Drug Use in the Third Reich: Mass Addiction & Scientific Progress

Drugs were one of the main driving forces behind the Nazi regime, fueling its armies and addling the minds of its leaders.

Oct 19, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

drug use third reich


During the entirety of the Nazi regime in Germany, there was a lot of scientific progress, not least of all in the field of medical science. Many new drugs and chemicals were invented that entered mainstream use in Germany.


With few laws constricting the use of harmful medication and without proper testing, many drugs became a part of German life.


The history of Nazi Germany is not just one of war but also one of intense levels of drug abuse, from the commoner in the street to the soldiers on the battlefield, all the way to the highest echelons of the German government.


Background to the Drug Policy in Nazi Germany

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One of the early bottles of Heroin from the late 19th / early 20th century, via Times Union


Before the First World War, Germany’s pharmacological industry was far more advanced than those of the country’s contemporaries. Breakthroughs in chemical science, funding, and interest throughout Germany had created a powerful new branch of industry that gave Germany a worldwide monopoly. Fueled by funding supplied by the sale of morphine patented by Merck and the recognition of the potency of heroin by Bayer, Germany forged ahead with research into pain suppressants and other medications derived from opioids.

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The intensity of the First World War created casualties on an unprecedented scale that, in turn, created a huge demand on the industry and led to it becoming a pillar of Germany’s economy. The effects of these drugs lasted well past the end of the First World War and into the Weimar Republic as veterans continued to take medication for pain relief and required more to avoid withdrawal from addiction. As a whole, addiction was not considered as serious as it is today, and symptoms of addiction were often misdiagnosed as being the results of other conditions.


When the Nazis took power in 1933, the drug policy remained largely unchanged, and new drugs would be created and marketed to Germans and people around the world.


Methamphetamines & Their Use Throughout the Second World War

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Pervitin was a methamphetamine readily available without a prescription, via 9news


Along with readily available opioids, a powerful new drug called Pervitin was patented in the Winter of 1937 by the Temmler Group. It was an early form of crystal meth available over the counter. In crystal form, the drug had been invented in Japan, but in an easily consumable pill form, Pervitin, along with an aggressive marketing campaign, became extremely popular in Germany. Billboards were erected throughout the capital, targeting the common populace.


Originally intending to compete with Coca-Cola, it kept the user awake and reduced the need for sleep. While this already marked it for military use, it had other effects which had huge benefits for soldiers in battle. The psychological effects could not be overstated. It created a sense of euphoria, giving rise to a feeling of confidence and enthusiasm and, indeed, omnipotence. These effects had an extraordinary effect when effecting a successful Blitzkrieg.


(As a side note, Germany had difficulty obtaining the ingredients for Coca-Cola, and the eventual substitute was the German invention of Fanta. As the story goes, when asked about naming the product, the head of Coca-Cola Deutschland, Max Keith, told his team to use their imagination (the German word for “imagination” being Fantasie). The salesman Joe Knipp immediately exclaimed, “Fanta!”.)


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The Ardennes Offensive stunned the French with its speed and audaciousness. The forest was believed to be impassable, yet the Germans sped through it at breakneck speed, fueled by heavy doses of methamphetamines; via English Heritage


Preparations for the Western Campaign, the invasion of France and the Low Countries, included 35 million Pervitin pills that were distributed among the troops. There were enough for about ten pills per soldier.


There was no order to take the pills, but it was expected that there would be little reluctance as the drug was considered completely safe. The result was an offensive so tireless and furious that it gave rise to the idea of German “supersoldiers.” In his book Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, Norman Ohler notes that Belgian soldiers reported Germans rushing fearlessly at their machine gun nests. This reduction in fear levels among the German troops was another massive benefit to the drug.


With the help of Pervitin, the Germans were unstoppable when they invaded France. In the first three days of the Ardennes Offensive, there was no pause. The soldiers continued marching and attacking without sleep. Unable to resist such a relentless onslaught, the French pulled back, and the Germans achieved in three days what they failed to do in the entire four years of the First World War.


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Fuelled by drugs, the Germans overran Yugoslavia in under two weeks, via Warfare History Network


This wasn’t the first time these drugs were used en masse. They were used during the invasion of Poland beforehand and the invasion of the Balkans afterward, which was fought without rest for 11 days. Despite warnings from doctors as early as late 1939 and the drug eventually being made available by prescription only, it was still very easy to obtain, even for troops on the frontline, far away from the convenience of a local German pharmacy. There is the claim that Pervitin was mixed with chocolate and given to pilots and tankers, but this claim is subject to debate, and imagery associated with the claim has been proven to be fake.


In 1941, consumption dropped significantly amongst the civilian population among concerns about the drug’s addictive properties. It proved more resilient in the hands of the military, and the drug manufacturer, Temmler-Werke, remained in business, raking in huge profits.


Pervitin wasn’t the only drug keeping soldiers awake and alert. Cocaine was also in widespread use, especially among pilots who used copious amounts of it to give them focus in the skies, even though the drug had been banned in 1924.


Drugs in the Upper Echelons of Nazi Society

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Hitler and his personal physician, Doctor Theodor Morell. Source: Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images, via the Guardian


Despite much of the attention being on the newly created Pervitin, the medical industry in Germany was rife with experimental drugs and drug cocktails. With little to no safety measures, doctors were virtually free to dispense their medication without fear of legal action due to malpractice. Many patients became guinea pigs as doctors administered various substances in a cavalier fashion.


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Photograph of Adolf Hitler, via Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbe


Adolf Hitler himself, despite his reputation as a teetotaller, became reliant on the drugs dispensed by his personal physician, Doctor Theodor Morell, who entered the Führer’s service in 1936.


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Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, the two most powerful men in the Third Reich, were deeply affected by the adverse side effects of commonly administered drugs; via Pittsburg State University


Morell had been regarded as a fraud by his contemporaries, but his solutions seemed to work well enough for Hitler to retain his services until the end of the war. In hindsight, it seems apparent that Hitler’s erratic and delusional behavior was the result of the drugs that were administered by Morell. Hitler was given a vast quantity of drugs that certainly wouldn’t be administered today. In addition to the casually prescribed Pervitin, laxatives, hormones, sedatives, and digestives, he was given extremely dangerous medication such as anti-gas pills with strychnine in them and Eukadol, a drug twice as powerful as morphine.


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Hermann Goering in prison, December 1945. Source: AFP / Getty Images, via the Washington Post


Not only was the most powerful man in Nazi Germany declining in mental health because of drug usage, but the second most powerful man, Hermann Goering, was also affected. His morphine addiction was widely known, which he began taking after being injured in the First World War, and again after receiving a bullet to the leg during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. His addiction was so severe that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital twice – once in 1925 and again in 1926.


After becoming head of state in Prussia after the Nazis rose to power, Goering had unrestricted access to drugs and used his position to experiment with other drugs, although he struggled with morphine until his suicide in 1945. As the war dragged on, Goering became more delusional; when Allied troops captured him, he was found with two suitcases containing a total of 20,000 paracodeine pills.


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German soldiers in August 1941, via Cornell University Press


Pervitin, as a form of crystal meth, had an undeniable effect on German troops. At first, it gave them superhuman abilities. Thousands became addicted, and countless soldiers had been using it regularly since the invasion of Poland, upping their dosage as the years wore on to receive the desired effects. As the Reich crumbled, these men went into withdrawal, and the effects suffered were extreme.


From the soldiers to the Führer, the Third Reich was in the grip of a massive wave of psychosis that marred the nation’s ability to reason. They did not have the benefit of the programs that we have today that educate the modern world on the extreme danger that drugs present. As a result, the easiest option was to simply keep handing out the drugs.


By the end of the war, children were being sent to the frontlines with little more than a packet of cocaine-laced chewing gum to keep them going.


Despite regulations, drugs continue to be consumed in vast quantities by soldiers on the battlefields today in their bid to stay alert and outcompete their enemies.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.