Fuelling the Third Reich

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In the aftermath of the First World War, Germany was plunged into depression and hardship. The dire nature of life in these years, dominated by hyperinflation, a loss of faith in the government and enormous poverty, took a huge toll on many civilians. With much of the population desperate to escape the grim realities of everyday life, drug use exploded in Germany during the Weimar Republic as users sought comfort in the temporary catharsis from these highs. Substance abuse became prolific, and Berlin became one of the hottest locations for sex, drugs and rock and roll, with cocaine being the king of the streets from 1919 to 1933. A drug culture had been born in the heart of Germany and the seed for widespread acceptance of state-endorsed medication had been sown. After their rise to power in 1933, seeing as so many people were already hooked on substances, the Nazis only needed to provide a small push to get the German populace to indulge in a prescription programme. Not only did Nazi drug use reach the soldiers and the civilians, but substance abuse also wrapped its tendrils around members of the national elite, with key figures in the Third Reich being thought to be on copious amounts of drugs by the end of the war.

Between 1919 and 1933, Peru sold almost all of its raw cocaine production to Germany, while morphine became increasingly popular among veterans and doctors. For all the Nazis’ propaganda, which suggested they had cleaned up society and dealt with these issues, the laws they passed had little impact in stemming a rising tide. In the years preceding the Second World War, some 40% of Berlin doctors were regularly taking morphine. Indeed, when the ‘magic pill’ of Pertivin was briefly introduced an over-the-counter drug in 1938, it was all the encouragement they needed to buy, consume and distribute the substance in bulk. This ‘magic pill’ had been produced in the mid to late 1930s by the Temmler pharmaceutical company and was recorded to boost users’ confidence and alertness, alleviate depression and to allegedly solve the frigidity of some women. By 1939, high-ranking military officials had shown an interest in the potential uses of drugs and saw their chance with Pertivin, which had been introduced into the civilian market the previous year. After some trials, the Academy of Military Medicine decided to test it on drivers invading Poland in September 1939. It seemed that Nazi High Command had stumbled upon a pot of gold, as it was reported that the drug had huge benefits: subjects displayed increased concentration, a greater willingness to take risks and a reduction in hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. Delighted with these results, the Academy of Military Medicine began utilising the drug in earnest. 

On the home front the stresses of war made the advantages of the drug magnificent; it reduced fatigue and boosted production of weaponry and supplies. At the same time, plans were drawn up for the adoption of Pertivin during the invasions of 1940, and Nazi drug use became mandated by the state. A so-called ‘stimulant decree’ was issued by the government at this time, and 35 million tablets of Pervitin and Isophane (a slightly modified version produced by the Knoll pharmaceutical company) were produced and sent to the soldiers at the front throughout April and July. The decree ordered army doctors to recommend one pill in the day and two at night, as research revealed that two tablets eliminated the need to sleep for 3-8 hours, while four meant that a subject could resist the urge to sleep for 24. The tablets meant that the German army could remain moving without needing to rest for long periods of time, which greatly assisted the Wehrmacht’s rapid advance through the Ardennes during the invasion of France.

Later, on the Eastern Front, one doctor described how soldiers who were struggling to move across the freezing terrain managed to begin marching in an orderly fashion, and even at an increased pace, within half an hour of taking the drug. After the invasion of France, Pertivin and Isophane were constantly used by the soldiers, and their increasingly desperate letters begging for more pills reveal the army’s addiction to the drug. 

Yet this was unsustainable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that there was a price to pay for pushing soldiers to and then beyond the limits of physical exertion for long periods of time. It has been suggested that one of the reasons the Wehrmacht failed to decisively annihilate the British Army at Dunkirk was that the German Army was simply too exhausted to continue moving. Following the quick succession of victories in 1940, the successes gained from Nazi drug use began to wane. The health of the soldiers was rapidly deteriorating and issues were flaring up on an alarming scale. Despite the increasingly obvious malign effects, the Nazi High Command conducted new research, and by 1944 they had developed a new ‘miracle pill’ to give to soldiers. This was effectively a cocktail of potent drugs that tried to bring back the effects the Wehrmacht had been able to extract from initial use of Pertivin in 1940. It contained 5 milligrams of cocaine, 3 milligrams of Pervitin and 5 milligrams of eukodal (an opiate closely linked to heroin with an active ingredient that is widely abused today, oxycodone). This pill was developed to galvanise the German soldiers and to “redefine the limits of human endurance.” Ultimately, of course, this drug would not change the course of the war.

The waning influence of Nazi drug use on the frontline, however, did not weaken the substances grip on the top rung of the Third Reich. While records are not clear, and therefore it is difficult to pin down exactly who was taking what, the research of Norman Ohler and others has made it hard to refute that both Adolf Hitler and his deputy Hermann Göring were using drugs. The latter had first become addicted to morphine following injuries he sustained in the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 and was taking between 3 and 4 milligrams a day. For context, this is more than twice the maximum amount considered safe for an individual, and it is astonishing to think he was consuming this for several years. Colleagues of Göring reported that in Luftwaffe command meetings he regularly showed signs of headaches, drowsiness and anxiety; all of which are side effects of excessive use of morphine.

A more complex matter is the Führer himself. Hitler’s downward spiral into the clutches of powerful medication began with his personal physician, Dr Theodor Morell. Well known for his unconventional treatments and his use of steroids and drugs on patients, Morell, jokingly dubbed the ‘Reich Master of Injections’ by Göring, had earned the trust of Hitler after he had used unconventional methods to solve the Führer’s intestinal and stomach issues in 1936. When the occasional drug relief treatment accelerated into routine morning injections to deal with drowsiness during the war, Morell caught the attention of Heinrich Himmler. The suspicious SS Chief tested the substances the Führer was consuming, and he discovered the presence of a variety of methamphetamines. 

In 1941, Hitler fell seriously ill and began needing stronger medication to keep up appearances. Soon enough, Dr Morell was injecting him with an astounding number and variety of drugs, which included (but was not limited to) eukodal, hormones from both female placentas and the testes of young bulls and belladonna, a painkiller and sedative that inhibits bronchial spasms in asthma, but causes hallucinations, convulsions and mental issues. In July 1944, with the Wehrmacht in retreat and Hitler’s own generals attempting to assassinate him, the Führer’s diet of drugs was lengthened yet again. He started taking diluted cocaine to deal with sinusitis and by 1945 he was getting intravenous injections every few hours. At the end of the war, with the world closing in on him, Hitler descended into his bunker. By now, the supply of drugs he had grown reliant on was running short, and it is entirely possible that he and his close acolytes (most of whom were also on treatments prescribed by Morell) spent their final hours in the throes of horrific withdrawal symptoms.

There are some who refuse to believe that the upper echelons of the Nazi state were addicted to drugs, arguing that the findings are fabricated to deflect some blame for the Third Reich’s atrocities onto insanity and drug-induced delusions. Yet it has been firmly concluded that the medication did not significantly impact the decisions Hitler made regarding the war and the war crimes he had perpetrated; these were the consequence of the ideology he espoused, not the substances he was consuming. Interestingly, the Nazis were not the only ones attempting to use drugs to enhance the performance of their soldiers; the Allies, especially the USA, supplied their soldiers with Benzedrine, an amphetamine that enhanced focus and prevented fatigue. Yet the Nazis were unique in the extent to which both their army and political leaders grew dependant on these substances. While drugs likely had some impact on the war, assisting the successful Blitzkrieg attack on France in 1940, they were not the decisive factor in the war’s outcome and at most they can be said to have slightly prolonged the conflict. Despite throwing the kitchen sink at the Allies during the war, as well as the contents of Ozzy Osborne’s bedside table, the Nazis could not prevent their final defeat in 1945. 

Doyle, D., March 2005. Adolf Hitler’s Medical Care

Heston, L., and Heston, R., 2000. The Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler: His Illnesses, Doctors, and Drugs. Cooper Square Publishers Inc

Ohler, N., 2017. Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. Houghton Mifflin

Speer, A., 2003. Inside The Third Reich. Orion Publishing