Pervitin - War on Speed

Sometimes ordinary cogs in the war machine just… do not seem to move fast enough. Enhancement is needed to achieve the expected results. And the human body can be enhanced with chemistry - alas, never without consequences. But who thought of consequences when they had Blitzkrieg on their mind?

The German army used the drug named Pervitin to boost the soldiers’ capacity on the battlefield, prolong the periods without sleep, reduce their fatigue, make them consume smaller food rations. Also, British and American pilots used different stimulants to stay alert during long flights. This is no secret. And although many myths exist around the quantities of Pervitin used and the overall ethics of the situation, today we are going to focus on the very chemistry of Pervitin.

When you hear the word “methamphetamine”, the first image which comes to your mind is a skinny drug addict with rotting teeth. Make no mistake - you are absolutely right about today’s common vision of this chemical. But did you know that “meth” is still applied in medicine? The dosage makes the poison, right?

The substance was obtained from ephedrine by a Japanese chemist, Nagayoshi Nagai in 1893. It was first obtained in liquid form. Many years later, after the Great War, the crystalline form was obtained by another Japanese chemist, Akira Ogata. It appeared on the Japanese market almost immediately, as a medicine named Philopon. Methamphetamine was used to remove fatigue and weariness. 

Under the name Pervitin (produced by the company called Temmler), the same active substance (to be precise: methamphetamine hydrochloride, the hydrochloride salt form) appeared on the German market in 1938. It was advertised as a perfect drug for relieving fatigue, keeping you alert much longer, causing euphoria, enhancing your physical capability, improving your mood… Of course, no advertisement told people the truth about the side effects: causing aggressive behavior, mood swings, and many, many more. Initially, the battlefield was the last place where it would matter; the German commanders were delighted with the “marvelous drug”. At least at the beginning.

However, let’s stress that "Stuka-Tablets" (Stuka-Tabletten) and "Herman-Göring-Pills" (Hermann-Göring-Pillen) were not used by soldiers exclusively. They were all over German society!

Clearly, the desired stimulant effects and extended wakefulness were quickly overshadowed by the side effects. In 1940, the situation became so serious that the army reduced the usage of Pervitin drastically. By 1941, Pervitin became a prescription drug, and its distribution among soldiers was tightly controlled. Of course, the military did not quit using it entirely - for example, it was still in use at the Ostfront to make it easier for the soldiers to survive the harsh temperatures in winter. But it became clear that the application of Pervitin means a price too high to pay. Soldiers who consumed the drug had to recover from a harsh hangover and were unable to perform well for two or more days. Long-term use of Pervitin evoked aggressive behavior which often resulted in committing crimes against civilians.

After the war, in the 1950s, the time came for using methamphetamine as a drug against obesity, the most famous medication being Obetrol. However, the popular diet pill was very addictive, and soon - in the early 1970s - methamphetamine became a schedule II controlled substance. You can still buy medication based on methamphetamine - it’s called Desoxyn, its distribution is strictly regulated, and it’s used in treating ADHD. Clearly, production, distribution, and even possession of “meth” is restricted or illegal in many jurisdictions.

“Meth” is neurotoxic and highly addictive. Doses of 200mg or more are considered fatal. Physically, the use of meth causes loss of appetite, hyperactivity, dilated pupils, flushed skin, excessive sweating, increased movement, dry mouth and teeth grinding (leading to so-called "meth mouth"), headache, irregular heartbeat, rapid breathing, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, high body temperature, diarrhea, constipation, blurred vision, dizziness, twitching, numbness, tremors, dry skin, acne, and pale appearance. As far as psychological effects are concerned, they can include hyperactivity, dilated pupils, flushed skin, excessive sweating, increased movement, dry mouth and teeth grinding (leading to "meth mouth"), headache, irregular heartbeat (usually as accelerated heartbeat or slowed heartbeat), rapid breathing, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, high body temperature, diarrhea, constipation, blurred vision, dizziness, twitching, numbness, tremors, dry skin, acne, and pale appearance.

Be careful. No perfect drug exists.

Fun fact to conclude this entry: Pervitin was sold or distributed as tablets, but you could also consume methamphetamine in the form of… Chocolate! Each piece of “Panzerschokolade” contained 14 mg of “meth” - that is, five times more than one pill.