A Methamphetamine Dictatorship? Hitler, Nazi Germany, and Drug Abuse

June 23, 2016
Greg Eghigian, PhD

Volume 33, Issue 6

What do we know about the health and drug consumption habits of the Nazi leader of the German people from 1933 to 1945?

Last year, German writer Norman Ohler published The Total Rush (Der totale Rausch). The book explored the supposed widespread use of drugs in Nazi Germany.1 With droll chapter titles such as “Sieg High-Blitzkrieg Is Methamphetamine War,” Ohler’s book captured the attention of some observers in the United States, whose takeaway message seems to have been that “Nazi soldiers were addicted to Pervitin, a pill form of crystal meth.”2 Academic historians, on the other hand, have been far more critical of Ohler. As one historian of medicine wrote in a recent review, “The author stakes too much on sensationalism and thus gives the reader a false impression about the meaning of drugs under National Socialism.”3

For quite some time, there has been no shortage of public interest in the health and habits of Germans during the Third Reich. Not surprisingly perhaps, Adolf Hitler has drawn much of this attention. Claims have regularly circulated that he suffered from functional/hysterical blindness at the end of World War I (possibly, but not definitively, true); that he was beset by a hand-washing compulsion (there is no evidence for this); that he had only one testicle (the evidence appears to be contradictory); and that he was a homosexual (highly doubtful). Added to this have been psychopathographies and psychohistories-the latter primarily rooted in psychoanalysis-that have tried to attribute Hitler’s views and behavior to some form of psychopathology. These latter accounts have been consistently and categorically dismissed by most historians of Nazi Germany for being simplistically reductive and neglectful of historical context.

Drug consumption habits

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What then do we know about the health and drug consumption habits of the Nazi leader of the German people from 1933 to 1945? In 1999, psychiatrist Fritz Redlich published a well-received book, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, which relied on written and oral statements made by Hitler and those around him, particularly the records of Hitler’s chief personal physician, Theodor Morell.4 Redlich’s analysis painted a picture of Hitler in power as a man with a laundry list of maladies, some more severe than others.

Before the outbreak of war in 1939, Hitler’s complaints included insomnia, eczema, and GI discomfort. His health is known to have declined considerably, starting in 1941. Redlich cited a host of ailments, including tinnitus, severe headaches, dizziness, impaired vision, abdominal spasms, impairments in motility and, during the final year of the war, jaundice, laryngitis, runny nose, more bouts of GI spasms, tremor of his hands, and conspicuous difficulties in locomotion (evidence of Parkinson disease).

In 1945, his GI symptoms and tremors worsened, eventually leaving him unable to move around completely on his own. In treating these symptoms over the years, Morell prescribed for Hitler a cocktail of medications that included opiates (morphine, oxycodone), barbiturates, cocaine, amphetamines, and bromides. In the end, Redlich drew a conclusion that has been repeated frequently ever since: that “Hitler abused amphetamines, particularly between 1939 and 1943, (and) was temporarily impaired by such abuse.”4

Other researchers, however, have been skeptical of this clinical portrait of Hitler’s health and drug use, concerned that medical evaluations like Redlich’s were based on unreliable sources and came too close to ex­cusing the Nazi leader’s ruthless decisions. More recently, historian Henrik Eberle and physician Hans-Joachim Neumann (who died in 2014) reexamined existing sources to determine whether Hitler was truly ill and addicted to amphetamines.5

Their research revealed that Hitler was attended by multiple physicians and specialists during his life but rarely required medical attention before August 1941, after which, Morell was called into action on a regular basis. While the German Chancellor appears to have not suffered from any major acute illnesses, he was a victim of chronic diseases. Neumann and Eberle confirmed that Hitler’s long-standing ailments were GI in nature. There are also signs in medical records of progressive coronary sclerosis and high blood pressure. Most prominently, however, Neumann and Eberle confirmed the diagnosis of Parkinson disease, the symptoms of which (tremors in the left leg and arm) were first noted by physicians in 1941.

Morell’s notes reveal that he put Hitler on a regimen of Vitamultin-a preparation containing glucose, vitamins, and sometimes the methamphetamine Pervitin-and prescribed dietary restrictions, bloodletting, leeching, enemas, and the morphine derivative Eukodal to relieve the GI symptoms. Sedatives (for sleep) and testosterone (for sexual potency) were also among the considerable number of drugs (over 40 different kinds) Hitler took over the course of his adult life. These included analgesics, digestives, spasmolytics, flu agents, eye drops, antitussives, and fortifying agents. That said, Neumann and Eberle found little evidence to suggest that Hitler was addicted to barbiturates or cocaine. On the other hand, Hitler’s regular, sometime copious, consumption of Vitamultin combined with descriptions of his behavior suggests that he may well have relied to some degree on methamphetamine. The authors concluded, however, that “Hitler’s actions were not influenced by a mental disease or psychotropic substances like alcohol and drugs but stemmed from his ‘primary personality.’”5

Prevalence of methamphetamine abuse in Hitler’s time

If Hitler was prone to abusing methamphetamine-at least in some measure-just how common was this at the time in Germany? This can be difficult to say with any certainty, owing to contemporary attitudes toward drugs. In the years leading up to the Nazi seizure of power, doctors dominated public discussions about drug consumption, and they tended to reinforce a familiar distinction: while prescribed drugs were hailed as epitomes of medical progress, drugs taken by laypeople for personal enjoyment, such as cocaine and opium, were demonized and associated with the socially deviant and marginalized, such as criminals and homosexuals.6 This, therefore, means that one needs to be on guard for the often unacknowledged biases of existing sources of information.

As I mentioned, historians of medicine have focused especially on the methamphetamine Pervitin. Synthesized first in the 1930s by the pharmaceutical company Temmler-Werke, Pervitin began to be sold and marketed in the winter of 1937 to 1938. Tests on the drug were first conducted on military academy students in 1939, then afterward directly on members of the Wehrmacht. In both instances, it’s clear that many subjects were never told what they were taking-despite the fact that the first experiments on students had to be prematurely halted because subjects complained of disturbing heart palpitations, while some students confiscated supplies of the drugs to help prepare for exams.

Reports from commanding officers on the drug’s effect on soldiers in the field, however, often hailed it as “extraordinary.” Soon, the military became one of Temmler’s key customers, as the company supplied the army and air force with 35 million pills from April through July 1940 alone (the recommended maximum daily dose was 3 to 6 mg). With stories of officers misusing the drug (eg, using it to help stay up for late-night parties) and of several cases of heart attack following ingestion, medical officers were warned to be judicious in prescribing the medication. Historian Peter Steinkamp,7 however, argues that warnings had only a limited effect on the drug’s use on the eastern front, where reports indicated that officers were administering Pervitin to tired men on the march to keep them alert. However, the German High Command never ordered the mass administration of Pervitin to troops, owing to the recognition that the drug had different effects on different men.

In a recent and comparatively measured study, two premier historians of pharmacology-Stephen Snelders and Toine Pieters-have dubbed Nazi Germany after 1938 a “methamphetamine dictatorship,” a society in which the drug was relatively ubiquitous.8 Rather than emphasizing the role of suppliers, however, they argue that the evidence shows strong demand pressures for the drug from consumers. In clinical practice, the drug was first used to treat psychological inhibition and endogenous depression and to augment what was referred to as “the will to get healthy.” Pervitin quickly moved from clinical to general practice, and was prescribed fairly commonly for employees, workers, and housewives. In fact, a praline chocolate with 14 mg of Pervitin was marketed to the general public.

It was at this stage that the growing popularity of Pervitin was met by voices of concern from the medical community. These, however, appear to have had only a limited effect on the drug’s spread. Snelders and Pieters conclude that rather than being doped “from above,” users at the time had a variety of personal reasons for taking Pervitin. For one thing, the drug was affordable (in 1942, 200 tablets cost about 7 Reichsmarks, roughly $40 in today’s currency). At the same time, all sorts of individuals-students, housewives, professionals of various kinds-were drawn to its ability to help counteract fatigue. And many others touted its ability to boost self-confidence.

In the end, then, Hitler appears to have been little different from his fellow German citizens-and, it must be said, from most consumers in history-in his acceptance of virtually any new treatment that promised to relieve chronic ailments or enhance daily performance.

References:

1. Ohler N. Der totale Rausch: Drogen im Dritten Reich. Cologne, Germany: Kiepenheuer & Witsch; 2015.

2. Haglage A. Uncovered records show Nazis were high on meth. The Daily Beast; September 10, 2015. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/10/uncovered-records-show-nazis-were-high-on-meth.html. Accessed April 15, 2016.

3. Gnausch A. Review, H-Soz-u-Kult; 24 March 2016. http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/rezensionen/2016-1-209. Accessed April 15, 2016.

4. Redlich F. Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet. New York: Oxford University Press; 1999.

5. Neumann H-J, Eberle H. Was Hitler Ill? A Final Diagnosis. Cambridge, UK: Polity; 2013.

6. Hoffmann A. Drogenkonsum und kontrolle: Zur Etablierung eines sozialen Problems im ersten Drittel des 20. Jahrhunderts. Wiesbaden, Germany: VS; 2012.

7. Steinkamp P. Pervitin (methamphetamine) test use and misuse in the German Wehrmacht. In: Eckart E, ed. Man, Medicine, and the State: The Human Body as an Object of Government Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century. Stuttgart, Germany: Steiner; 2006:61-71.

8. Snelders S, Pieters T. Speed in the Third Reich: methamphetamine (Pervitin) use and a drug history from below. Soc Hist Med. 2011;24:686-699.