Drug Use In The Third Reich: Q&A with Author Norman Ohler

By John Lavitt 03/08/17

Pervitin (methamphetamine) was kind of like a pharmacological weapon that the Nazis used in the beginning of the war that their opponents—the Poles, the French, the British, the Dutch—did not use. They were on a completely different level.

Norman Ohler Explores German Drug Use In The Third Reich
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In Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, Norman Ohler accomplished a feat that many historians desire, but never quite achieve. By shedding light on the drug usage of Nazi Germany as a whole and Adolf Hitler in particular, the author manages to cover new ground and shed a bright light on a previously dark corner of 20th century history. After reading his truly impressive account, the reader feels like a new understanding has been developed of one of the reasons why Nazi Germany was so successful in the early part of the war, and why it was doomed to eventually fail for virtually the same reasons. From the widespread use and intense popularity of Pervitin, a pharmacological equivalent to today’s crystal methamphetamine, to Adolf Hitler’s gullible addiction to the opiate Eukodol, Ohler excavates the dark history of drug use in the Third Reich.

Norman Ohler

The Fix is grateful that he took the time to sit down with us before the book’s American publication on March 7, 2017.

In his early recorded speeches, up to the start of the war, it feels like Hitler is being fueled by methamphetamines, yet your book clearly shows that he was against all drug usage at this time. Despite the popularity of Pervitin, the German brand name for methamphetamine pills, was Hitler the exception to the rule?

It seems like it. Hitler never seemed to have enjoyed Pervitin. It might be related to his personal physician Dr. Theodor Morell’s dislike of the medicine. He was not in favor of the drug. Morell was quoted as saying that Pervitin was not oats for the horse, but the whip. Since Hitler only seems to have taken what Morell gave him, this might have been the reason why Hitler did not use it himself.

Hitler did try Pervitin at least once. There’s a note in Morell’s journals in the Winter of 1944 where he gives Hitler the drug. But that’s all I was able to find in terms of the records. Even when the drug became so popular in Germany, I never found anything related to Pervitin use in connection to Hitler. At that time, it seems like Hitler was on not what you would call a natural high, but more of a political high. In the beginning, he was so popular as a dictator that it was like the ultimate power trip.

Before the war, he was fueled by this popularity. In any case, Pervitin wasn’t available until 1938. Although there were other stimulants like cocaine being used, there were none that compared to the later popularity of Pervitin, and there is no record of Hitler taking any of them. His feverish energy came from this ultimate power trip. You can see it when he speaks to the huge crowds in the archival footage. He didn’t need anything else to pep him up, and Hitler also was naturally a very good speaker. Maybe good is not the right word. He was a very effective, demonic speaker. I guess that was kind of his talent, and he didn’t need any drugs to pull it off.

In the book, you write that “methamphetamine was regarded as a kind of panacea.” You also write that “Pervitin was a perfect match for the spirit of the age.” Can you explain in greater detail what Pervitin was remedying and how it matched the spirit of the age?

After the German pharmaceutical company Temmler developed the drug in 1937 and patented it in 1938, they weren’t really sure what the drug was for. The chemists working for Temmler had all taken the drug themselves, and they had all really enjoyed the drug’s effects. The owner of the company wanted to develop a drug that was not limited to the medical field. His big idol was Coca-Cola, which began as a medicinal beverage with cocaine as the main active ingredient. He was impressed how it had made the leap to becoming a beverage for everyone. The original Coca-Cola gave you this nice little boost that everyone could enjoy in every situation. He wanted Pervitin to be the German version of this.

One of the first things that Temmler did to sell the drug was send out free pills to all the doctors in Germany. The pills came with an attached postcard with pre-paid postage because they wanted the doctors to tell them about their own experience with Pervitin and what they thought it could be good for. Temmler wanted to make Pervitin available for a very wide range of not just of illnesses, but of desires as well. The introduction of the drug could be compared to the modern search for brain boosters or performance enhancers.

As a company, Temmler wanted to break the mold. Pervitin was not to be seen as an old-fashioned medicine, but as a new lifestyle drug. It was said to be good for everything from boosting your sex drive to making you a better worker to making you smarter and more sociable. These are qualities that we all want, and Temmler claimed that Pervitin was good for all of them and more. This is what their advertising campaign tried to convince the German people. As you can imagine, it proved to be quite effective.

Was methamphetamine usage the key to the early wartime success of the German Blitzkrieg? 

We should never argue in a monocausal way that there is one absolute reason for the success or failure of practically any major historical event like a war campaign. It tends to be reductionist. The success of a war campaign is due to many different factors. Pervitin definitely is one of those factors when it came to the success of the German Blitzkrieg. It certainly was an overlooked factor that when now properly examined appears to be one of the quite decisive ones.

If you look at the history of the warfare, armies as a whole and fighters specifically have always looked for everything they could get their hands on in order to boost their performance. They wanted to find something to reduce their fear and give them an edge over the enemy. This has been true since human beings first fought against each other, and Pervitin definitely seemed to serve this purpose for the German army at the start of the war. The German army used this extremely powerful and synthetically produced stimulant in the form of methamphetamine to get this edge. It was kind of like a pharmacological weapon that they used in the beginning of the war that their opponents—the Poles, the French, the British, the Dutch—did not use. They were on a completely different level.

The French, for example, were using red wine. When the German army attacked, the French army was supplied with 3,500 trucks of red wine that were sent to the front lines. Imagine all of these trucks making their way from the French wine region to the north of Belgium, where most of the French troops were waiting for the German attack. Imagine the difference. The German troops were taking, in pill form, a drug very similar to what is known today as crystal methamphetamine while the French were downing glass after glass of red wine. Alcohol traditionally had been a major player in wars because it was available and lowered inhibitions and even boosted the ego. The British fleet was on rum. The Red Army was on vodka. The Russians later rationed the vodka to 100 grams per day for each soldier. In the case of the French, each soldier was given three-fourths of a liter of red wine per day. That’s a lot of alcohol to be drinking for anyone. There also was even a myth in the French culture at the time that red wine had saved the nation during the first world war. If it did so, and it sounds doubtful at best, it certainly did not have that positive effect this time around. I don’t think any army in the world is using red wine these days to help their troops get into fighting shape. It was a very old-fashioned approach that certainly had disastrous results.

The vast gap between the effects of red wine and methamphetamine must have altered the fighting capabilities of the two armies in profoundly different ways. The German troops were alert and ready to go while the French were intoxicated and even sleepy. If you look at the surprising victory of Nazi Germany against France, as well as the partial victory against Great Britain in May and June of 1940, you can see that speed was a decisive factor in the success of the German Blitzkrieg. The German army was not superior in manpower or in weaponry. They had a superior strategy, which was to break through the Ardennes mountains in three days and three nights in order to reach the French border town of Sedan. Before the campaign started, the French calculations had estimated that the Germans would need a much longer period of time to achieve such a goal. At the very least, the French thought it would take the German army weeks to accomplish this. In fact, it was doubted that they could even reach Sedan, and this is why the French army was in Belgium. If the Germans did try this strategy, the French thought they would have plenty of time to move their troops back into a position to defend Sedan. They were very wrong.

The Germans were so fast because they didn’t sleep and they never stopped. They went through the night. If you look at the movements of the German tanks and troops, it was fast, but also extremely erratic as well. This was due to the effects of the methamphetamines. Constant methamphetamine abuse for days in a row will make practically anyone erratic and even unhinged. 

Do you see a connection between methamphetamine use and Nazi atrocities? Did methamphetamines allow the German soldier to cross the line and commit the horrors of the war?

In my research, I actually did not find any documents or any letters or anything written at all relating to that question. As a result, I can only answer in speculation. There might be sources that could be found in Yad Vashem (The World Holocaust Remembrance Center) in Jerusalem, but I didn’t have the opportunity to look at those records. There is no doubt that atrocities were done on a huge scale by the German army, but also by the SS in particular. Many of the documents that might have contained such information were destroyed by the SS just before the end of the war. There was a systematic attempt to destroy all records of what had happened. There are some documents left that tell of alcohol abuse by concentration camp guards. Many drank to cope with the extreme stress of working in a concentration camp.

There are many reports, however, outside of the concentration camps, of alcohol and Pervitin usage working quite well together. They seem to be two drugs that complement each other. If you take meth, you can drink a lot more alcohol without getting so obviously intoxicated. Given the widespread usage of Pervitin in the German army, I wouldn’t be surprised if many concentration camp guards used the drug to stay awake and be alert. Combined with alcohol, it would have helped them cope with such an inhumane job and horrible working environment. In terms of the atrocities committed by the German soldiers, like the machine gunning of the Jews and prisoners of war, I am pretty sure that Pervitin played a role. It makes sense that these soldiers would be taking the drug, and it would reduce their inhibitions and increase their ability to commit such horrendous acts. Still, I don’t have any documentation to support these theories. That’s why I chose not to write about it in the book.

Was General Erwin Rommel, the legendary German Field Marshall and Nazi tank commander, a methamphetamine addict? Did methamphetamine use prove as effective in North Africa later in the war as it had in Europe?

I have reports about the distribution of Pervitin in the German army and how it was praised by General Rommel’s chief medical officer. Clearly, Rommel’s troops were given and were taking Pervitin like the rest of the German army. I never found any documents, however, directly connecting Rommel himself with Pervitin. I also never found any documents disconnecting him with the drug. I can only prove that his leading medical officer ordered tens of thousands of pills for the troops and praised it in letters. Since Rommel’s troops certainly were high on meth, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rommel himself had taken the drug as well.

There are descriptions of Rommel’s behavior during the war that would make anyone consider this possibility. He would be standing up straight and erect in a tank in the middle of the night, rushing through enemy lines. The way they describe his energy seems like very meth-like behavior, but that’s not enough to draw any conclusions. After all, war can bring forth such an adrenaline-like rush out of almost anyone. Maybe he didn’t need it, but I don’t really know.

I did speak with one of the soldiers who fought under him in the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. He was very open about describing Rommel and how the battle went and what happened. He enjoyed talking about being part of such history. When I asked him if he took Pervitin, however, he immediately stopped the conversation and refused to speak with me anymore. I must admit that I found that to be a strange reaction. I would assume that Pervitin must have played a role, and his reaction came from a lingering sense of guilt. If he hadn’t taken the drug and it hadn’t played a role in the battle, why would he have felt so uncomfortable with the subject matter? There are reports that the battle between Rommel and the British Commander Montgomery really was a battle between Pervitin and Benzedrine. At that point, the British had begun giving stimulants to their troops as well. They had learned from the Germans.

How did the discovery of the German army’s use of stimulants affect the Allied war effort? Once learned, did the Allies choose to imitate the Nazis in order to even out the fight?

They absolutely did. The first report about the German wonder pill was published in an Italian newspaper early in the war. The writer described how the Germans were taking the pillola di coraggio, which is translated as the "pill of bravery," to beat the allies. This article found its way to London, and the BBC produced a feature about the German soldiers taking Pervitin to get that extra edge. There was a headline in a British tabloid, asking Winston Churchill why he wasn’t going for victory in the form of a pill.

Once the discussion started in England, a Royal Air Force doctor began testing amphetamines and methamphetamines on British pilots to see which would be better. He recommended amphetamines, and that recommendation led to the drugs being used not just by the pilots, but by the ground troops as well. It spread quickly. When the American forces began coming over to the Western Front, they would first stop in Great Britain where they learned about the usage of Benzedrine. Also wanting an edge, they began asking for and using the drug as well. The Brits learned from the Germans and the Americans learned from the Brits.

In fact, the Americans continued to use amphetamines in later wars to help their troops. The Korean War is an amphetamine war. In Vietnam, there was a problem with soldiers taking amphetamines. The brass tried to give out amphetamines as they did before, but the soldiers in Vietnam seemed to prefer their own drug choices like marijuana, barbiturates, and cough syrups containing codeine.

I do know that stimulants were used in Iraq and are still used by the American army today. I spoke to a drone pilot recently, and he said that he gets what they describe as a "Go pill" before every shift. He said that amphetamines are no longer used, but it’s a different drug. I don’t know exactly what that drug is, but I think it might be the stimulant Modafinil, a wakefulness-promoting agent originally developed to treat narcolepsy.

How influential was methamphetamine burnout in the Nazi army to the eventual decline and fall of the Third Reich?

I don’t think the Germans lost the war because of a massive methamphetamine burnout. They lost because they had an inferior system with less weaponry, manpower, and economic resources. No country had the power to fight all the other powers in the world at the same time. Well beyond even their hateful ideology, that’s the real reason why the Germans lost.

I did find reports of burnouts and problems with the extreme methamphetamine usage by the German army. The army tried to get a rehab program in place, but it never really took. I spoke to a medical officer who was dishing out Pervitin in Stalingrad, but he said it didn’t help anymore. Like any drug, it eventually stopped working as the soldiers built up a tolerance, but I don’t think methamphetamine burnout was a decisive factor in the German losses.

At the same time, the German Secretary of Health Leonardo Conti, known by his title as the Reich Health Leader, had warned against the use of Pervitin from the beginning of the war. He thought it was a huge mistake to have whole units be dependent on a drug. Pervitin caused problems as the war went on year after year, but it was not a major reason why they lost the war. There are so many other reasons that played a much bigger role. One of those reasons was Hitler’s burnout, and that can be connected to drugs as well. Hitler’s poor decisions towards the end of the war can be directly linked to his drug abuse, but with opioids and not with Pervitin.

That takes us right to the next question. By the end of the war, Hitler was being injected on a daily basis with a speedball cocktail of Eukodol, a synthetic opioid, and pharmaceutical cocaine. Given the secretive nature of Hitler’s personal physician Dr. Theodor Morell, was Hitler truly aware that he had become a full-fledged drug addict?

I don’t think he was aware of that at all. All the way to the very end, he actually thought of himself as a teetotaler who abstained from putting any poisons into his body. He would only drink an herbal apple tea because he was against caffeine. He also didn’t eat meat and believed in living what he saw as a healthy life. It’s speculation, but I think that Hitler believed this lie until the very end. Rather than believing he was taking drugs, Hitler thought that the injections were a natural concoction by Dr. Theodor Morell, scientifically designed to help boost the Führer’s performance.

The interactions between Morrell and Hitler are recorded in the doctor’s writings. Hitler wouldn’t come up to Morell and ask him for an opioid injection so he could get high and feel better. Rather, Hitler would say that he had very important decisions to make and his stomach cramps were preventing him from doing what Germany needed him to do. Hitler would tell Morell that he needed relief in order to work. He needed to be energized. Morell would tell him that he had an injection that would allow him to overcome the pain and focus again. Rather than realizing what was going on, Hitler kind of pushed the truth back to the dark corners of his consciousness.

Things did change somewhat after the bomb attack in Hitler’s bunker, known as the Wolf’s Lair, on July 20, 1944. Hitler was wounded and badly charred in that attack. The cocaine became a way to overcome the negative physical effects and the resulting exhaustion. From that day until October of 1944, Hitler began taking quite a bit of cocaine. He didn’t take it before and he never took it afterwards. He only took it during that three-month period. According to the records, there weren’t any euphemisms when it came to the cocaine. Hitler would not even want to be examined at times; he just directly asked for it. He thought it freed his mind and allowed him to think clearly. Hitler felt he needed it to run the war, and he was definitely aware during that time that he was using the drug.

In fact, there is one moment in Morell’s journals when Hitler directly asks him in an accusatory way, “You aren’t turning me into a cocaine addict, are you?” Morrell’s response showed how good he was at protecting himself. He said, “No, no, that’s not possible. Cocaine addicts sniff the drug. I am giving you medicinal cocaine in an injection and that’s very different from what cocaine addicts take. It’s only here to ease your pain and help you to focus.”

I don’t think Hitler ever really saw himself as a junky or as a drug user. There’s a note in Goebbels’ diary where he wonders whether it was a mistake that Morell gave Hitler all of the opioid injections of Eukodol, and he probably knew what was going on all along. There is one very clear quotation by Hitler, however, when he fires Morell in April of 1945 and throws him out of the bunker in Berlin. He said to Morell, “You’ve been giving me opiates all this time. Get the hell out of the bunker!” I think he realized at that time what had happened. During the last weeks without Morell’s injections, Hitler had to get off the drugs cold turkey. He starts going through serious drug withdrawals. I think very late in the game Hitler realized the dark corner that he had maneuvered himself into with the drugs.

Methadone was invented by German pharmaceutical companies during the Third Reich, and some web sources claim that the new drug was dubbed Dolophine in honor of Adolf Hitler. Today, some people refer to methadone as “Hitler Juice.” Why does this opiate treatment drug receive only a single mention in your book?

I didn’t find many notes or documents that mentioned methadone so I didn’t have a reason to write more about it. Although it was invented during the Third Reich, I think it wasn’t used to any large extent in Germany. I don’t know why this was, because Göring tried to push for its use. He was worried that morphine could not be produced on a large enough scale. Methadone really only bloomed after the Americans got the patent as part of their war booty. 

Near the end of the war, were Hitler Youth given cocaine-infused chewing gum to help them commit suicide missions in mini U-boats?

It wasn’t the Hitler Youth specifically, but young soldiers in the Navy. Many Hitler Youth joined the Navy towards the end of the war because they wanted to be one of these submarine pilots. In order to keep them aware, they were given cocaine-laced chewing gum. Since they were one- or two-man missions, they didn’t allow for sleep. If you fell asleep, you would drown. The Navy didn’t want this to happen so they tried to develop a stimulant drug that was even stronger than Pervitin. According to the original patient leaflets, Pervitin was supposed to be able to keep you up for two days and two nights. They were looking for something even stronger.

The German Navy experimented with 10 different drug combinations, experimenting on their own soldiers. The most potent drug mishmash they found combined the powerful opiate Eukodol that Hitler had been taking, Pervitin or methamphetamine, and cocaine. They called this combination D9, and they actually gave it to their soldiers with disastrous results. The soldiers didn’t fight any better. They ended up being completely messed up on this drug. Given the results, they stopped experimenting on German soldiers and took the experiments to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, Germany. It was used primarily for political prisoners from 1936 until the end of the war in May of 1945. The doctors experimented on the concentration camp inmates with extremely high dosages of Pervitin and cocaine. They ended up choosing this chewing gum infused with a very high dosage of cocaine because they thought it would keep you awake for the longest period of time, but these tests were far from scientific. This can only be described as a form of torture, done in a concentration camp under horrible circumstances. I see these insane tests as a perfect example of how everything had gone downhill for the German army and how the whole German military system was falling apart. 

In the Dachau concentration camp, Dr. Kurt Plötner did brainwashing experiments on inmates, using the psychoactive drug mescaline. Can you describe these experiments?

There’s not that much material left that I could find because the documents were mostly taken by the American forces when they liberated the concentration camp. The majority of these documents ended up somewhere in the United States, but I haven’t had the opportunity to look for them. I have been able to find, however, some descriptions of Plötner’s experiments. He gave concentration camp inmates a mescaline-laced coffee without telling them it contained this powerful psychoactive drug. Once the drug started to take effect, he began saying things like, “I can read your mind and I know that you are suddenly feeling strange. I have complete control over what is happening to you. You have no choice but to do what I say.”

Plötner was manipulating them in a devious fashion. Since they didn’t know they had taken a very potent drug, he was trying to find interrogation techniques that would be able to extract a person’s deepest secrets. Apparently, he was quite good at this, and that’s why these findings became so attractive to the American intelligence services when they liberated the camp. Supposedly, these reports by Plötner, a member of the SS, became the foundation for the CIA brainwashing and mind-control programs like Project Chatter, Project Artichoke, and then later, Project MKUltra.

To close, I would like to ask a personal question. Did any of your own drug experiences as a young man growing up in Germany contribute to your desire to write, and your perspective on this book?

I kind of grew up in Berlin in the '90s, and that was a very drug affirmative era. I was attracted to the underground techno music scene and the city’s underground cultural life, where drug use was very common. I was quite amazed at that time by how many synthetic drugs were around. I never connected it to the history of drugs in Berlin because it felt like it just dropped out of thin air. Like many others at the time, I experimented with some of these drugs like LSD or MDMA. By being in that world, I acquired a kind of basic knowledge about the world of drugs. There are so many different drugs, and I certainly haven’t tried all the drugs I write about in the book. My own personal experience certainly gave me insight into the topics I was investigating and writing about in the book. I know how to talk to people who have taken drugs, and I know how to evaluate what scientists mean when they write about them. In this way, my own drug usage proved to be quite valuable. In truth, I think my own experiences with psychoactive drugs in the '90s were an essential element that gave me an edge and helped me to write this book.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.