World War Speed: PBS Show Chronicles Role of Meth Use In WWII

By Victoria Kim 07/01/19

Secrets of the Dead's “World War Speed” explores how stimulants made their way into the hands of American and British soldiers in WWII.

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World War II soldiers

The role of drugs and alcohol in modern warfare is no secret. The Germans’ use of methamphetamine during World War II is an oft-cited example of this practice.

Nazis on Speed

Now, in a new episode of Secrets of the Dead titled “World War Speed” on PBS details how British and American soldiers, too, employed this tactic to try and level the playing field against the Nazis on speed.

Soldiers on “both sides” were ultimately drugging to boost energy and aggression. But it was Germany that influenced the Allies to follow suit, according to the episode.

“In 1940, the British army discovered Pervitin in a downed German plane in the south of England, unlocking the secret to the German troops’ boundless energy, and leading the Allies to consider the same tactic for their troops,” according to PBS.

Pervitin (methamphetamine) was instrumental in the Germans’ success. It allowed them to fight and march for days straight, conquer Poland and force more than 300,000 Allied soldiers to evacuate off the shores of Dunkirk.

Eisenhower and Churchill Supplied British And American Soldiers With Stimulants

Soon the American and British were being supplied with Benzedrine, an amphetamine, hoping to gain the same edge as the German soldiers.

“Allied commanders believed Benzedrine, an amphetamine similar to Pervitin, was the answer, hoping the amphetamine would defeat not just the need for sleep, but anxiety and fear among troops. How this drug affected the course of World War II is an ongoing controversy,” according to PBS.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower supplied British and American soldiers with the stimulants, following the Germans’ example.

“Both drugs (Pervitin and Benzedrine) make users intensely alert by flooding them with a sense of euphoria,” read the PBS news release. “With its added methyl-group molecule, Pervitin races across the blood-brain barrier a bit faster than Benzedrine. Otherwise, the two drugs have virtually the same impact.”

According to historian Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, burnouts and other symptoms of excessive methamphetamine use were inevitable in the German army. “The army tried to get a rehab program in place, but it never really took,” Ohler said in a past interview with The Fix. “Like any drug, it eventually stopped working as the soldiers built up a tolerance,” but he noted that this was not a “decisive factor” in the Germans’ losses.

How Drugs Impacted WWII's Outcome

However, drugs did impact the outcome of the war—not in the German soldiers’ use of Pervitin—but Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s own drug use.

“There are so many other reasons that played a much bigger role,” said Ohler. “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.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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