Adolf Hitler’s use of methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, has been well documented during recent years in books like Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler. But did you know that Nazi soldiers, British troops, and even American military personnel used speed as well during World War II? That secret history is airing tonight on the PBS show Secrets of the Dead with an episode titled “World War Speed.”
The episode is hosted by British historian James Holland and gives viewers a fascinating look at the use of uppers by both the Allies and the Axis powers in the 1940s. The drugs helped soldiers stay awake for long periods of time and it also made them more aggressive in combat scenarios. The downside? Some soldiers took so much speed they worried that they’d never be able to sleep again.
The Nazi version of speed was called Pervitin and was available over the counter in Germany during the late 1930s before it was given to soldiers. Likewise, America’s version, known as Benzedrine, could be found in U.S. pharmacies before the country entered World War II. But the soldiers on both sides weren’t going rogue and taking drugs for the fun of it. The speed was issued to them by their own governments, sometimes in staggering quantities.
Germany used the drug to invade Poland in 1939 and shipped an estimated 35 million tablets of Pervitin to its soldiers fighting to invade France in 1940. And with only about 3 million German troops in that region, that means there were plenty of uppers to go around.
Winston Churchill developed an interest in speed when he learned that the Germans were using it and British troops were supplied with hundreds of thousands of pills as well. And U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, who would later become president, ordered at least half a million tablets for Americans fighting in North Africa.
Arguably, one of the most important takeaways from the episode isn’t just that troops were given speed to keep them awake, as we might assume. Researchers of the time discovered that it helped make their troops more confident and even more aggressive. That’s obviously useful in war, but it also has its downsides. As the episode explains, one useful thing about fear is that it keeps you from putting your body in harm’s way. Fear is a natural self-defense mechanism and people who are overly confident might achieve great things, but they also run the risk of making really dumb mistakes.
The episode also gets into the dosages that troops were using, which could run as high as 100 milligrams on some occasions. And that was before the invention of “extended release” technology that we have today that slowly introduces a drug into your bloodstream. When you took a pill in the 1940s, you were getting a swift kick of the entire dose at once.
In one of the most chilling sequences from the show, Holland travels to the site of a concentration camp and learns about the different trials that were done on Jewish prisoners. The Nazis tested cocaine and speed in different forms and made their prisoners carry sacks filled with rocks around a track to see how long humans could operate while on the drugs. It’s a depressing reminder that the Nazis would regularly conduct medical experiments on human beings, including on children, in trials that can only be described as torture.
There’s a bit of a lull around a third of the way through the episode when the TV presenters dress like British soldiers and go on a long hike to “prove” that you don’t need drugs to walk the distances that German soldiers were achieving. But go ahead and power through that boring bit because the rest of the episode is definitely worth your time.
The episode airs tonight, June 25, on PBS at 8 pm ET. Check your local listings.