Did Hitler and the Nazis abuse meth

Amphetamines - From amphetamines to crystal meth

Crystal meth? That's this new fashion drug from the USA, isn't it? A superficial examination of the media coverage could give the impression that crystal meth is a new designer drug. But the stimulant, originally developed as a drug, was misused on a large scale as early as the middle of the 20th century.

Image: Kaesler Media / Fotolia.com

"This excitement is getting more and more intense, the animals are constantly busy, they often spin around for hours 'dancing', sometimes they eat their paws and abdominal walls with excitement, causing them to bleed profusely." This is how the German chemist described Fritz Hauschild investigated the behavior of laboratory rats after giving the animals a high dose of methamphetamine. That was in 1938. A year earlier, his employer, the pharmaceutical company Temmler in Berlin, had received the patent for the stimulant.

However, Hauschild was not the first to synthesize methamphetamine. It was Akira Ogata from Japan who first produced methamphetamine in its crystalline form in 1919. However, Ogata had not applied for a patent and was not marketing the substance.

The Temmler-Werke, on the other hand, brought methamphetamine onto the market under the name Pervitin as over-the-counter tablets and ampoules just one year after it was patented. Recommended uses ranged from treating asthma, weaning off morphine and alcohol, to curing psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. There was still no talk of a possible risk of addiction.

Pervitin among German soldiers

As a result, the drug had spread rapidly both in the civilian population of Germany and among the soldiers of the German Wehrmacht. Apparently, word got around quickly about the tempting effect of the substance. According to research by medical historian Nicolas Rasmussen, between 1939 and 1940 over 10 million Pervitin tablets per month were distributed among German soldiers.

According to historians, the high consumption in the Wehrmacht should not have been ordered by the Nazi government, but rather originated from the soldiers and their superiors. It was probably due to the effect of Pervitin, i.e. the combination of increased performance and an optimistic mood, which drove the high demand for Pervitin among soldiers. The journalists Maik Baumgärtner, Mario Born and Bastian Pauly have written a book about the phenomenon of crystal meth and write that the soldiers have turned into “aggressive and persistent fighting machines”. The abuse of pervitin is said to have played a not inconsiderable role in the rapid military successes of the German armed forces. However, the use of amphetamines among soldiers was not limited to the German Wehrmacht. Soldiers in the United States, Great Britain, and Japan also took amphetamines during World War II.

First concerns about side effects

With the high consumption of amphetamines in the armed forces, side effects soon became apparent. Amphetamines reduce judgment, trigger psychosis or can cause heart attacks and strokes. Otto F. Ranke, head of the Institute for General and Defense Physiology in Berlin, had therefore made recommendations for use as early as 1939, aimed at reducing the side effects and the risk of addiction. He found that pervitin could cause physical collapse if taken for more than 24 hours. It should only be taken under medical supervision and always followed by a long, restful sleep.

Ranke had previously carried out clinical studies with students, which he had to discontinue prematurely. Some of his subjects suffered cardiac arrhythmias or had a taste for it and continued to use pervitin outside of the study. Since the danger of addiction and side effects in particular have come to the fore, Pervitin was placed under the Opium Act as early as 1941, the forerunner of today's Narcotics Act.

Amphetamines for asthma

Eight years before Fritz Hauschild rediscovered methamphetamine, another drug with similar effects was developed in the United States. The background to this was the search for a drug against asthma. A plant called Ma huang was available, the active ingredient ephedrine of which helped dilate the bronchi in asthma attacks. One problem, however, was the rarity of this plant. Adrenaline, a hormone produced naturally in the body, was also effective in relieving breathlessness in asthma. However, adrenaline has the disadvantage that it can only be administered intravenously.

In 1929 the chemist Gordon Alles achieved the breakthrough: He had synthesized amphetamine for the first time, a completely artificially produced stimulant that could be inhaled as a volatile substance. The chemist patented the substance in 1932. In 1934 methamphetamine was marketed by Smith, Kline and French (SKF) under the trade name Benzedrine. Benzedrine was initially as readily available as aspirin, and it soon became popular.

Students took advantage of the performance-enhancing effects of amphetamines

Studies with amphetamines also demonstrated a wake-up effect and improvements in cognitive performance at low doses. As with Pervitin, students soon made use of these properties to keep themselves awake and in a good mood while studying or preparing for an exam. The magazine issued a warning as early as 1937 Time of the dangers of amphetamines consumption among college students. But despite the already looming risk of addiction, doctors stuck to the drug.

Because of the reports of mood improvements, studies have been conducted with amphetamines to treat psychiatric disorders. However, it became clear that improvement was only seen in mild depressive illnesses, but worsening in severe depression, psychoses and anxiety disorders. In the US and UK, amphetamines were then marketed for the treatment of mild depression. In Germany this role was taken by Pervitin.

Another application of amphetamines was weight control due to their appetite-suppressing effects. Even in the first clinical studies it was observed that people lost weight after a few weeks. Until the late 1960s, the use of amphetamines such as amphetamines and pervitin was one of the most common approved uses for weight management.

The use of amphetamines for medical purposes has always been accompanied by abuse and addiction. According to a report from the 1960s, 10 percent of people prescribed amphetamines developed addiction.

It is difficult to separate medical use and abuse

Other amphetamines were developed, but the medically justified use was never really successfully separated from the abuse of the substance. Shortly after their market launch, methamphetamine and amphetamine were both misused as drugs in both professional and recreational areas to keep themselves awake, to alleviate depressive moods or simply to be in a good mood while partying. The motives behind the consumption of today's “fashion drugs” crystal meth and speed are therefore probably not very different from the early days when the active ingredients were still legally available as pervitin and amphetamines.

Swell:

  • Baumgärtner, M., Born, M. & Pauly, B. (2015). Crystal meth. Producers, dealers, investigators. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag.
  • Defaulque, R.J. & Wright, A.J. (2011). Methamphetamine for Hitler’s Germany: 1937 to 1945. Journal of Anesthesia History, 29 (2), 21-24.
  • Hauschild, F. (1938). Animal experiments on a perorally effective central analeptic substance with peripheral circulatory effects. Clinical Weekly, 17 (36), 1257-1258.
  • Rasmussen, N. (2008). America’s First Amphetamine Epidemic 1929-1971. Am J Public Health, 98 (6), 974-985.
  • Rasmussen, N. (2015). Amphetamine-Type Stimulants: The Early History of Their Medical and Non-Medical Uses. International Review of Neurobiology, 120, 9-25.
  • Snyder, S. (1990). Chemistry of the psyche. Heidelberg: spectrum.