Marching for miles and diving in tiny submarines for hours on end: the nazi’s addiction to ‘ice’ and ‘tina’ offers a new perspective on World War II.
Text Aron Friedman
These days, crystal meth (methamphetamine) is a controversial substance. The rush is tempting, the risks are high. In Nazi Germany, meth was generally considered a miracle drug. All of the Third Reich – from housewives to Hitler – were mad about Pervitin, a brand of methamphetamine pills sold over the counter. Especially the Wehrmacht was big fan: approximately 200 million pills were given to their soldiers during WWII. Which almost made them win the war.
Amphetamines (above all benzedrine) were immensely popular since the 1930’s, especially in the US. They boosted performance and morale, they made you sharper and even slimmed you down. In 1936, the Americans won big at the Berlin Olympics. Their black athletes won eight medals. The Nazi regime, convinced of the suppremacy of the white race, felt humiliated. They figured the Americans had surely used amphetamines (there were no doping controls at the time). How else could these Untermenschen had won from them?
‘Cleaning is more fun with methamphetamine chocolates’
The Germans became all the more determined to invent such a stimulant of their own. Om 1937, the German manufacturer Temmler patented a new, extremely powerful amphetamine: methamphetamine. It was available in pharmacies under the brand name Pervitin, and was an instant hit. In no time, it was sold in chocolates, with telling slogans like: ‘Cleaning is more fun with methamphetamine chocolates.’ But also factory workers, students, professors and politicians were charmed by Pervitin, which could have you working and sharp as a knife for forty hours non-stop.
One of the miracle drug’s most significant apostels was Otto Ranke, head of the Military Medical Academy. He was completely hooked on Pervitin himself. He decided to test the substance on ninety students, having them work from eight in the evening till four the next afternoon. It definitely went easier than it would have if they had stayed sober, but after a while, the quality of their work wasn’t up to par anymore. Ranke concluded: ‘Pervitin is an excellent drug for soldiers, because even though it may dumb you down a bit, it enables you to continue what you’re doing for a much longer time.’
In 1939, he proposed to supply the entire German army with Pervitin for the planned invasion of Poland. The Wehrmacht wasn’t interested, but Ranke knew that many soldiers would take the popular pills with them, anyway. He asked all the medical officers to report back to him about the effects of Pervitin. The reports were promising: combativeness, perseverence and the urge to win all increased. After Poland was invaded, and France and England had declared was to Germany, Hitler’s next plan was to conquer Western Europe. That would have to be done as swiftly as possible, with as little rest or sleep as possible. Based on the favorable reports from Poland, the Wehrmacht decided to order 53 million pills. The Temmler factory was churning them out day and night to have them ready in time.
‘The Germans are taking a miracle pill. Why doesn’t Churchill anticipate the war of tablets?’
The British and the French were completely overwhelmed by the German advance. An army that could proceed so quickly, it just seemed superhuman. Pretty soon, the Allies found out about the Nazi troop’s massive use of methamphetamine. A British newspaper wrote: ‘The Germans are taking a miracle pill. Why doesn’t Churchill anticipate the war of tablets?’ Which he then did. British troops were now to be supplied with (the slightly less powerful) benzedrine, just like the American troops, when they got involved in the war in 1941. World War II was now also turning into a pharmaceutical war.
On Land, at Sea and in the Air
In the air battles that followed above Great-Brittain, the Germans were dependent on their stamina, because their airplanes weren’t as good as the British planes. In the amazing Pervitin documentary from 2014, called ‘Schlaflos im Krieg’ (Sleepless at War), an ex-aviator elaborates: ‘You’d leave between ten and eleven at night, and you’d arrive above an English town around two or three in the morning. You’d be exhausted, so you’d take one or two tablets and you’d be fine.’ Taking for granted, he says, the health risks, which were slowly becoming more evident. ‘The alternative was to crash.’
Because it was becoming quite clear that Pervitin wasn’t as innocent as the slogans of thje chocolate brand may have given the impression. Frequently, soldiers would die of heart failure, because of excessive amounts of pills and alcohol. And Luftwaffe pilots who had been on too many missions, would get what was popularly refered to as ‘Kanalkoller’ (Channel madness). They would be utterly burnt out, and would have to go on leave to a sanatorium to get patched up again. Technically, this was kind of like a rehab clinic – a term that didn’t exist at the time.
Other users would slip into a psychosis, or would start hallucinating, after days of sleepless Pervitin (ab-)use. As a marine recalls in the documentary: ‘Somehow, we felt extremely happy and almost weightless. The illuminated armatures of the boat and the compass seemed to shift in shape and size. Everything was appearing in implausible waves, and we were hearing fabulous music in the background. When I climbed unto the deck, I saw the engineer-in-chief throwing the clock into the water. He had already chucked other things overboard: food, sweaters and maps. When I asked him why, he just said: “We won’t need any of it where we’re going.” He was thought the ship was sinking.’
Seehunde and Saksenhausen
But the grimmest chapter of the Wehrmacht’s meth history is that of the Seehunde (Seals) and Sachsenhausen, toward the end of the war. The Allies had already landed in Normandy, and the Germans were on the losing end of their naval war with Great-Brittain. They came up with a ludicrous plan. They built Seehunde (Seals), mini-submarines manned with two fighters and armed with two torpedoes. They would sail up the Thames to sink the British fleat stationed near London. The first mission from IJmuiden was a disaster: the submarines got caught in a storm and only two of the eighteen Seehunde returned. They needed a tighter plan.
Whether the mission would succeed, depended mostly on the marines’ endurance, who had to stay awake for four to five days without sleep. This was due to the limited amount of oxygen in the Seehund: not more than 45 minutes. If you dosed off under water, it would be fatal, and if you stayed above water for too long, you risked being seen. How could the crew stay awake and agile under such wretched conditions? Pervitin only kept you awake for three days, so they were eagerly looking for something even stronger. A new uberdrug needed to be made out of Pervitin, cocaine and oxycodone (Eukadol).
Only this new uberdrug could keep the men on the submarines awake and agile under these wretched conditions
The Nazis didn’t care much about human lives; to test the best ratio for this new substance, they used it on prisoners in concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Several control groups were injected with ten different preparations (D-1 through D-10). Their backpacks were weighted with 25 kilos of sand. Then they were ordered to march in circles over a rocky course, until they would drop (dead, mostly). Preparation D-9 turned out the most efficient: some prisoners walked 96 kilometers, uninterrupted. In the end, the substance was never patented or used. The Nazis lost the war just when that was about to happen.
After WWII, Pervitin stayed in the medical catalogue of both the armies of West and East Germany. In the 40’s and 50’s, it was a popular party drug. Temmler kept manufacturing their pills for decades. In 1975, the factory was closed. If you want to know more about the Wehrmacht and their crystal meth obsession, do check out the New York Times beststeller by Norman Ohler: Blitzed – Drugs in the Third Reich. He writes about the history in great detail. He also describes Hitler’s drug dependency most eloquently. Knowing that Europe was at the mercy of a junkie sheds new light on everything that happened in those years.