How Drugs Like Pervitin And Cocaine Fueled The Nazis’ Rise And Fall

Published January 28, 2017
Updated July 10, 2019

Hitler’s Descent Into Hypocrisy

Theodor Morell

WikimediaTheodor Morell, Adolf Hitler’s personal physician and the man responsible for introducing the dictator to many harmful drugs.

In 1936, the official photographer of the Nazi Party, Heinrich Hoffmann, came down with an extreme case of gonorrhea. He was a friend of Hitler’s — he had introduced Hitler to his lover, Eva Braun, who had been Hoffmann’s assistant — and so a call went out for the best, most discreet doctor that Germany had: Theodor Morell. Known for his vitamin shots and energy injections, Morell was the “it” doctor for Berlin’s celebrities.

Morell successfully treated Hoffmann, who was so grateful for the relief that he invited Morell to his home for a meal. It was a fortuitous choice. Hitler decided to drop in that night and mentioned in passing that severe stomach and intestinal pains had tormented him for years. Not one to miss a chance to climb up the ranks, Morell offered Hitler a consultation.

Hitler took him up on his offer, later telling Morell in private that he was in so much pain that he could barely move, let alone lead a struggling country in the midst of upheaval. Morell lit up: he knew just the thing.

He prescribed Hitler a capsule full of healthy intestinal bacteria called Mutaflor, an experimental treatment at the time and one that is still used today. This helped Hitler’s stomach pain and increased flatulence issues enough that he appointed Morell as his personal physician.

From then on out, Morell would seldom leave Hitler’s vicinity, eventually injecting Hitler with everything from glucose solutions to vitamins multiple times a day, all to relieve Hitler’s chronic pain.

Adolf Hitler And Albert Speer

Heinrich Hoffmann/German Federal Archives via Wikimedia CommonsAdolf Hitler meets with Albert Speer in 1943.

Despite these early successes, some evidence suggests that Morell grew careless after becoming Hitler’s favorite, a claim made by leading Nazi Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production. He would later write in his autobiography, dismissing Morell as a quack:

“In 1936, when my circulation and stomach rebelled . . . I called at Morell’s private office. After a superficial examination, Morell prescribed for me his intestinal bacteria, dextrose, vitamins and hormone tablets. For safety’s sake I afterward had a thorough examination by Professor von Bergmann, the specialist in internal medicine at Berlin University.

I was not suffering from any organic trouble, he concluded, but only from nervous symptoms caused by overwork. I slowed down my pace as best I could and the symptoms abated. To avoid offending Hitler I pretended that I was carefully following Morell’s instructions, and since my health improved, I became for a time Morell’s showpiece.”

Moreover, some allege that Morell was downright deceitful.

For one, Ernst-Günther Schenck, a physician in the SS who would later write a book theorizing that Hitler had Parkinson’s disease, acquired one of the vitamin packets that Morell injected into Hitler every morning and had a laboratory test it. It turns out that Morell was injecting Hitler with methamphetamine, which helps explain why Hitler couldn’t get enough.

But Pervitin wasn’t the only drug Morell treated Hitler with: the physician would offer the Führer an ever-increasing laundry list of drugs, including caffeine, cocaine (for sore throat), and morphine — all the drugs that Hitler had railed against for years before the war. The most significant of these drugs was Pervitin, a methamphetamine.

Pervitin And The Great Methamphetamine-Fueled German Spirit

Pervitin Methamphetamine

Wikimedia CommonsThe German armed forces used Pervitin to soldier through tough nights, but it came at a cost. Colloquially called “panzerschokolade,” or “tank chocolate,” its creator mimicked soda packaging to market the drug.

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 Pervitin.”

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 could do nothing to prevent the abuse of Pervitin. 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.

After you finish reading about how drugs like cocaine and Pervitin fueled the rise of Nazi Germany, check out these absurd Nazi propaganda photos with their original captions, before discovering the horrors of Krokodil, which gives users reptillian scales..

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