What has not been said about pervitin (or crystal meth) use in Nazi Germany? According to Werner Pieper’s book, Nazis on Speed, the Nazis deliberately distributed the drug freely, intending to subdue the public and increase productivity. This claim has been cited and recited time and again, without a single shred of evidence. If such a grand conspiracy were true, an endless bureaucratic paper trail would have survived in the German archives including: endless lists of people who were to receive the drug on a regular basis, fixed distribution points for the public, a sophisticated logistical apparatus which would transport the drugs from depots to these distribution points; and if not that, at least an order from the central health authorities instructing physicians to prescribe the drug to their patients. Aside from an estimate of how many pervitin tablets were manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Temmler Werke, nothing has ever been found to substantiate this claim. In all, the German military did not receive many pills; certainly not enough to have the entire military high for the duration of a five and a half years war.
During the Second World War, German military officials and the medical authorities debated the effectiveness of pervitin, especially for pilots. In the end, it was decided on October 25, 1941 that the drug should be put under lock and key. Official use continued in the military, but with extreme caution.
Pervitin was not banned in Germany. In fact, the German drug law (known as the Opium Law of 1929) did not prohibit any type of drug, be it an amphetamine or another. Instead, drug use remained legal in Germany, but possession of drugs without a proper prescription was considered a misdemeanor. Whereas the military limited the use of pervitin the fall of 1941, for civilians, dolantin (an opiate), pervitin (crystal meth), and benzedrine (‘bennies,’ an American amphetamine popular at the time) were included in the sixth amendment of the drug law a few months earlier on 21 June 1941. The reason, according to Oberregierungsrat Kärber of the Ministry of Health, was the addictive nature of the drugs, not pilot experiences in the Luftwaffe.
It must be clearly stated: the amendment did not constitute a ban; instead, a prescription was needed to obtain the drugs, and if the prescription was given for a long period of time, a record had to be sent to the proper authorities. In spite of the amendment, pervitin consumption ostensibly rose so rapidly that Oberregierungsrat Linz of the Ministry of Health predicted in 1942 that more extreme measures would have to be taken against the drug, even though it had acceptable medical uses in treating vascular diseases. Such measures were never implemented, perhaps because the German police only knew of 84 pervitin addicts in 1942.
Pervitin became infamous and should be associated with the Nazis because they used the drug in concentration camps. The catalyst for the experiment was the death from poisoning of SS Hauptscharführer Köhler in Weimar. The police believed that the death might have resulted from the reaction of pervitin with another narcotic drug. The details were described in the “Medical Case” of the Nuremberg Trials:
Professor Dr. Timm — that is, the forensic medical expert from Vienna who performed the autopsy on Koehler — came to the opinion that there were two possibilities: first, that a South American poison had been used which was totally unknown to us and which dissolves completely in the human body; second, that a combination of drugs had been used. One drug had excited the circulation to the point of exhaustion, the other drug had acted as an antidote. Professor Dr. Timm spoke of the possibility that pervitin had been used together with a soporific. The idea that a South American poison had been used was rejected from a criminological point of view. From a technical point of view the second possibility would have been quite possible.
After Köhler’s death, a conference took place in the Main Office of Reich Security: the Gestapo chief Gruppenführer Müller presided. Gruppenführer Nebe, the chief of the Reich Criminal Police was present, as well as Professor Mrugowsky MD. The latter pointed out that pervitin was not a poison and that it could be obtained without a prescription. In other words, the problem facing these gentlemen was that pervitin was considered a safe drug, as was reported in the proceedings of the Nuremberg trial:
One of the gentlemen present pointed out that in America experiments were carried out where up to 100 tablets of pervitin were administered and the effects were not fatal. But no one present could answer the question of whether a combination of pervitin and a soporific would be harmless, or whether it would lead to an increased reaction to any one direction. The latter appeared improbable to the experts.
To settle the question Müller ordered Dr. Ding of the concentration camp in Buchenwald to conduct experiments on inmates. Other experiments were conducted elsewhere, most famously in Dachau. It was concluded that the drug was not responsible for the death of the SS officer. The number of inmates who suffered until this conclusion was reached is unknown.