Pervitin: The Wonder Drug That Fueled Nazi Germany

May 25, 2020 0 comments

Pervitin

When Heinrich Böll, the German writer and Nobel laureate, was a young man in his twenties, like many able-bodied youths of his time, he joined the Wehrmacht, the German Armed Forces of Nazi Germany. During World War 2, he served all over Europe as well as the Soviet Union.

On November 9, 1939, while fighting in occupied Poland, Böll wrote to his parents back home in Cologne: “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.”

Some months later, he wrote to his family again: “Perhaps you could get me some more Pervitin so that I can have a backup supply?”

Pervitin was Nazi Germany’s wonder drug, one that was designed to enable pilots, sailors and infantry troops deliver superhuman performance. Soldiers who took Pervitin stayed awake for days at a time, walked for miles without resting, and felt no pain or hunger. Today we know this drug as methamphetamine, or crystal meth.

Methamphetamine is an awfully potent drug. Even in small quantities, it stimulates the central nervous system releasing loads of dopamine that gives the drug user a prolonged euphoric high, increases alertness and concentration while removing fatigue. Methamphetamine also has a strong aphrodisiac effect that makes it a popular “party drug”. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that nearly 25 million people abuse crystal meth throughout the world.

Methamphetamine was first synthesized in 1887, and was originally prescribed to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and obesity (meth causes loss of appetite), and as a nasal decongestant. During World War 2, the German armed forces fed their soldiers copious amount of stimulants including alcohol, opiates and methamphetamine to keep them perpetually high. The German high command believed—based on inputs from the director of the Military Medical Academy and the Institute of General and Military Physiology, Otto Friedrich Ranke—that drugging and intoxicating troops would improve their self-confidence, concentration and the willingness to take risks, and at the same time reduce their sensitivity to pain, hunger and thirst, and the need for sleep. Ranke promoted methamphetamine as a miracle drug that would help Germany achieve victory over the Allies.

Pervitin

Pervitin for German soldiers was dispensed in these tablet containers.

Military-issued methamphetamine was available in the form of small pills under the brand name Pervitin, and was used by all branches of the combined Wehrmacht armed forces. The men called them “Stuka-Tablets” (Stuka-Tabletten) after the German dive bomber “Junkers Ju 87”, or Stuka, which had become a symbol of German air power. For others, it was “Herman-Göring-Pills” (Hermann-Göring-Pillen). Those on the frontlines liked to call them "tank chocolate" (Panzerschokolade), a reference to the superhuman strength these small white pills imparted to their selves.

Between April and July 1940, more than 35 million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan (a slightly modified version) were shipped to the German army and air force. The instructions on the package recommended a dose of one to two tablets “only as needed, to maintain sleeplessness.” But more often than not, soldiers under extreme stress took more than the prescribed dose.

Gerd Schmiickle of the 7th Panzer Division, recalled his observations on the effects of the stimulant after the fighting around Zhytomyr in Ukraine in November 1943:

I could not sleep. During the attack I had taken too much Pervitin. We had all been dependent on it for a long time. Everyone swallowed the stuff, more frequently and in greater doses. The pills seemed to remove the sense of agitation. I slid into a world of bright indifference. Danger lost its edge. One's own power seemed to increase. After the battle one hovered in a strange state of intoxication in which a deep need for sleep fought with a clear alertness.

Otto Ranke himself become addicted to the drug, and was reported to work for 50 hours at a stretch, on Pervitin, without feeling fatigued.

Workers at the Temmler factory in Berlin manufacturing Pervitin

Workers at the Temmler factory in Berlin that manufactured Pervitin for the German army and Luftwaffe.

Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, believes that the German invasion of France was made possible by Pervitin. “No drugs, no invasion,” Ohler told The Guardian in an interview.

When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel and all those tank commanders were high – and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.

One of the most fascinating account of this drug’s powerful effects comes from Finland, which was at that time fighting alongside the Germans. Finland holds the unusual distinction of starting World War 2 as an Axis member, and then switching sides in favor of the Allies towards the end of the war.

On March 18, 1944, Aimo Koivunen, a Finnish soldier assigned to ski patrol in the terrain of Kantalahti, in Finnish Lapland, was on his third day behind enemy lines when his group was ambushed by Soviet forces. After an intense firefight, the men managed to throw off their pursuers. The group then skied all morning, and by afternoon, Koivunen was extremely tired and on the verge of fainting. Koivunen remembered that he carried the group's entire supply of Pervitin in his breast pocket. He decided to take one. Without stopping, Koivunen dug into his breast pocket but with clumsy winter mittens it was difficult to pick one pill. So he grabbed a handful and popped them all in his mouth. Koivunen would later learn that he had taken all of the Pervitin in his pocket—a total of 30 pills.

Aimo Koivunen

Aimo Koivunen

Within a few minutes an intense energy surged through his entire body. Koivunen described the sensation like being born a new man. With Koivunen’s new found energy the group made hasty progress through the snow. But the effects lasted only for a short duration. The overdose of methamphetamine began to get its hold on Koivunen, and he started to slip out of consciousness—the very thing he wanted to avoid. When he woke up from his trace-like state, Koivunen found himself 100 kilometers away. He had lost his patrol, his ammunition and food. He had no recollection of this phase of his journey.

Koivunen began to ski towards where he believed his lost team members would be waiting, while continuing to fight waves of drowsiness and hallucination. This state of delirium lasted several days, with alternating phases of wakefulness and sleep. After successfully slipping past another Russian partisan force, Koivunen stepped on a land mine and his leg was blown away. Unable to move, Koivunen laid in a ditch for a week at -20 C, waiting for help to arrive. When he was found, he had lost 43 kilos and his pulse rate was at 200 beats per minute. Koivunen had skied for over 400 kilometers surviving on pine buds and a Siberian jay that he caught and ate raw.

Pervitin

A replica of Pervitine medicine box, similar to those issued in the military. These collectibles are available at 12 Euro apiece.

Koivunen’s riveting account became the first documented case of a soldier overdosing on methamphetamine during combat.

As the war progressed, German doctors became concerned about the detrimental effects of methamphetamine on soldier’s health and behavior. In Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, historian Łukasz Kamieńsk writes:

A day after the ingestion of the drug soldiers were generally in a much worse physical condition, some experienced health problems like excessive perspiration and circulatory disorders, and in a number of isolated cases death was reported. Also, the number of accidents among the Luftwaffe pilots increased noticeably. A soldier going to battle on Pervitin usually found himself unable to perform effectively for the next day or two. Suffering from a drug hangover and looking more like a zombie than a great warrior… At times, the effect of Pervitin was extremely aggressive behavior, which might, to some extent, help explain why Wehrmacht soldiers turned into ruthless murderers, often committing the cruelest massacres of civilians. It also happened that soldiers on speed resorted to violence against their superior officers, which constituted a serious threat to army morale.

The military tried to restrict the largescale use of Pervitin, and classified the drug as a restricted substance on July 1, 1941, under the Opium Law. Still, ten million tablets were shipped to troops that same year.

Toward the end of the war, Germany began testing a new stimulant—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). Łukasz Kamieńsk says that D-IX gave men an “almost machine-like endurance,” and Hitler’s dream of turning Wehrmacht soldiers into near-robots looked almost real. But before the wonder drug could go into mass production, Germany lost the war.

References:
# Der Spiegel, https://www.spiegel.de/international/the-nazi-death-machine-hitler-s-drugged-soldiers-a-354606.html
# History.com, https://www.history.com/news/inside-the-drug-use-that-fueled-nazi-germany
# The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/pilots-salt-the-third-reich-kept-its-soldiers-alert-with-meth/276429/
# http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v02/n1001/a05.html?5235
# Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/warstories/comments/dfhwjm/translation_of_the_story_of_aimo_koivunen_a/
# The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/25/blitzed-norman-ohler-adolf-hitler-nazi-drug-abuse-interview

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