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 pills, Böll 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."