellmuth Heye, who later became a member of parliament with the conservative Christian Democratic party and head of the German parliament’s defense committee, requested a drug “that can keep soldiers ready for battle when they are asked to continue fighting beyond a period considered normal, while at the same time boosting their self-esteem.”
A short time later, Kiel pharmacologist Gerhard Orzechowski presented Heye with a pill code-named D-IX. It contained five milligrams of cocaine, three milligrams of Pervitin and five milligrams of Eukodal (a morphine-based painkiller). Nowadays, a drug dealer caught with this potent a drug would be sent to prison. At the time, however, the drug was tested on crew members working on the navy’s smallest submarines, known as the “Seal” and the “Beaver.”
Alcohol consumption was encouraged
Alcohol, the people’s drug, was also popular in the Wehrmacht. Referring to alcohol, Walter Kittel, a general in the medical corps, wrote that “only a fanatic would refuse to give a soldier something that can help him relax and enjoy life after he has faced the horrors of battle, or would reprimand him for enjoying a friendly drink or two with his comrades.” Officers would distribute alcohol to their troops as a reward, and schnapps was routinely sold in military commissaries, a policy that also had the happy side effect of returning soldiers’ pay to the military.
“The military command turned a blind eye to alcohol consumption, as long as it didn’t lead to public drunkenness among the troops,” says Freiburg historian Peter Steinkamp, an expert on drug abuse in the Wehrmacht.
But in July 1940, after France was defeated, Hitler issued the following order: “I expect that members of the Wehrmacht who allow themselves to be tempted to engage in criminal acts as a result of alcohol abuse will be severely punished.” Serious offenders could even expect “a humiliating death.”