Pervitin And The Great Methamphetamine-Fueled German Spirit
Temmler, a German pharmaceutical company, first patented Pervitin in 1937, and a German population caught up in the whirlwind of Nazism seized upon its positive effects.
Temmler commissioned one of the most successful PR agencies in Berlin to draw up a marketing plan modeled after the Coca-Cola Company, which had achieved tremendous global success.
By 1938, posters advertising Pervitin were everywhere in Berlin, from train station pillars to buses. Along with launching the PR campaign, Temmler sent each doctor in Berlin a sample of the drug in the mail, with the hope that the medical community would lead the general public into the arms of Pervitin by example.
The German people indeed ignored the drug’s adverse effects, and instead focused on the energy it provided, energy very much needed in a country first rebuilding itself after World War I and then mobilizing for World War II. It was almost unpatriotic not to be as hardworking, and Pervitin helped when nothing else could. Besides, it was much cheaper than coffee.
The Wehrmacht, the combined German armed forces during World War II, first had a taste of methamphetamine’s power when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Troops were ecstatic about Pervitin — and so were their commanders, who wrote glowing reports advocating for the use of the drug.
“Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors,” read one drug usage report from the front lines, according to Ohler’s book.
Another report read: “The feeling of hunger subsides. One particularly beneficial aspect is the appearance of a vigorous urge to work. The effect is so clear that it cannot be based on imagination.”
Pervitin allowed soldiers to weather days at the front — days consisting of little sleep, copious trauma, empty stomachs, and violently enforced obedience — better than anything else.
Of course, there are consequences to distributing millions of addictive pills to as many soldiers. Addiction became a problem, with the Nazis shipping 35 million units of Pervitin and similar substances to army and air force troops in April and May 1940 alone. Letters recovered from the front show soldiers writing home, begging for more Pervitin at every turn. Everybody, from generals and their staffs to infantry captains and their troops, became dependent on methamphetamine.
One lieutenant colonel entrusted with running a Panzer Ersatz division described the massive drug usage in no uncertain terms, writing in a report:
“Pervitin was delivered officially before the start of the operation and distributed to the officers all the way down to the company commander for their own use and to be passed on to the troops below them with the clear instruction that it was to be used to keep them awake in the imminent operation. There was a clear order that the Panzer troop had to use Pervitin.”
He had been using the drug during battles “for four weeks taken daily 2 times 2 tabs Pervitin.” In the report, he complained of heart pains, and also mentioning how his “blood circulation had been perfectly normal before the use of Perdition.
The writing was on the wall, and people took notice. In 1941, Leo Conti, the Nazi Reich Health Führer finally had enough and managed to categorize Pervitin underneath the Reich opium law — officially declaring it an intoxicant and making it illegal.
The Third Reich’s top health official believed — writing in a letter, quoted in Ohler’s book — that Germany, “an entire nation,” was “becoming addicted to drugs,” and that Pervitin’s “disturbing aftereffects fully obliterate the entirely favorable success achieved after use…The emergence of a tolerance to Pervitin could paralyze whole sections of the population…Anyone who seeks to eliminate fatigue with Pervitin can be quite sure that it will lead to a creeping depletion of physical and psychological performance reserves, and finally to a complete breakdown.”
Methamphetamine’s long-term effects on the human body are indeed disastrous. Addiction is highly likely to swallow users whole, and with that addiction comes depression, hallucinations, severe dehydration, and constant nausea.
Nazi doctors knew that these side effects couldn’t be solved by short rest periods, but couldnothing they could do. Soldiers either died of heart failure, suicide or military errors caused by mental fatigue. The drug always caught up with them.
And Conti’s attempts to rein in the Nazi state’s runaway dependence on methamphetamine was for naught. Germans barely observed the prohibition and civilian use — let alone in the military, which was about to invade Russia — actually increased in 1941.
Much like Hitler became dependent on Morell for survival, Germany became dependent on Pervitin. Germans turned to methamphetamine for the faith to endure, not realizing the harm the drug could be. And as the war dragged on, the Nazis never regained control of the pill that promised them the world.