'Pilot's Salt': The Third Reich Kept Its Soldiers Alert With Meth

For a while, the stuff seemed to be "the ideal war drug."
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A bottle of Pervitin, dating from around 1940. The packing reads: "Alertness aid," to be taken "to maintain wakefulness" -- but, it continues with an exclamation point, "only from time to time"! (via Der Spiegel)

In 1972, Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for literature. But before he became a writer of novels, short stories, and essays, Böll was a writer of letters. During his early 20s, which also happened to be during World War II, he was conscripted into the German military. And as he fought, serving in France, Romania, Hungary, and finally the Soviet Union, Böll corresponded with his family back in Cologne. 

The letter he sent on May 20, 1940, contained not just an update, but a request"Perhaps you could obtain some more Pervitin for my supplies?" 

Just one of these pillsBöll explained, was as effective at keeping him alert as several cups of coffee. Plus, when he took Pervitin, he was able to forget, temporarily, about the trials and terrors of war. He could -- for a while, at least -- be happy.

Pervitin was the early version of what we know today as crystal meth. And it was fitting that a German soldier would become addicted to the stuff: the drug, Der Spiegel notes, first became popular in Germany, brought to market by the then-Berlin-based drugmaker Temmler Werke. And almost immediately, the German army physiologist Otto Ranke realized its military value: not only could the methamphetamine compound keep fighters (pilots, in particular) alert on little sleep; it could also keep an entire military force feeling euphoric. Meth, Spiegel puts it, "was the ideal war drug."

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And it was, as such, put to wide use. The Wehrmacht, Germany's World War II army, ended up distributing millions of the Pervitin tablets to soldiers on the front (they called it "Panzerschokolade," or "tank chocolate"). The air force gave the tablets to its flyers (in this case, it was "pilot's chocolate" or "pilot's salt"). Hitler himself was given intravenous injections of methamphetamine by his personal physician, Theodor Morell. The pill, however, was the more common form of the drug. All told, between April and July of 1940, more than 35 million three-milligram doses of Pervitin were manufactured for the German army and air force.

News of meth's powers, unsurprisingly, spread. British papers began reporting on German soldiers' use of a "miracle pill." Soon, Allied bomber pilots were experimenting with the drug. Their tests ended quickly, though; while the soldiers who used pilot's salt were able to focus on their flying in the short term ... they also became agitated, aggressive, and impaired in their judgment over the long.

The Germans would notice the same side effects -- the side effects (thanks, Breaking Bad!) we know so well today. Short rest periods, it turned out, weren't enough to compensate for long stretches of wakefulness. Some soldiers who used the meth died of heart failure; others ended up committing suicide during psychotic phases. Many others simply became addicted to the stimulant, leading to all the familiar symptoms of addiction and withdrawal: sweating, dizziness, hallucination, depression. Leonardo Conti, the Third Reich's top health official, moved to limit use of the drug among his forces. He was, however, unsuccessful.

As late as the 1960s, in fact, the Temmler Werke was supplying the armies of both East and West Germany with its Pervitin pills. And it wasn't until the 1970s that West Germany's postwar army, the Bundeswehr, finally removed the drug from its medical arsenal. East Germany's National People's Army wouldn't follow suit until 1988.

Via Der Spiegel, hat tip Digg.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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